Approximately two out of four women suffer from the epidemic known as Compliment Cynicism, a common condition that makes it very difficult for those afflicted to successfully take a compliment. Maybe it's a weird expression of our self-doubt, a side-effect from our attempts to both coexist with and break beauty standards or some lingering PTSD from Regina George in Mean Girls, but a lot of us confront our complimenters with caution. Overanalyzing flattery always feels a little neurotic, but compliments aren't always what they seem. They can be disingenuous. They can be thinly-veiled insults. Even worse, they can become unexpected outlets for our insecurity.
When was the last time a conversation left you wondering if the compliment you received was actually a compliment or just a frenemy put down ambush? All compliments are not created equal, and sometimes what remains unsaid during sweet talk is a lot more truthful. But there's also something to be said for giving people the benefit of the doubt. After all, is it so hard to believe that someone might actually be nice? Sometimes, it is. No matter how you look at it, compliments — the one thing we should be able to accept at face value and feel good about — bring out a lot of weird behavior in all of us. Everyone has endured the aftershock of a complicated compliment, and chances are you've wondered about the true meaning of the compliments below.
The Compliment: "You look so different with straight hair!"
Translation: "I had no idea your hair could look this good!"
If you proudly wear your hair curly most days and walk into the office with a blowout one morning, people are going to take notice. It always feels good when other people acknowledge your styling efforts, but sometimes the resulting hubbub of a different hairstyle makes you wonder why the usual hair you love just as much doesn't get the same reaction. Perhaps people who always do their hair get used to these comments, but if you're an occasional hair styler, the "looking different" remark feels like a subtle diss toward your natural hair.
The Compliment: "Most people look bad with short hair, but yours is actually cute!"
Translation: "Most people look bad with short hair, including you."
Compliments that start with sweeping generalizations like, "Most people," always set off alarms. What does "most people" even mean? Does that translate to 60 percent of the population, or closer to 86 percent? Of all the things girls with short hair are tired of hearing, being reminded how few people can successfully pull off their chosen look has to be near the top of the list. Avoid joining forces with the "Most People" police, and never question your beauty choices using someone else's suspicious statistics.
The Compliment: "Your lips are so bright! I couldn't pull that off during daytime."
Translation: "Your makeup is inappropriate."
Ah, the conditional "time of day" compliment. As if wearing bright lipstick wasn't tricky enough, the comments other people make about your boldest beauty choices are often less than charitable. This skepticism-inducing brand of sweet talk always pertains to the one aspect of your look that makes you both proud and uncertain. Maybe it's a smokey eye that got a little darker than expected, and after a lengthy debate in the mirror over whether you should start from scratch, you opted to rock your look to brunch. The worst part about these types of compliments is that they make you question your own judgment, and they perpetuate the silly notion that you shouldn't ignore makeup rules.
The Compliment: "You look so much younger!"
Translation: "You normally look older than you are, and that's a bad thing."
Compliments about looking younger are a messy minefield of ickyness. "You look younger" compliments always seem safe because our society is obsessed with youth, but we should be more skeptical about both giving and receiving this type of flattery. Beauty exists at every age — just look at how "granny chic" is trending again, with women proudly rocking silver hair and wearing socks with heels. Beyond the thorny issue of equating being older with being less fierce, when you hear that some aspect of your look is making you appear younger, you can't help but wonder how often you might appear to be older than you are. And what if you weren't trying to look younger? There are so many more tactful compliments we could give that don't evoke the weird fountain of youth psychology.
The Compliment: "Wow! I didn't even recognize you without makeup!"
Translation: "You should always wear makeup to be noticed."
As a society, can we come to an agreement that women don't look exactly the same with and without makeup on? It's not a bad thing, and in the war between which looks better — how a woman looks with makeup versus how a woman looks without makeup — there is no supreme victor. If a woman wears perfect winged eyeliner every day, of course she's going to look different if she decides to step out without it, but I kind of doubt her naked eyes obscure her identity to the point of no recognition. Makeup can be a lovely component to a woman's identity, but there's nothing kind about the suggestion she needs it to be recognizable.
The Compliment: "That selfie you posted yesterday was gorgeous."
Translation: "You look better in your pictures on Instagram than in person."
Compliments about how you look in pictures are a double-edged sword. Deep down, we all want 100 likes, but when someone gushes about how great you look in a selfie, you can't help but wonder why you aren't getting the same feedback about how you look in person. It never feels good wondering if you have to rely on a Valencia filter to look your best, so could we make an effort to be as sweet to each other in person as we are when we're posting the dancing twinsies emoji on Instagram? Our #NoFilter Instagram pics and our #NoFilter actual appearance deserve love, too.
The Compliment: "I wish I could just go out without my hair or makeup done like you do."
Translation: "You're so lucky you don't mind looking like that in public."
Even if you're perfectly comfortable with the amount of effort you put into your look, this "compliment" always stings. There are plenty of reasons why women wear makeup, but there are also many equally legitimate reasons why the same women might choose to embrace a more simple beauty routine. When confronted with compliments that are casually dismissive of your appearance, remember that style always comes down to personal choice. Opting for a simple bun doesn't make you less of a woman than your friend who successfully powered through a cool waterfall braid. Live and let every woman be beautiful in her own way, whether it's using her face as her canvas or braving the world barefaced.
Images: Fotolia; Giphy