“She’s the hottest thing since The Vietnam War,” said the guy who was courting me. Oh, but he was pointing ahead of us, at one of my best friends, whose beauty and subsequent hotness I can certainly attest to. “What a winning compliment,” I thought to myself, as it managed to confirm his attraction to another woman while still solidifying my attraction to him by way of his strange rhetoric.
Compliments are one of many exchanges in life that trend towards the banal, but have great potential to be completely eccentric. It dawned on me in this moment—on a muggy New York City sidewalk late at night, when the rest of my party was concerning themselves with where to further their intoxication—that there’s been a deficit of normal compliments in my life.
I am not lamenting God’s failure to make me the hot girl, or the beautiful friend here—those facts have been made peace with, courtesy of one B*Witched album and the title track “C’est La Vie.” Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both? Am I right? I’ve happily resigned myself to being attractive to some, intelligent to others, and either a combo meal (or just totally disdainful) to all the rest.
No, I am actually celebrating the spectrum of oddball notes that people have made about my personality and my #visage. If anything, they display a widespread knack for creativity—these interesting comments not simply relegated to the artsy types, but to jocks, or infants, or the many men who seem to straddle both territories. “Sarah says you have a really distinct face,” a male friend once told me about someone he’d introduced me to. “Oh, lovely,” I joked, finding it highly unsatisfactory to my weak self-esteem. “It means you’re hot,” he confirmed, though I was not convinced. What it did mean was probably more like: you’re left-of-center attractive, in like a Meryl-Streep-y, one-of-a-kind-and-definitely-not-everyone’s-cup-of-tea sort of way, but, well, there’s too much going on there for one compliment.
There have also been endless cheekbone odes, which are entirely welcome, even if somewhat strange. While friends receive platitudes about their perfect hair, their long legs, or other, more normative, objects of physical affection, I’ve come to expect metaphorical gymnastics relating to the plump little guys that pillow each side of my face. Both the moon phases (Waxing & Waning Gibbous, anyone?) and a likeness to “that lady in Benjamin Button” are common asides. My cheeks, it would seem, have much to offer the many latent poets of our time—while other areas, like the valley of my non-breasts, go gladly unnoticed.
“I love how you accept compliments with a simple thank you,” a friend once commended me in high school, “You never force a phony one in return.” Perhaps this was true, but it made me insecure about my compliment reception for years afterwards. Should I be more reciprocal? Tell you I like your outfit even when I don’t? Or feverishly deny any favorable notes sent my way, because “modesty”? I had apparently missed the memo re: “This old thing?!” And, at sixteen, I believed that I was living my life along some noble line of capital-T Truth, purely by avoiding strained social niceties, that—it turns out—are a fairly important ingredient to getting by. Lack of social awareness aside, I considered her comment re: me to be the best yet—clinging to it for years’ to come as if it signaled something special (and not simply a lack of effort in making other people feel good about themselves).
See, when you’re not textbook anything (pretty, beautiful, smart) but, rather, an amalgamation of highly specific strains of each, you cling to these unique tidbits to help make you feel some version of whole. You convince yourself such individualism is ideal—whether or not it really is, well that’s ultimately moot. I’ll never be the Marsha Brady of the world, I told (and tell) myself, but at least people are forced to go off autopilot when they address me. You carry around these weirder compliments like Girl Scout badges, you warm yourself with them late at night when it dawns on you that you’ve never been, and never will be, “as hot as The Vietnam War.” “AHA,” you think to yourself as you toss around in that anxious period pre-sleep, “But I receive compliments with less affectation than most! And my cheekbones could slice a birthday cake!”
And these little moments, these oddball comments that aren’t simply regurgitated from tomes like How to Make Friends and Influence People, or a quick “pick-up line” Google search, they help you to feel OKAY in a world that often privileges more cookie cutter characteristics. In the end, they may be equally frivolous, but as the art of complimenting has (finally) taught me well, Truth is overrated.