Last night I was at my favorite coffeeshop with my good friend Hamid. We started having a variation of a conversation I've had a couple of times before.
We started talking about pickup lines and how much you can look at a woman's breasts before it becomes rude or harassment. Hamid talked about some times he'd hit on women by complimenting them and I told him how uncomfortable it makes me when someone I don't know compliments my appearance. He argued that everyone likes feeling like they look pretty or hot thus, everyone likes compliments. I agree that everyone likes feeling attractive. I don't agree that everyone likes hearing that someone else thinks that they are attractive.
First, there are different kinds of "compliments" and I'm likely to react differently to "You have a nice smile," than I would to "You have a nice ass." But why is it more socially acceptable to compliment my smile instead of my body? Because "Nice ass," is much more obviously sexual? Why should I as a woman be expected to accept strangers' opinions about any part of my physical appearance? And more than that just accepting the opinions of others about what I look like, why should I be expected to thank a stranger for telling me what he thinks about what I look like? Why are women expected to listen to, accept, and thank people (probably mostly men) for saying what they think about their physical appearance?
Every pickup guide in the world would advise a man to compliment a woman's appearance in some way to begin a conversation with her. Not just "Nice shoes. Wanna fuck?" but "You have really nice eyes," "You're beautiful," and so on. But why is it socially acceptable to begin conversations with a woman you don't know by giving her your opinion on her appearance? What business is it of yours? And why do I want to hear what you think about what I look like?
Further, I feel like there's a potential for danger in the fact that a stranger finds me attractive. If I'm walking alone down a street at night and as I pass a man he tells me that he thinks I'm pretty, I'm automatically worried for my own safety. The fact that a stranger finds me aesthetically pleasing might very well be a threat to my safety. I don't know if that "compliment" is only a compliment, or the threat of further harassment if I don't pay attention to that man, or worse. I was walking to a taqueria near my house alone one night and a man yelled, "Hey beautiful," at me from across the street. It scared the hell out of me. I didn't know if he was going to follow me and I didn't know if he was going to be there waiting for me when I walked home. When I was in Florence doing my college-Europe-trip, some boys catcalled at me and my friend, then followed us for blocks when we refused to engage in conversation with them. I've never had a catcalling interaction become more dangerous than this, but I know they do to women every day.
Hamid said that I was a hypocrite and that if Brad Pitt said I was beautiful, I'd want to hear it. Maybe that's true, but I also think that if I were around Brad Pitt (or someone else whose social/sexual advances I was open to) I think it would be clear that I was, in fact, open to those advances. When a man yells at me on the street, I am not engaging him in conversation first. When an old man at the grocery store tells me that I'm a pretty young thing, I haven't flirted with him first. I haven't smiled or made eye contact. I haven't opened myself to their advances in any way. In no way have I communicated that I want to engage in conversation, and in no way have I communicated that I want to hear what these men want to say to me. But when the man ringing up my purchases says that I have beautiful eyes, and when the man at the bookstore says that he loves my top while he's looking at my breasts, what am I supposed to say except for thank you? It seems women are expected to understand that when they enter the public sphere their bodies become something men can evaluate and then comment on. I've been socialized to accept that when someone says something "nice" about what I look like, I am supposed to thank them for their opinion of me. Women have been taught to accept what men think about their faces, their eyes, their hair, and their bodies, and thank them for it every time.
Dear stranger, if you want to strike up a conversation with me at a coffeeshop, maybe even with the best intentions, I beg of you. Ask me what book I'm reading. Ask me about the weather. Please don't tell me what you think about what I look like because I don't give a fuck.