They've arrived. The holidays. If you're extremely lucky, you will manage to get through the next six weeks without encountering a handsy distant relative, a drunk uncle who will stain something you really like with some food-based substance, or fighting about all the things that Obama has done/failed to do/absolutely done without anyone knowing because the lame-stream media won't report on it.
But, as kindness and holiday spirits swell to fill the sub-cockle region of our cold dead hearts, there are some things you just will not be able to avoid: someone, somewhere is probably going to say something nice about you before the first of the year.
It may be a coworker recounting something great you did as they look back on this year. Your mom might be proud of your grades or your ability to finally keep a houseplant alive for more than three weeks at a time. Maybe your significant other just says you look great while you get ready for that ugly Christmas sweater pub crawl, with an expression that is either a deep and abiding fondness or fart they're holding in.
And your response to any of this?
I can't tell you the number of times I've seen this scene playing out in the eyes of someone recently complimented, panic and fear warring for control over the lizard brain that is telling them to run away from the whole situation as quickly as possible. Anec-data* suggests that women are a lot worse at dealing with this particular kind of confrontation than men, and anyone who's seen the Amy Schumer Compliment sketch can attest to the near universal truth of just how terrible most women are in general at taking compliments.**
Here's what the ever-helpful instinct tells us to do when our brain comes knocking for advice:
Help! They complimented something I own.
Downplay everything. "Oh, I got it on sale." "I've had it forever." Minimize how awesome it is. It doesn't matter if you managed to score the perfect vintage Chanel bag at that sketchy thrift store or negotiated a great deal on your new car. Give credit to someone else whenever possible. Your coworkers will not know if your best friend actually picked out your sweater or not, just tell them that.
CRAP now they're endorsing one of my skills.
Downplay yet again! "It was nothing." "I'm not that great, so-and-so is much better." You cannot possibly take credit for the hard work and long hours it took you to get this skill, so just pretend it isn't important. Nobody likes competent women, promise. Make sure every talent you possess or success you have had is attributable to luck or someone else's efforts. Extra points if you can say it's to your parents' credit, since they made sure you got such a great education. If all else fails, just refuse to accept the compliment. "I could never fill so-and-so's shoes" and "Oh, I've just been doing it so long I don't even think about it" generally work. Worst comes to worst, just say "No" and walk away as quickly as possible. It's better to be branded awkward than a braggart.
NOW THEY SAY I "LOOK GREAT."
First, you must immediately assume that you didn't "look great" before. Then you have to find something to ascribe this sudden new improvement to, and the subject depends on your audience. If you are surrounded by female friends, crediting Spanx is acceptable. If in mixed company, something vague about "trying a new look" and gesturing at your face/head area is totally fine. If surrounded by men, smile and laugh; you will be nervous and uncomfortable but don't worry, they'll interpret this as overjoyed gratitude for their attention. If a sexual partner is the one that complimented you, feel free to deploy a smoldering look, but make sure you don't have food on your face or something, first.
Catching on, yet?
The list of things women aren't supposed to be is too long to even make a dent in here, but what it boils down to is that women aren't supposed to be "too." Too slutty, to matronly, too dedicated to work, too dedicated to family, too queer, too smart, too vapid, too feminine, too butch, too "ethnic", too...too. There's this ideal middle ground we're supposed to exist in that seems to keep moving on us, quicksand dropping out from under our feet and sending us into murky depths of judgement and self-policing. Compliments, even when sincerely and kindly meant, are a minefield of trauma waiting to happen. If you own up to handling a situation well at work, the same skills that would be celebrated in a man may brand you as a 'bitch' or 'aggressive' as a woman. Taking pride in a belonging makes you shallow or even worse, 'obsessed' with fashion (but not in the way men are 'obsessed' with sports and cars...that's different). Not that we need anything else to reinforce the stereotype about women and their shoes, of course. Accepting a compliment about your body, no matter how banal and generous it may seem, feeds into so many layers of intersectional issues with constructed beauty standards and poor body image that rejecting the compliment outright seems like the only option that keeps you safe; unless, of course, it comes from a certain kind of source and then you have to take every 'compliment' you get or risk violence. Bragging isn't acceptable, pride is unladylike. And still, the middleground of quicksand where we're supposed to live keeps moving.
We haven't even touched on the fine art of the backhanded compliment that some elevate to professional skill, or how abusive relationships lay the groundwork for seeking out validation in self-destructive venues. No wonder women tend to immediately dodge even sincere compliments as they come flying.
(<—Actual reenactment of a recent attempt at complimenting me.)
Alright. Deep breath, how you do you feel? Now that we've explored what instinct wants you to do and more importantly why, you doing alright? You can see why it's all bullshit and you should ignore both instinct and the social pressures that inform it, right? Awesome.
You know what not to do. So the next time someone compliments you, what should you do?
Then think this, and do your best to actually believe it:
Let's all be the people Tina Belcher wants us to be: happy in our weirdness and proud of our strengths.
Congrats! You now know how to take a compliment like a woman.
*Yeah, I know. Super scientific, but it's below zero already and I just can't make myself care right now.
**I have this theory that, like everything, this is actually intersectional and not limited to women. People of color, people with disabilities, people in the LGBTQ community often rely on many of the same self-policing habits to downplay their own achievements.