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Compliments, curves, and the ownership of female bodies

Over at Teen Vogue, advice columnist Rachel Simmons fields a question from a 17-year-old boy who was summarily shut down by his love interest after he complimented her on her “hourglass figure”:

I commented that she had a “really nice, hourglass figure”. I thought she would take it as a compliment but instead she became deeply offended. I went into damage control mode and tried to clarify my comments but I think I only made things worse when I used the term “healthy”. With a look of complete disgust, WHAP!, she slapped my face and departed. She had a classic hourglass figure–very busty, narrow waist, shapely hips/legs. I guess she had interpreted “hourglass” as meaning big/overweight/full figured. Why can’t girls embrace their curves?

Rachel responds rather disappointingly. She drops some great facts (81% of ten year old girls are afraid of being fat, over 50% of women age 18-25 would rather be hit by a truck than be fat—WHAT?) but then gives this advice:

Even if having curves used to be something women wanted, the rules are different now. Girls aspire to size zero, and plenty of them think anything bigger than that is porky. Which is—just to be clear—completely cracked. … You ask if hitting you amounts to a rejection. Who cares, really? More importantly, it’s a big bad red flag about the kind of girl she likely is (insert cuckoo clock noise here).

Everyone here is assuming that this girl reacted the way she did because she is insecure with her body. Not only is that offensive to the girl, but it’s offensive to girls everywhere, because it paints them as unable to stand up for themselves for any reason other than insecurity. It makes all girls sound like image-obsessed, eating-disordered, painfully insecure figures just waiting for the approval and rescue of a male.

How do we even know that’s what she’s upset about? It certainly doesn’t sound like this boy asked what the offense was. His “damage control mode” didn’t even include an apology! He’s just assuming that the problem is in her self-image and not in his behavior.

So here’s where I come in. Should she have hit him? Probably not. But did he have the right to comment on how appealing the shape of her body was? DEFINITELY not. And I’m disgusted that neither advice seeker nor advice columnist picked up on this, but here it is:


That means that I, as a woman—one who probably fits into the “really nice, hourglass figure” spectrum—have absolutely no obligation to graciously accept anyone’s compliment. In fact, I would have reacted quite similarly to how the girl in question did. (Except no hitting—my words are my weapon.) And it wouldn’t be because I haven’t “embraced my curves”—my body is awesome, man—but because they are exactly that: MY curves. As in, belonging to me. As in, not something that other people have the right to comment on.

I’m not saying compliments aren’t awesome, because they are. But “I really like the shape of your body” outside of a seriously intimate context is just creepy and invasive and it’s no wonder that girl felt uncomfortable. It’s reducing a woman to her shape and ignoring everything else fantastic about her: her wit, her charm, her sense of humor, her laugh, her awesome sense of fashion, her ANYTHING. It reduces her, once again, to a body to be consumed by the world around her.

So when Kevin asks “why can’t girls embrace their curves?” what he is really asking is “why can’t girls allow ME to embrace their curves?” And not only are we not supposed to be upset by that, but we’re actually supposed to be excited about it, to the point that if we’re not, we’re crazy? No thanks.


5 thoughts on “Compliments, curves, and the ownership of female bodies

  1. Good point, Melissa. Really Kevin’s behaviour was just a step up from anonymous guys who honk and catcall from cars and act like women should feel grateful to be objectified in that manner. Of course that’s no justification for violence and clearly she shouldn’t have slapped him.

    I hope you send a link of your response to Rachel’s column over to Teen Vogue. It’s disconcerting to think that someone offering advice to teenagers sees nothing problematic in a guy a girl barely knows feeling free to comment on her body.

  2. You bring up a really good point comparing his comment to random catcalls on the street. I didn’t even think of it that way, but it’s true. Outside of an intimate context it is a bit creepy for him to say that to a young girl. I’m even more disturbed by Rachel (not me thank god) from Teen Vogue’s curve-hatred and downright messed up response to that boy regarding female body image. Someone with such bias towards size zero, and an obvious dislike of perfectly normal bodies should not be giving advice to young girls.

  3. I’m definitely in agreement with your comments about blaming any assertiveness by a female to insecurity or irrationality – it’s definitely not an appropriate way to condition young women.

    However, I don’t think I’m fully convinced by arguments using the words “objectification” and “ownership” in this context. My hair is my hair, but I wouldn’t be offended by somebody complimenting it (nor would I be worried that they were concerned only with my hair, and not with my personality).

    I think it’s a much stronger argument to simply say that commenting on a woman’s figure without solicitation or cause is creepy and makes her feel uncomfortable. It seems that that’s the wrong behaviour being exhibited.

    I’d feel the same way if somebody commented about some parts of my anatomy (an elementary difference, even ignoring other distinctions, being that I can avoid putting those ones on show, whereas it’s markedly more difficult for women).

  4. Did the kid deserve to be slapped? DEFINITELY not. Did he have the “right” to comment/compliment her on her body? Probably not. There, that’s a bit better. We don’t know the context of the situation he was in, he’s only given the negative reaction to what may have been part of a conversation that was going very well for him and he felt it was ok to say something. OR he could have just approached her and opened with that. Either way, a physical response was not warranted, hell even a verbal lashing may not be warranted. The kid may have just been the last in a long frustrating line of comments that girl has already heard and she was frustrated and upset so couldn’t help herself, or she just could be high strung and easily offended. We just don’t know, do we? But IMO, an attack on the boy, whether physical or verbal, is not the answer to this problem. As a still young man that is more easily taught, a firm lesson on why his actions are inappropriate is the key, not something to make him feel attacked that would have the opposite affect of showing him that he’s out of line. It could push him to dislike and lose respect for women even more if he feels attacked by them because of this

  5. It’s not clear whether the teenagers were dating. If they were, I don’t think there’s much wrong with the boy’s comment, depending on how intimate the two were. Otherwise, yes, it’s inappropriate (though I think we’re all agreed that physically hitting the boy was totally wrong).

    Andrew compares it to a compliment on someone’s hair. Thing is, “You have lovely hair” is very different to “You have lovely breasts.” Hair, face, clothes are all public things that it’s acceptable to comment on. Breasts, waist, hips and legs are far more personal and private. And that’s still true of a woman wearing a vest top and shorts.

    If there wasn’t such a history of belittling women and telling us that only our faces and figures matter, it wouldn’t be so important.

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