Last week, whilst standing on the footpath, waiting for an Uber, a man, that I did not know, paid me a compliment.
I love a compliment, I happily give them and almost always will take one, but this time, it made me feel….. uneasy.
I had just dropped my car off for a service, dressed for work, I was simultaneously listening to a podcast, untangling my ear phones and watching the Uber tracking app, wondering, not for the first time, if the little picture of the car in the far corner of the app is a replica of the car I was to wait for. Unless that’s just me?
I was also wondering if I had taken the chicken mince out of the freezer for taco night.
Relevant to this story is that I was also wearing high heels. Frustrating that it made what happen next a thing.
I work in a corporate, client facing role. I wear heels because I want to. More of a dress code manifesto than a policy. Fashion is my vice and playing dress up is what I do. My wardrobe, my choice.
My mind was on the invisible to do list in my head, chicken mince and the podcast I was listening to, so when this man approached me I was caught off balance and unguarded.
He said to me that my shoes made my legs look great.
I’m sorry what?
At this point I’m certain that many women would smile and say thank you and take the compliment with them throughout the day. In some ways, I wish I was that woman and already I feel like I have to apologise for not being grateful for the compliment, for being too politically correct, an overly sensitive feminist who is being irrational. There are some men (some, not all – that’s important to note) that think women should be flattered by the attention. I did not get dressed that morning to get validation from a stranger on the street that my legs look great. That some women would take this as a compliment is entirely their right and choice but this should not minimise my experience and the experience for me was awkward.
To play my own devil’s advocate, he could have been on a quest to conduct a series of random acts of kindness, well intentioned perhaps, but that doesn’t make it any more appropriate. Why should I prioritise a stranger’s need to compliment me, even if he was just being polite, over my need to feel comfortable?
Would he have paid me the same compliment if I was standing next to my husband? My guess is probably not. Though I’m making all kinds of unfound assumptions, would he have complimented me if he was with his wife or partner? If not, then surely this means that at some level he knows that the comment was not cool.
Had I been standing with my 8 year old son, I wonder if he would have thought it appropriate to make the same comment and trust me, if it had occurred in my son’s presence then teachable moment or not, I would have been annoyed. I’m unwavering in my desire to raise my son to value equality and respect and to understand that we should not put a value on what we look like.
To be clear, there was nothing about this experience that was traumatic and I did not feel physically unsafe. But what this man, and other men need to understand, is that they don’t know that a seemingly innocent remark is often just another moment, another memory, another experience. In the workplace, at a bar, out with girlfriends, on the street, at the gym. This man did not know about the time I was a 13 year old girl, a trip to the city with my school friends, a blister from my new shoes, needing to take a seat to put on a band aid. A man came and sat beside me, placing his hand up my skirt.
A moment, a memory.
Though intentions might be innocent, it is simple. Men need to stop commenting on women’s bodies. If that man had wanted to compliment me, then he could have easily commented on my shoes or my outfit, he could have stayed in benign territory and the comment would have been received with thanks. But to comment on my legs, well it felt a bit objectifying.
Compliments can make a person’s day and the return on investment can be high, they just need to be the right kind of compliment and those about a stranger’s body simply miss the mark.