How to Actually Compliment a Woman

Yesterday I did what I do every Friday night–try to take over the world!

Ok, I actually went ballroom dancing.  Close.

Sometimes I do wear a fedora, though.

And as I was leaving, one of the men who also regularly attends Friday night dances stopped me and asked, “Do you know who you look like?”

I’m asked to play this game surprisingly often, and between you and me, have never successfully discerned the point.  I’m pretty sure I look like me.  So it was with a somewhat stiff smile that I prompted him, “Who do I look like?”

“Anne Hathaway,” he said.

Wow! I thought, legitimately surprised.  I never get Anne Hathaway, probably because I look nothing like Anne Hathaway.

I jumped to the conclusion that perhaps I reminded this man of Anne Hathaway because of something we have in common about the way we hold ourselves, or speak, or something.  And I found that truly complimentary, because insofar as I can tell, Anne Hathaway is an articulate and intelligent person of integrity who can also rock an Oscar dress when she wants to.

So I said, “Thank you! She’s an intelligent and wonderful human being.  What a lovely compliment!”

To which the man replied, “Yeah, she’s a pretty lady.”

At which my heart sank.

I read somewhere recently that pastors are sad an awful lot of the time, because there’s nothing like ministry to acquaint you with the brokenness of humanity.  I’ve certainly found this to be true.  Before I went to seminary, I looked askance at feminism, privately thinking of it as an excuse for women to be militantly bad-tempered.  But you don’t have to study theology very long before realizing how long women’s voices have been systematically shut out of it.  And you don’t have to read the Bible very much to begin thinking that a world with women on the margins isn’t what God had in mind when God created both man and woman in God’s image.

And from there isn’t a very short leap to realizing that most people think of God as male (making male bodies more “in the image of God” than womanly bodies), that many people don’t believe women should be pastors, and some people think women shouldn’t be allowed to speak in church–because that’s the way God created it, they say, citing Genesis 3 (which, incidentally, characterizes womankind’s submission to mankind as an effect of the curse that Jesus freed us from).

Before long, you find yourself trained to see how women are marginalized everywhere, not only in the church.  You see how much of that happens through a barrage of media that a woman’s appearance is her greatest asset, and therefore that her intelligence, integrity, and abilities hold a distant second.  And that makes you sad.

And that sadness is the reason why I get no pleasure from compliments on my looks.  Not because I don’t think I’m beautiful, but because I think my beauty is a pretty minor attribute, given everything else that I’m capable of.  And because every time I hear a remark about a woman’s beauty–positive or negative–it reminds me of how much a woman’s value is tacked to something so totally arbitrary, and so superficially reflective of who she really is as a person.

But this is a post called “How to actually compliment a woman,” so let me share with you a compliment I got a few months ago about my looks that I am prepared to treasure for the rest of my life:

I was sitting in a meeting with my internship committee, who are there to help make sure I get the most out of internship.  Part of their job is to offer criticism, and my committee excels at being very constructive with their criticism.

But my stomach sank when I heard one committee member say, “I want to tell you something about your arms.”

My arms?  I was filled with confusion and dread.  Part of the dread was rooted in the fact that I don’t like my arms, which are quite long, and impossible to find long-enough sleeves for.  My long legs frequently garner comments–EVERY FLIPPING WEEK at ballroom dance, for example, where I am often summoned to the dance floor with the epithet “Go go gadget legs!”–but long arms are not as desirable.  And ex-boyfriend who is an avid rock climber once complimented me on my reach, telling me admiringly that I had a great “gorilla factor.”  And I thought, “Yes, yes, that is precisely what I have.”

Look, just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I’m not prone to having weird fits about my appearance, too.

Anyway, the arms.  So I had dread because I’m already self-conscious about my arms.  And then the committee member went on: “I just want to tell you, when you’re doing the prayers of the people?  That thing you do with your arms, where you have them raised?”

Orans?” I said, because my inner church geek had to.

“Yeah.  I just wanted to tell you, when you do that, it looks like you’re embracing the whole world.  Keep doing it like that.”

I will remember for the rest of my life what that man said.  Not because he complimented my appearance.  Not even because he complimented one of the weirder aspects of my appearance.  But because he told me that in that moment of offering up the prayers of the congregation, my body projected my vocation, my body imaged Christ’s–and this, after all, is what we dream bodies will do.

Best.  Compliment.  Ever.

The first time I tried to draft this entry, it came out much snarkier.  If you enjoy that kind of thing, you can read it here.

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