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Compliments, curves, and the ownership of female bodies

By March 4, 2010 5 Comments

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?

"Why can't you take a compliment?"

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:

WOMEN’S BODIES ARE NOT OWNED BY OTHER PEOPLE.

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.

–Melissa