How to Give a Compliment Without Being Douchey

Published April 15, 2013 by Fat Heffalump

Following on from my previous post – on how to lose the body judgement for your own sake as well as others, it seems I need to write another… how to give a compliment without loading it with body judgement.

It’s not easy navigating in this world where the dominant paradigm is to critique appearances.  We are conditioned from the minute we are born that appearances are what we should judge others on and that we owe the world some kind of standard when it comes to our own appearance.  One of the most liberating things I have learnt is to be able to let go of that conditioning, and start to think of the world in a different way to that dominant rhetoric.  But it occurs to me that there is little to no help on HOW to unlearn all of that stuff, and what is the non-judgemental way to compliment people.  In fact, many of us can’t even see when we’re loading a compliment with body/appearance judgement, and so often we are hurt when someone says “Hey, don’t be a douche!”.  We respond “But I was complimenting you!”

So maybe I should start with a few examples of how not to pay a compliment someone?

I have someone in my life who does this EXTREMELY annoying thing.  She looks me up and down and then indicates my outfit and says “I approve” in a slightly patronising tone.  This one boils my blood!  I don’t wear outfits for other people to deem that they approve, I wear them because I like them and/or feel comfortable in them.   I have noticed that I get the “I approve” on days that I am wearing all dark colours, have most of my body covered or am wearing loose, flowing garments.  It’s particularly pointed on the days where she looks me up and down and doesn’t give the “I approve”.  I got one of those today.  Clearly my outfit (which I think is fabulous) doesn’t meet the standard.  See how “I approve” is not actually a compliment but a judgement?

Another is the “that is so flattering” faux-compliment.  It’s not a compliment to tell someone you like their outfit because it hides/disguises/minimises their body.  You are telling them that their body is something that should be hidden, disguised or minimised.

Add to the list the “you look great today”.  What did I look like yesterday, shithouse?  There’s no need to tack the “today” on to the compliment.  The same goes for “in that dress/colour/when you wear your *** like that” or any other  qualifier.

One that I get a lot is “Look at your legs, they’re amazing!”  I get this all the time, and it’s because on my body, thanks to the fact that I don’t drive which means I walk or cycle most places, my legs are considerably thinner than the rest of me.  What it does is highlight that the “acceptable” part of me is the thinnest bit of me.  I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but just because my legs are the thinnest bit of me, doesn’t mean they need to be pointed out to all and sundry because they’re the least fat bit.  The rest of me, even my enormous belly, is pretty bloody fabulous thank you!

Some of you may have your own faux-compliments that you’d like to add to the list and you’re welcome to do so in the comments.

So… how do you compliment someone without accidentally putting body judgement on there?  Well… it’s actually pretty easy!  The best way is to keep it simple.

  • DO compliments on people’s skills.  A talent in styling an outfit or choosing fabulous colours or accessorising is a fabulous thing to have.  “I love the way you’ve styled that outfit!” or “You have accessorised fabulously!” are great compliments that don’t load body judgement in there.  You can even say “You have fabulous style!”
  • DO say you like an outfit, garment or accessory.  “I love your shoes!” or “Great dress!”  “Those earrings are awesome!”  Keep it simple.
  • DO use “I like” or “I love” statements.  I like your shoes.  I love your outfit.
  • DO tell people when they wear something well.  “I like the way you wear coloured tights.”  “You always make long dresses look so elegant.”  “Your outfits are so bright and fun.”
  • DO relate the compliment back to the person.  “Blue looks wonderful on you.”
  • DON’T mention people’s bodies.  Unless you are engaging in sexy-times with them, it’s not really anyone’s place to comment other people’s bodies.  Don’t say “That dress makes your waist look small/legs look long.” etc, instead just say “I love that dress on you.”
  • DON’T state your “approval”.  Whether you approve of someone’s outfit or appearance is irrelevant.
  • DON’T put a qualifier of time on a compliment.  You can just say “You look great!” rather than “You look great today.”
  • DON’T use the “I wish I could wear… like you.” line.  Drawing comparisons between bodies is pointless.
  • DON’T compare the outfit someone is wearing today to one they wore another time.  Perhaps they didn’t have the energy to put into an outfit at the other time.  Perhaps they like the other outfit better.  There’s really no need to point out that one outfit is better than another, unless someone directly asks you to compare them.  Just say you like what they have on.
  • DON’T use words like “slimming” or refer to the persons shape.  Again, a simple “You look lovely.” will do the job.
  • DON’T assume that an hourglass shape is superior to any other shaped body.  Firstly it’s not and while maybe the outfit they are wearing does give them an hourglass shape, they can look just as fabulous in an outfit that highlights any other shape they happen to appear.

