Somewhere along the line of my identity, the 18-year-old who I once was, and who I still am, is giving up on ever feeling sexy or having positive sexual experiences.
Somewhere else on that timeline, the 12-year-old I once was, and still am, just wants boys to think she’s “hot.” She also wants to know what the hell “hot” actually means. And somewhere, in some of my earliest memories, a tiny version of myself has so swiftly internalized beauty standards that she hates her wild mane of curly hair and thinks of herself as “ugly,” a word that reverberates through the intervening decades to deafen my current self.
Somewhere in the past few years since I’ve become the current version of me, I have begun to recognize myself without help from other people. I love my body, my face, my personality, my energy for the joy they bring me and not only for how other people might perceive them. And in these recent years, I’ve started to get a new kind of compliment that I don’t know how to deal with. (I promise I’m not bragging, because spoiler alert: it’s not actually a compliment.) I don’t know how to deal with it because it brings up these two decades’ worth of learning and unlearning that my worth is what men say it is. It takes me back to my younger self and makes me squirm with insecurities I want to think I’ve overcome.
So if you’ve ever said something along the lines of, “You’re so different from other women” – this post is for you.
First things first: It’s not a compliment to compare me to other women. (There’s the spoiler.)
When a man tells a woman she is “different from other girls” in a flattering tone, he insults her entire gender and reinforces the dynamic that women must compete with each other for male attention and approval. It also means he doesn’t see her as an individual person, but rather as a representative for her gender, who must somehow prove that she is above all the stereotypes he buys into. “You’re better than other women,” roughly translated, means women are one-dimensional things laid out for comparison and always to be found lacking.
If you’re talking about how smart I am, all you’re telling me is that you think women are stupid. If you’re talking about how funny I am, you’re just saying you think women aren’t funny. If you’re talking about how confident I am, then really, fuck you. Fuck you for holding women to unfair standards and then insulting them for not being confident in who they are. What if I’m beautiful, smart, funny, and insecure? Is that insecurity about me, or is it about our patriarchal culture? You represent and strengthen this culture every time you admiringly tell me “you’re so different” and fill me with the familiar fear that as soon as I show vulnerability or break out of the norm or fulfill it, you’ll devalue me like all the other women out there you’ve dismissed as “the same.”
I know that romantic comedies and TV shows have taught you all your life that this difference, this superiority, is the highest of compliments. But romantic comedies and TV shows also teach you that no means yes and that stalking behavior is romantic, so maybe it’s time to stop believing what popular culture promotes about gender dynamics and about love. A useful rule of thumb: it is not a compliment if it carries an implied (or stated) “for a [insert marginalized identity here]” at the end.
You know what I’m talking about, and it’s not just about gender. “You’re so funny” is a compliment, but when you’re saying it out of surprise that a woman could be so funny – believe me, she knows exactly what you mean. “You speak so beautifully” is a compliment, until you’re saying it to a black person because you’re surprised to hear her be articulate. My favorite such compliment that I receive is, “You’re so pretty for such a Jewish-looking girl.” I still haven’t found a response.
This does not mean you’re a horrible person for that moment of surprise when you realize someone is funny, smart, articulate, sexy. We’ve all been taught to believe degrading stereotypes about people based on their race, age, ability, size, class, gender identity, gender expression, sexuality, and myriad other identities. We’ve been taught to compare people to each other based on these identities. And no matter how hard we work to unlearn that, it’s hard to shake. But next time you think “Wow, you’re so _____ for a _____” – keep it to yourself, and work on shifting that attitude on your own time.
Of course, we are all unique, glorious snowflakes. It’s fine for you to think someone is great in a special way, as long as it doesn’t entail dismissing the value of an entire identity group they belong to (while simultaneously asserting that your observations of them are the ones that truly matter and need to be stated).
I write this to clarify my own confusion as well as yours, dear misguided complimenter. The rom coms tricked me too. You’re not the first person who told me to be different, to be better, to measure myself against other women, to seek male approval above all else. I write this because when you tell me I’m different or better, I feel a smile in my mouth. My eighteen- and twelve- and three-year-old self is so excited about this validation, so ready to succumb to the internalized sexism that makes me compare myself to other women in the first place. I write this because all I know to be true is that other women are some of the most inspiring and stunning people I know, and they have shaped me into who I am, and I want to be like them. Make me a compliment about that – and while you’re working on it, I’ll be off celebrating how fragile, insecure, awkward, loud, ugly, beautiful, funny, smart, confident, multi-dimensional, unique, and just-like-other-women I am.