The Stinging Compliment


“No, honey…I love yours. I don’t even like them big.”

Compliments are difficult. I truly don’t know how to respond when people say “you inspire me” and other than saying thank you, I don’t really have the first clue what the proper response is to “you are beautiful.” For the record, I don’t think I’m particularly beautiful. On good days, I can pass for a reasonably handsome woman. And I’m perfectly happy with this, I am not fishing for compliments here.

When I was sixteen, I was in a serious riding accident that left me unconscious in the hospital with a significant head injury. (Yes, I’ve recovered, don’t be snarky.) When I got home I used to wander around the house for hours in a kind of fog. One day sitting at my mother’s desk I noticed that there was a note in her appointment book, that my beauty had been spoiled by the absence of intellectual spark. She didn’t mean permanently, as when I surfaced again, the spark eventually returned. (And finally, my prickly, difficult, passionate, kind and cruel intellect is probably the most attractive thing about me, such that it is.) But it is weird to read that your mother thought your beauty had been lost, as if it was the opposite of skin deep.

I am humbled to have inspired someone. I don’t know what else to say except that. It’s an enormous thing to have moved someone to some action, particularly if it’s something great like self-improvement or reading a book or cooking a meal or training their dog rather than say murder or random acts of violence.

But there’s the other sort of compliment and people who are overweight and people who are dieting know them well. You have such a pretty face. Are you pregnant? You look great now that you’ve lost a few pounds. That’s a much nicer outfit than usual. Even “Wow, you’ve lost weight” rings with a sort of dull thud. My father’s widow is particularly adept with these. Recently she went on at great lengths about how amazing it was that my son was honored with an invitation to the top orchestra at his college. I mean, really, he’s a fine cellist, it wasn’t that amazing.

Today a woman who I adore leveled one of these remarks in a way that left me quite astonished. Yesterday, I was on television for about six seconds, color commentary for a news story. Before I left my house that morning, I ran a hairbrush through my 50-year-old hair, wild and woolly with humidity. I dusted a little face powder over my nose and brow and chin, frowned at myself in the mirror and called it good. I was, I thought, meeting a friend for lunch. Didn’t have a clue that television would be in the cards in the next half-hour. But they were, and you know, I looked fine. I looked like a middle-aged woman who knows a lot about dogs. I did not cringe when I saw it.

Here’s the message I got from her:

Larkin, you are such a beautiful woman. But it didn’t come through on TV. Could I do your makeup for you? I know I don’t wear it all the time but I’ve long wanted to do yours to highlight your features and enhance your eyes, lips and skin. You know I have done it professionally – just one of my jill-of-all-trades things. We could start with what you have and then see if you need any other items i.e. BB Lotion, liner, mascara and a perfect lipstick/gloss.

For the record, her makeup is always pretty close to flawless: at the pool, at the grocery, at the thrift shop. I don’t know if she had to choose between a gallon of milk and a new mascara that she would choose the gallon of milk. She might.  But I don’t wear makeup like that because I think it can make the woman sporting it look like she’s trying too hard. What’s underneath all that Bondo anyway?

But that’s not really the point. I know she made the offer because she’d like to help. I had another friend a few years ago who said I was really “letting myself go,” for the same damn reason. My rationale for not wanting to wear much makeup aren’t important, but why do people feel like it’s okay to tell me that I need to improve myself? Am I really so hideous without a full complement of eyeliner, eyeshadow, concealer, mascara, blush, powder, foundation, lip liner, lip stain etc. that I should not appear in public? Is that their message?

Some people lob backhanded compliments because they intend to be nasty. They think it’s witty and clever. I’m quite certain that wasn’t the intention in this instance, but people just say stuff– it’s like it falls out of their mouth without them noticing. When I went back to the village I’d lived in during Junior High School, seven years after I’d gone away, I stopped in to see the parents of a school friend. They were really very sweet people. Pam’s dad said to me “Well, it looks like they’ve been feeding you well down in the States.” His wife, a tiny sparrow of a woman responded in utter shock “Bob!” and he said defensively “Well, it’s true.” I turned pink with embarrassment and said “That’s okay. Yes, I’ve been eating well.”

I didn’t let my friend off the hook so easily today. Once before in the past, she’d offered to “do something” about the hairs on my chin (I usually “do something” about the hairs on my chin myself, but I must have overlooked it) and I just sort of side-stepped the conversation. Today I posted about the makeup thing on Facebook and cautioned friends not to offer to do makeovers for other people. This is not high school. I think television is partly to blame here. Even the morning “news” shows pull poor unsuspecting women out of the audience and give them “an hour of pampering” which translates into “We’re going to make you look so much better, you miserable wretch.”  What they make the women look like is television news anchors. I guess that’s okay if you want to look like a television news anchor. But when did become okay to publicly comment on another person’s appearance save for “You look lovely”?

Target today 70. Steps 1599

Breakfast: Yogurt with granola. Half of a “Joe Louis” snack cake.  Lunch: French onion soup, three-inch chunk of baguette. Dinner: cup of mashed sweet potato, crackers with peanut butter, cup of watermelon.  


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