FUCK FLATTERING!  Seriously, just fuck it.  Don’t use it, it’s shitty.

29 comments on “How to Give a Compliment Without Being Douchey

  • I had a former friend who always used to say “You have such a pretty face…men would really go crazy for you if you lost weight”.

    I also had a guy say to me “If you lost weight your tits would stick out farther than your gut”, which was extra special because he said it just after we’d finished having sex. Never mind that he was no prize pig himself, or that he could see the scars on my breasts where I’d had reconstructive surgery. What a tool he was!

  • A couple more I thought of:

    DON’T ask if they lost/gained weight.

    DON’T screw up the compliment by adding advice, i.e.: ‘that’s such a pretty dress! You should get it in black, too!’ What’s wrong with the color I chose already? If I want fashion advice, I’ll ask for it.

    DON’T make it into a huge deal by drawing others into the conversation to demand they agree with you. I’m not on display and they may not like the same thing you do.

    DO keep it sincere. I can tell when someone is just patronizing me and when they really mean what they’re saying. I’d rather not hear anything than have to sit through someone complimenting me on something they don’t actually like. Don’t butter me up before asking for what you really want. It’s only going to honk me off and make me less likely to do what you want.

    Yep, I’ve experienced every single one of these more than once.

  • Interesting. I was thinking about this and I have a friend who always says how slimming certain of my clothes are. I find that I’m sort of nervous whenever I see her and have gained a few pounds, wondering if she’s going to tell me that I’m fat! I never would have considered that but yes, fascinating. And now I’ll know a bit more about my reluctance to discuss weight with her!

    • Bonnie, the whole pointing out that someone’s clothes are “slimming” is so gross! Perhaps next time smile broadly and say “That’s a shame, I was aiming to show off my luscious curves!” It will either nip that comment in the bud next time, or it will stir a teaching moment!

  • One “friend” commented to me, in front of about 30 people who were LISTENING TO HER, “Jan, you look pretty IN THE FACE today.” I guess we all knew what she thought about the rest of me after that! I just looked at her and said nothing. Oh, and I don’t see her anymore. Ever. By design.
    And of course its so irritating when people say, “You look great….have you lost weight?” because even if they are not saying “Because you sure needed to lose weight” they are saying, “I am paying close attention to your body size, sister!”

    • Yuck, yuck, yuck! I like to fuck with people who suggest I’ve lost weight by telling them I’ve gained it! The look on their faces is priceless!

      Sounds like letting go of that particular friend was a wise move!

  • Ha, I got “you look nice today” the other day, and thought, “what do I look like on other days?” and “Apparently, I looked like shit yesterday.”

    I would like to second “Twistie”s DON’T ask if they lost/gained weight or say “You look like you’ve lost weight”. I don’t want to think that my weight is being monitored.

    I used to have a friend that thought compliments like “I like that top/skirt/dress, etc.” weren’t really compliments because they aren’t saying they like the top/skirt/dress on YOU, just that they like it. I think that’s BS because you picked out the top/skirt/dress and are wearing it in a way that get’s noticed, so it is a compliment to your styling and your taste.

  • I like the last one. Is there really any point in complimenting someone’s physical appearance? I’d rather live in a world where no one felt the need to comment on each others looks or clothes at all. Considering we don’t it might be nice with a confidence-boost once in a while, if it’s from someone you know well – but in an ideal world that wouldn’t be necessary either. That’s what I think anyway.

    • I agree with the above comment times one million, if not more. Let’s face it, this world is gendered in such a way that women are valued mostly for how they look (and the remainder of their value is from their relation to a man, ie wife/mother/heterosexual partner etc). I don’t like having this shitty fact shoved in my face by people (of ALL genders) who compliment women’s looks and men’s actions. I too would like to live in a world where looks are irrelevant, but right now I’d settle for having a woman primarily be judged the way men are, ie NOT primarily on their looks. I’d also like to add that another irritating fact is that men are considered “handsome” by merely existing, while women are expected to spend every second of their spare time to earn that “special” appearance-based compliment, and also, every inch of their body and face are subject to critique. Finally, we all know that these beauty standards are totally skewed in favor of gender normative, cissexual, heterosexual, tall, skinny, young, able-bodied white people…yet another factor to piss me off about looks-based compliments!

    • You know, I think it’s fine to not want anyone to comment on your clothes. You’re allowed to set that boundary.

