That time of year to avoid the back-handed compliment

That color makes you look so much... slimmer

That color makes you look so much... taller

Want to know something I’ve never been fond of?  The back-handed compliment.  You know the ones, the little gushing phrases that come out all lilting and appreciative in tone but leave you wondering just moments later if  you weren’t just vocally bitch-slapped instead of given praise. Those thinly or even not even veiled compliments with that insult tucked right inside for convenience in shipping?  Still not ringing any bells?  Wikipedia does a fabulous job explaining but how about some examples? Maybe even some seasonal favorites to mark the coming of (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) of the season of OMG Beach Weather!?

I was going to list a few and then detail how they are offensive but feel that any reader here would likely be very apt at pulling apart the oh-so-subtle nuances hidden beneath such gems as “Black is such a slimming color on you” or “That top does wonders for your figure!”

So perhaps instead you’d like to add to this list of “Please don’t ‘compliment me’ in this way because I’m totally ON to what you really mean” phrases that I’d love to post this time of year as a reminder to friends and family that YES we are all each aware of the little (or large) ways in which our bodies do not conform to that of the Perfect Person.  We don’t need these snide little reminders in the “guise” of helpful little hints (Hey, if I wore more black clothing people might one day not think I’m so FAT!).  No one is fooled; we know this game and have played it for soo long that the record is worn through.  So.  Let’s be clear here: NO MORE back-handed “compliments” please.  I can has REAL compliment or silence from you please?  K tnk bai.

What else have you heard and would like to add to this list of “no-no”s?

  • You clean up pretty nice!
  • The cut of that top (dress, bathing suit, etc) really works with your shape
  • Oh I love that outfit!  I wish I could wear such baggy things.
  • Ooo that looks so good on someone your size/shape/color
  • I think it’s so cool that you’re comfortable with how you look.
  • You look so nice today, I almost didn’t recognize you.
  • You’ve got some make-up on today! You look nice!
  • Wow, you’ve lost all your baby weight!
  • Your hair looks good (insert long pause) today.
  • Hey, you look really cute today.

27 thoughts on “That time of year to avoid the back-handed compliment

  1. There’s that irritating “Hey, she’s got legs!” you get if you don’t normally wear a skirt.

    Oh, and someone once told me I wasn’t ugly because my personality showed through! There’s one to treasure.

  2. I have no problem with “you look cute today”! Some days I look particularly cute. And I say it all the time, when I like people’s outfits — I’ve never had anybody assume (to the best of my knowledge) that I meant it as commentary on anything but their ensemble.

    I hate almost all permutations of “that’s flattering.”

  3. I was watching “Say Yes To The Dress” the other day. The bride is trying on dresses and walks out of the dressing room looking elated in her princess dress. Her sister squaked, “Oooh! I like it! It’s plain and simple just like you!!”

    I would have belted her.

  4. I have to say I disagree with

    “The cut of that top (dress, bathing suit, etc) really works with your shape”

    and its ilk being inherently backhanded. Personally I’m right now really into how different cuts look on different bodies (I sew) and I really love how people look when they wear something that’s truly flattering. Maybe for some people it’s a bitchy thing to say, but some of us really do understand clothing construction and fit and mean something like that genuinely.

  5. I also have no problems with “you look cute today,” but once got “those jeans make your legs look really long.” WTF was wrong with my legs yesterday?

  6. My aunt used to say “I like that dress/hat (or whatever) better than the one you had last year.” Once she said “You shortened that skirt. It looks better than last year.” This was truly ONE WHOLE YEAR after the previous time I was in the same city as she was. These were her generic compliments — nothing to do with body size.

  7. I guess I’m either so egotistical that all compliments are compliments or just dumb enough for the self doubt to kick in.

    Kind of like the misbehaving kid, any attention is good attention. You noticed me, for good or ill, and Ima keep on smilin’.


  8. Hmmm I guess some of the “cute” and “cute for your shape” ones could also be not as abrasive if given in a certain context so maybe I’m just a tad cranky today? 😉

  9. I’m okay with “You clean up pretty nice” since variations on it are standard in the tech industry – meaning “Oh, you’re dressed to highlight your attractiveness today instead of looking like “one of the guys” in jeans and a t-shirt.”

  10. GeekGirlsRule: FWIW when *I* say that, I usually genuinely mean it – and will tend to say it to other women who are e.g. wearing clothing that reveals body hair…

    … except, slightly to my shock, I seem to have started doing exactly that. 🙂

  11. I disagree with you. Nearly all of things you’ve mentioned can be interpreted literally. In fact, they’re things I say and hear from others all the time. I never mean them as insults.

    I see where you’re coming from though. I think anything can sound mean if someone intends it that way.

    Two I’ve recieved recently are “Wow, isn’t it great that you and your partner are still together?” and “Thanks for coming to play this sport with us tonight, you were so much better than I thought you’d be!”

    Both things could be nice, but because of how they were said and the intentions behind them they weren’t.

  12. This may only make sense to those raised, like I, in a certain subculture, but the one that always made me cringe was:

    “You have such a sweet spirit!”

  13. My mother often says, when seeing me in a new item of clothing or with a new haircut, “Oh, wow. I suppose that’s all the rage now.”

    Which I interpret as (a) she doesn’t like it (b) she assumes I don’t like it either but am just following the crowd and (c) she has no idea about me, since if she did she’d know the LAST consideration I would have about what I wear is whether or not it is currently in fashion.

  14. One time a friend said that I looked good in shawls because I was voluptous. Is this because I was hiding my fat effectively? Like all you could see was t and a? I don’t know, but is was a double edged sword to be sure, so insulting.

  15. I don’t have to worry about this because I don’t get any compliments backhanded or otherwise. I guess that’s better?

  16. @fillyjonk I tend to agree. If I’ve taken particular effort with my appearance, it’s nice to know that effort wasn’t wasted. I think, like most back-handed compliments, it’s all in the tone and the timing. A lot of that list could be either sincere or a slap, depending on those cues. And the context.

    There’s a difference between “You look cute today” or the even nicer variants You look especially cute/cuter than usual today” and “You look cute….today.”

  17. I once had a friend who, when I told her I liked her pants, said, “Oh thanks, but they’re a little big on me. [pause] They’d look great on you!”

    I’ve also gotten, “Wow, not everyone could wear that,” which I think may sometimes mean, “No one, including you, should wear that.”

  18. I disagree with you. Nearly all of things you’ve mentioned can be interpreted literally. In fact, they’re things I say and hear from others all the time. I never mean them as insults.

    Ditto. Some cuts and styles work better with some body types. Some colors look better with some hair/skin tones. How is it insulting to acknowledge that?

  19. I had a coworker say to me today, “Wow, your beard is really starting to fill in.” Although she had just got back from 4 days off, Ive been wearing a scraggly beard all winter.

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