Recently I have been on the receiving end of two contrasting comments on my appearance: both were completely unsolicited, which left me feeling rather like a batsman (batswoman? I don’t know what they call women cricketers) who didn’t even know she was on the field, let alone that her team was ‘in’. Interestingly both were connected with Quakers, and both occurred when I was feeling at peace with myself and the world: this may not be a coincidence.
The first incident happened when I was exiting Quaker Meeting on Sunday, feeling sunny and peaceful and at one with the world. A guy was standing outside: he smiled at me and as he was what I can only call loitering, I was unsure whether he might be interested in Quakers. In any case I would have smiled back, as indeed I did. He then said something about ‘growing a beard’: I assumed he was talking about himself as he had a fair amount of stubble. He then went on to say, ‘I don’t like that in a woman’ and asked if I had considered waxing, whereupon I said that his comment was unacceptably personal and walked on.
My assessment of this guy was on reflection that he was probably autistic; not just because his comments were rude but because he didn’t seem to realise they were rude. He gave me the impression of someone who speaks their thought habitually without restraint or awareness: so, bruised as I was by his comments, I basically exonerated him. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t affect me though.
The second encounter was more interesting in a way. I’ve just come back from two days at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre (an excellent place to stay whether or not you’re studying) and while I was there I ran into an old acquaintance: I’ll call him Bert. I’d always been slightly wary of Bert as I found him a tad patronising but I’d generally assumed we were basically on the same page politically (this was almost certainly a mistake). So we said a passing hello, then later I went over to have a chat – and almost the first thing he said to me was ‘you’re looking very pretty.’ I muttered an uncomfortable ‘thanks’ but I was totally taken aback, as I’d assumed his politics would preclude such personal comments; and whilst I was slightly flattered my discomfort far outweighed these feelings.
WARNING: GENDER GENERALISATION ALERT
(this means that comments below are a generalisation to which there may be a number of exceptions, though not enough to disprove the rule).
So here’s the thing: women don’t do this. When women make unsolicited comments they tend to be of an affirming nature (that’s a lovely skirt; where did you get those shoes?, I love your necklace.) These comments convey a sense of equality; of comparing notes and appreciating each other. They are affirming and do not make me feel uncomfortable. However a man saying I look pretty feels entirely different. It conveys a sense of judgment, a sense of appraisal, a sense of being looked at and assessed. It doesn’t feel like a compliment, though it’s dressed up as one.
So lest we forget; this is a generalisation. Women are capable of negative and critical comments (‘do you always wear your hair like that?’ ‘What an interesting shade of pink!’ ‘Gosh, I’d never dare wear those things together!’) and men are capable of supportive comments, made without any sense of judgment. But I think there’s a general truth here. In my experience.