      For me, I personally like people who notice my style, my skill in dressing myself and my talent with colour. I’m good at those things, and as a super fat woman, it’s bloody hard work to source a fabulous wardrobe, I kinda want someone to acknowledge it from time to time. Plus I like to acknowledge other people’s skill in fashion and style for the same reason, but if they ask me not to, I totally respect that.

      • Yeah, I think commenting on someone’s style is cool, if you know the other person appreciates it. After all, it’s creative expression. But if you’re in a social environment where people constantly comment on each other’s clothes and appearance, that kind of sets a standard for how you should dress that I don’t think is very… positive. I think most people who don’t always have the energy to look fabulous would agree that’s an unwelcome pressure. Even if the compliments are well-meant.

        But in the end, this is are ideas for my utopia. A world where there really is no need to look a certain way at all, so that neither body shape nor style would be commented on,
        and no one would feel any worse for it. I know it doesn’t work that way as it is now.

  • *applause* You are so awesome! I love this post and relate to it so much.

    I think for me personally, I’d prefer it if people just stayed away from compliments related to my appearance entirely. They serve as an unpleasant reminder that I’m constantly being judged based on how I look. And since I’ve been fat my whole life, it’s a rare compliment I can just receive and accept without thinking, “Do they mean I look thin? My fat rolls are less prominent? You thought I looked shitty before and now I’ve made a change that makes me more appealing to you??” It’s a minefield. Which sucks, because it’s one more “normal” thing that’s been taken from me by fat phobia. I’d love to be able to hear someone say, “You look nice!” and just roll with it.

  • I have a question to ask on a sort-of related topic; is it OK to ask a stranger where they bought a particular item of clothing? I’m larger than my country’s (New Zealand) plus size shops making nice clothes are really hard to come by. So when I see someone I think may be around my size in something I really like I want to march up to them and ask where they got it… so I can grab one too!

    • I think so, so long as you keep the body commentary out of it. Or to be really safe say “I love your dress, do you mind me asking where you got it?” I know most fatties love to share where to scrounge fashion, since we have so few resources!

  • As someone who gets lots of “shortcalls” (similar to “fatcalls”–every day someone will yell “midget!” “dwarf!” etc at me), I am only complimented when I wear six inch heels–similar to how your patronizing friend only “approves” of your outfit when it’s dark colored or body-covering. So, I personally hate “I love your high heeled shoooeees” or “Can I see your shoes? How tall are you without them? How do you walk in them?” I’ve ruined my feet and legs because of those stupid shoes and I still can’t accept myself without them. The fatosphere has inspired me by proxy to stop trying to get people to accept me and stop trying to mold myself into a body I will never have by hurting my legs (the way fat people hurt themselves through dieting and excessive or unfun exercise). It hasn’t happened yet. I admire all the powerful fat women who stand up to this every day bullshit. I only wish I could have a few choice responses next time someone shortcalls me or obsesses over my goddamn shoes or lack thereof (“how come you’re not wearing heels today? You look so much better with them.”)

    • Ugh Taryn, why can’t people just say “I love your shoes!” if they like your shoes dammit!?

      And next time someone says something about your heels (or stature with/without them), suggest it’s so that you can bite them in the most tender parts when they make rude comments about your height!

  • Is complimenting hair okay? I love to compliment people I see on the street who have done fabulous things with their hair, (dyed it a fantastic color, have it in a really elaborate up do, or have a really neat or interesting cut) and typically go with “I love your hair!” to express it.

    • I don’t do it myself CasualPahoehoe unless I know someone very well. And even then, I usually just say “I love the way you’ve done your hair/I love your hair colour/cut” so that I’m commenting on the ‘do, rather than the type of hair they have. Saying “You have lovely thick hair” privileges people who are lucky enough to have one hair type over another, ya know?

      But that said, as a woman with hot pink hair, it’s nice when people tell me they love the colour of my hair.

      • I usually do only comment on the brightly colored (purple, teal, blue, pink, etc) hair and styles, things that are something that the person has specifically done, but I will keep that in mind!

  • Personally, I love a compliment that relates to me.
    So I would prefer: “That purple is such an amazing colour on you”
    Rather than “I love your purple top”
    I feel that the first compliment sees me; the second one sees my clothes.
    And, of course, it’s totally awesome to have a compliment which is not related to your appearance!

    • That’s OK for you to prefer that kind of compliment Ann, but not everyone does, and it’s not OK to just assume everyone does. It’s always best to play it safe until you know for sure. That’s what not being douchey is about – taking the respectful approach until you get further information.

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