When a person of the opposite gender praises me, my eyes dart away like a junior higher in a dodge ball tournament. I literally have to work at it to keep looking him in the face.
And I’m not the only one.
Living in the blossoming era of selfies, many of my male friends have voiced confusion over women’s inability to receive compliments. It’s confusing to us too. But as anyone who experiences emotions on a daily basis will tell you, our reactions in real-time are rarely the servants of logic. Just because I know a thing is counter-intuitive doesn’t make me any less likely to do it. I know the correct response to a compliment is to receive and say thank you.
But compliments always have associations with them, a melody that starts playing in the background and obscures our ability to take them in. I’m not saying it’s either logical or fair that these songs start playing, and believe me if I could switch them off every time I would. My best bet that by naming the song then at least I can put up a good fight. Today I’m only going to name one song and then offer a few ways to kill the radio star.
Song 1: Taking Part for the Whole: the Fear of Being Objectified
My good friend Angie was asked what her reaction would be if a total stranger came up to her in the grocery store and told her she was startlingly beautiful. Her answer was that she would feel horrible, and objectified. My friend is indeed a very striking woman, and her answer confounded the men in our group, many of whom felt this was an overreaction. From their perspective the stranger was stating an observable fact in a positive way, something that should be flattering to her or at the very least affirming.
But Angie went on to explain it was not that she couldn’t believe the accuracy of the man’s assessment, or even that she was suspicious of his motives for complimenting her. As a stranger he might be able to see that she is physically beautiful, but that’s it. He was observing one facet of Angie and equating it with the whole. Beauty is formed not only by outward appearance, but by intelligence, personality, compassion, and any number of other components. Angie’s instinct was to reject the compliment because accepting it would be to endorse his value of her as one thing: physically beautiful. She wished to be seen not in part, but as a whole person.
Our culture preaches constantly that physical attractiveness must be the initial buy-in at the start of any relationship. If we didn’t believe this we would only wear yoga pants and there would be no such thing as hair product. Marketing tells women that we should look the best that we possibly can look, and tells us that constantly. Even if we don’t buy in to the products that will accomplish this, even if we reject these messages militantly, a latent fear lingers that we will fail to be beautiful and thereby lose at least some of our value. Even if we refuse the idea that we are solely objects of beauty or sexuality we may believe partially that we are.
But even a women with a positive self-image and healthy love of her own body can have a fear of being objectified that is completely unrelated to her personal appearance.
We all desire to be known, not necessarily intimately by everyone, but holistically.
Many women are used to being praised for one part of themselves: their looks, their intelligence, kindness or hard work. We become so used to being “the pretty one” or “the clever one” or “the reliable one” that we begin to think of ourselves only in that context. When you classify yourself or another person largely one way, that is objectifying. You don’t have to make someone a sex object or beauty object to objectify them, you just have to see them as less than what they really are: a whole person.
Singing a New Song
So what can we do to stop this process? Most men conclude they should just stop giving compliments; it’s safer for them and if everything is so loaded for women it seems the more compassionate choice as well. That is certainly a logical choice, but it doesn’t look like Christ.
Jesus pursues people with His love and He is choice with His words. When He speaks to the woman at the well (John 4) He treats her like a whole person. If you are meeting a person for the first time consider, is a compliment really necessary, or are their other ways you can express value in that person such as listening to them?
When Jesus spends time with Mary and Martha He sees past their behaviors to their hearts (Luke 10, John 11). If you give a compliment and it is poorly received, if it is reacted against, look through the words or the behavior and see the pain behind them. If you don’t know this woman’s history, how she’s been objectified in her household, by men, even by herself, then the most loving way to respond to her is to continue to engage her in conversation. “He’s Taking Part for the Whole” might be the song that’s playing in her head, but she could also be another tune of past hurt altogether.
If you know her well and she’s consistently rejected compliments, weigh the right moment to ask her why and listen. If you don’t know her well enough or the timing isn’t right then just listen to how she describes herself and others. We are all self-disclosers whether we realize it or not. Each person will tell you how they want to be valued or loved, and the Holy Spirit will earmark conversations like you wouldn’t believe if you ask Him to.
As for us who receive compliments poorly, we must learn to sing a new song. Part of believing the gospel is learning to receive the value given to you gratuitously through grace. I can easily accomplish a kind of hypocrisy in my head where I fully assent to my value to God when looking at the cross but I cannot receive the good things He gives me in my life now.
I live in a singles apartments building at a seminary. This year for Valentine’s Day the single men of the building invited the single women in the building to a formal dinner that they prepared for us. We were each given a rose, personally escorted to an exquisitely decorated room with hand calligraphy name tags bearing our names with a personal message inside. Mine said: “You are loved.” Here our brothers served us appetizers, dinner, and desert and sang a song to us affirming our value by God and exhorting us to not let anybody tell us otherwise. While I have described this event simply it actually was more amazing in real-time than it even sounds.
And it was incredibly hard for me.
I wasn’t allowed to do anything. I could not contribute. I could not earn. I had to receive. I didn’t realize until that night how much I sucked at receiving grace. But to try to do anything else would have been wrong. Any other action would have been a blatant disregard for the tender care and prayerful work that these men of God had put into that night. These men are my fellow students, they have sat next to me in classes and prayed with me in chapels. I did not stop to wonder if they saw me as an object, or a future pastor’s wife, or as a whole woman. Instead I let myself feel loved unconditionally. If they had chosen to value me that way, how could I not receive it?
Now when I receive a compliment, this is the song that I play in my head:
You are valued, receive it.
I choose to give the compliment and its giver the benefit of the doubt. I can’t say it goes well every time, I still skirt the eye contact sometimes. But I have to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time. Yes I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a whole lot better, since grace is mine.