by Shaker kaninchenzero

It started with a friend who said:
I've discovered something: I really like it when random strangers tell me they like my work. I'm slowly coming to understand how it is that very famous people put up with the pain-in-the-ass of being very famous people, and that understanding is nicely identified by Sally Field's famous "You like me, you really like me!"

I guess it surprises me because I perceive myself as being so introverted that the idea of being appreciated by people I don't know would alarm me...but it doesn't. It's kind of a rush, actually.
My friend is trans, and so am I. And I can accept compliments about being clever, too. I thought about how, for both of us, to be complimented on doing clever things is something we can safely accept, because the brain inside the skull? It's never changed radically; we were there for all it, and always clever.

Other compliments, however, are harder.

I think most of us who didn't grow up hearing that we were beautiful have a hard time with that. For those of us who're trans, the hard time comes with layers and sediment and encrustations, in one way or another. I wasn't really consciously aware that I needed to be a woman until I was eleven or twelve, but even before that I knew I didn't look right as a boy. And I'm told I made a particularly beautiful boy specially if you like them slim and pale and fey.

There are issues with accepting compliments as trans—and issues with accepting compliments as a woman.

Naturally, all of this is me and your mileage may vary.

My wife is very bad at receiving compliments. And it's heartbreaking -- it used to be frustrating but I got over myself as the frustrating was about me ("How come you can't just take a fucking compliment!") and not her -- because she's pretty, she's smart, she's funny, she's sexy as hell, and I like her immensely. She has reasons for her reflexes that tell her she's not pretty, she's not smart, she's not funny, she's not sexy. Some of them have to do with the usual family dynamics where one child is designated the Pretty One, as though there could be only one such in any set of siblings. My brother and I suffered from this too -- I was the Smart One, which meant he was the Stupid One, and he was the Social One making me the Antisocial One. There's considerably less truth in that than any of us thought when we were little. My brother is a very smart guy (as well as dead gorgeous) and I do pretty okay socially when I put the effort into it. Similarly, while my wife grew up hearing that her younger sister was the Pretty One, the rest of us think they look nearly alike. There are other reasons which aren't mine to share. Let's just say that bad things happen to girls and young women and not all of the scars are left in their skin.

I used to be really bad at receiving compliments, especially about my appearance. When I was younger, my appearance was a source of conflict. I was called albino -- bizarrely, explaining that my grey eyes meant that I wasn't actually albino just very pale had little effect on bullies. O logic, how many times must you fail me? *shakes her fist* I can't tell you how many times my ugly brown plastic very thick glasses were taken from me. Seriously they were awful and the idea that they had to be enormous or I wouldn't have any peripheral vision is a bigger lie than GlaDOS's cake. My grandmother, who I lived with after leaving my mom's house at thirteen, fought with me constantly. I didn't dress masculinely enough. Like everyone, I wore jeans and t-shirts and Doc Martens or Chuck Taylors. I had earrings, which were bad by themselves, but then I got earrings in weird places. There was an industrial across the top of my left ear with a captive bead orbital around it, which I thought was pretty damn neat. My grandmother cried for a week when she saw them. I got pliers and took them out. Since they weren't healed they bled a little and she cried about that. (The thing about my grandmother, see, is that there is no winning with her. Do what she wants or don't. Either way you lose. Either way she remains controlling and manipulative and she rewrites history in her head to suit her purposes.)

And of course when I looked at myself I kept trying to see the boy everyone else did. I didn't always know I was supposed to be a girl, but I knew the boy was wrong. I spent a lot of time looking at myself in a mirror with my genitals tucked between my legs.

When someone would tell me I was pretty, I'd look away and blush and mumble something self-deprecating. I knew what I looked like, and it was funny-looking, right? Pale. Skinny. Weird. And agreeing with them would be like bragging, and I was definitely told not to brag, that was just rude. Of course contradicting people is also rude, so it was a problem.

I forget who suggested it -- probably a therapist -- but someone told me that when a person said I was pretty I should smile and say "Thank you." I did. It felt awkward and wrong like there were centipedes crawling on my brain at first. But you know, I like hearing that. I like being pretty. It's nice to hear that I'm clever, or that someone likes my writing, or noticed that I actually said something funny. It's still not always comfortable. And I understand that for my wife it feels positively dangerous and I try to not poke at that too much. But sometimes she's just really beautiful and I feel compelled to tell her. And she is getting a little better about hearing it without automatically saying "I'm not."

So we've got lots of stuff here. For cis and trans women, being complimented can carry a certain amount of implied threat that is sometimes difficult to gauge. What does this person want from me? What exactly do they mean? Often we've been told that agreeing with the person giving the compliment "Why yes, I am beautiful and smart and all things good" makes one seem arrogant, or at least assertive, and women are supposed to be self-effacing. (Sometimes I look back on what I remember of my childhood and I really think I got most of the 'girl' parts of socialization -- you should be quiet, self-effacing, self-sacrificing, look for what you can do to help someone else, don't talk up yourself. I didn't get the sex parts, which are kind of huge, but I think I got a lot of the behaviour. Why anyone is surprised I came out I don't know.) For any of us, there could be someone who hurt us badly, who told us we were ugly and unattractive and we should be grateful that they were hurting us. Compliments can trigger that past trauma, as odd as that may sound.

Where does that leave the well-meaning compliment-giver? As always, the first step is learning that if it's not about you, it's not about you. If you tell a friend she's pretty and she bursts into tears, it's really probably not about you. If she wants to talk about it, listen, but if she doesn't, drop it. Find out what's safe. "That's a really great outfit" may be safer for her. Or, "I like talking with you, you've always got something interesting to say." Just plain "I like you" often works really well. And please don't push. Most of us who have issues know we have issues. And if we know we've got them, we're working on them as best we can. Which may seem to move really slowly from the outside, but there it is.

And the way I see it, feminists and womanists are working towards a world where women will feel more secure about receiving compliments because they won't come with such a gigantic load of historical bullshit attached. Where it's safe to feel pretty because there isn't a rape culture to make the victim responsible for her attacker's actions. Where fewer children face bullying from peers for not conforming to assigned gender roles. Where homes are safe for children and not toxic and abusive. Where compliments never come with conditions.

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