I note that the actor Russell Brand is drawing fire from the usual quarters this weekend for having told an interviewer that he'd written a very political article because an attractive girl had asked him to do it. Needless to say, all I could do was sigh. Doing something because a lovely girl asks you seems to me to be the perfect reason for doing pretty much anything. It's certainly been the reason why I've done a great many things in life, and very, very few things are as persuasive as a beautiful girl.
I do wonder these days, though, about telling a girl she's beautiful. There seems to be a view out there in the gender warriors' world that says that beauty itself is a deeply suspect category and that telling someone she's beautiful is an aggressive act that erases all her "deeper" or more "fully human" or "important" qualities. Well, I'm not disposed to get into all that right now. At least I'm not disposed to get into the politics of it all. Though I do wonder what the current rules are for offering up compliments to beauty.
Oh, yes, rules. I believe in them. I believe in social rules. Rules and procedures are one of the great inventions of human society. They do make it easier to get through life, to know where you stand and what's expected of you. They smooth the edges of social interaction and keep you from having to constantly re-invent the wheel. And they keep you from over-thinking and over-analyzing--- and that's something whose importance you can't ever overstate.
But how do you pay compliments these days? I'm not talking about cat-calling here--- not at all. I'm talking about flirtation, yes, and also about just paying tribute to beauty.
I can remember being something like fifteen and seeing a very attractive girl (certainly older than I was, probably in her early twenties) walking across a parking lot in a very short dress one summer day and agonizing over how much I wanted to just say, "You have beautiful legs!" I was far too shy to do that, and I've regretted that all these years. I did want so desperately to say that. If I had said it, I didn't expect her to instantly offer me sex. I didn't want to say it to demean her or make her feel powerless. I wanted to say that because I was just so...aware...of how she looked. Being fifteen or so is an age when suddenly the world is full of beauty, of reminders of beauty and sex. I wanted to be able to say something, to acknowledge how amazing it was that the world had girls who looked like her in it.
Did I want her to notice me back? Well, I was younger and shy, and I certainly had no faith in my own looks. I knew that she wasn't going to throw herself at me because I'd complimented her legs. If I'd said it--- if I hadn't been afraid of her being offended or mocking me ---and she'd smiled and nodded as she walked by, I'd have been exhilarated all day. But I didn't expect even that. The point would've been to say it for its own sake.
What did I want her to feel? Complimented, I'd hope. I'm not used to ever receiving physical compliments, and I don't have experience at accepting compliments. But I would've wanted her to feel good about herself, to feel good about her presence in the world. I had no idea what her day had been like or what she was thinking about behind her sunglasses. Maybe being told you have great legs on a day when your job is awful or depressing things are happening means nothing at all. Or maybe it does. Maybe it does make a glum kind of day some tiny bit better. Maybe it reinforces feeling good on a good day. Sometimes I think that a compliment from a passing random stranger would be the best kind of compliment--- after all, it's not given out of social obligation or out of any hope of advantage. (Again, not cat-calling--- simply a compliment)
"You have beautiful legs!" That doesn't imply that you're not smart or thoughtful or skilled at your job. It doesn't say that those long, slender, sleek legs are your only assets. It just says that you do have beautiful legs. It's a small compliment. And of course it can apply to other things--- lovely hair, lovely eyes, even great wardrobe. I would've said it because I was walking across a parking lot and saw something that held my attention. Here was a lovely image on a summer's day--- someone I'd never know, someone whose life was intersecting with mine for twenty seconds as we passed ---and I wanted to say that the image was beautiful.
I was too shy that day at fifteen to say anything. I've certainly told other girls down the years that they had great legs or great eyes. Beauty matters--- I believe that, and I believe that beauty should be complimented. That doesn't mean other things shouldn't be complimented--- professional skills, intellect, knowledge. But there should be a way to say that you find someone attractive, that you find them visually appealing or aesthetically pleasing that isn't taken as somehow reductive or demeaning...or at least hasn't been re-defined as those things.
It's important to salvage the ability to offer up compliments. Courtesy is part of that; politeness always matters. Let's take that part of things as a given. But we do need to salvage the ability to compliment beauty, to salvage the ability to value beauty. Those things are important, and we need to guard those abilities and set out clear procedures. Any ideas on what they should be?