The role(s) of appearance

I’d love to get reactions to this two part vignette.  For example, how would you have reacted?  Am I being paranoid?  Etc.

I was recently talking about something with a white, male friend.  He interrupted to say, “before I forget, let me say how great you are looking.  Have you lost weight or something?”

Part One:  it took a while, but I realized after 5 or 10 minutes that in fact I experienced his remark in a way that made it unpleasant, in addition to its linkage with weight.  That is, physical appearance is for me connected to being an acceptable person.  So his remark came over as close to “Let me say you are really looking like an acceptable person.”. With an implication that before i didn’t or I fell below the level one notices.

Part Two:  I explained that I was certainly not alone among women in the US in linking appearance and perceive worth.  I mentioned a recent conversation I’d had with friends who said that they thought one would get better medical care if one turned up to an appointment looking well put together.He then remarked that it seemed we were prepared to dress up in order to get superior service.  I found that pretty irritating.

It may swift and harsh to say that I think he was behaving like a very privileged person who has no idea of the extent to which others’ actions may be shaped by a lack of that privilege, by their imposition of their values, etc.


Do know that though I am reporting how I reacted, these aren’t considered reactions that end with firm beliefs.  Except maybe the stuff about privilege.

10 thoughts on “The role(s) of appearance

  1. Were you upset because his question was presumptuous or, at least, asked inappropriately out of context? You seem to suggest that the issue was not really his voicing of the “compliment” but his even having the thought.

    Does this also suggest that in your view, men aren’t supposed to notice a woman’s appearance–because a (straight) man’s degree of interest in a woman is not infrequently linked to her appearance? But wouldn’t the fact that he had already been your friend imply that he values you and your friendship anyway? Or were you offended by the implication that, from his perspective, you previously had not been looking so “great”?

    Why suspect that if he didn’t before find you great looking, he somehow hadn’t regarded you generally as “an acceptable person”? After all, he was still your friend–so he clearly appreciated you as a person. Did you also want him to have previously “noticed” you in expressly physical terms? If not, were you upset to discover that he was aware enough of you in those terms to make a before-and-after comparison?

    Your friend’s remark seems less about “values” than about a lapse of social grace. He should not have voiced his speculation about your weight–whether or not that factored into what he saw.

  2. Next time you interact, tell him he really should work out a little more, he’s getting rather flabby. Repeat in various iterations three or four times throughout the conversation.

  3. I’m curious whether you believe you would have reacted differently in part 1 if your friend had been female rather than male.

    For me, almost everything about the part 1 vignette would depend on more context than you’ve given. If it was a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, if the interruption occurred near the beginning of the conversation, if everything else about the conversation indicated that he was fully attending to what I was saying and engaged with the conversation, that would all make it less objectionable. If it was somebody I see frequently, if the interruption occurred in the middle of the conversation, if I was in the process of making a substantive or complex point when interrupted, than that would feel more derailing or undermining.

    The pairing “you’re looking great/have you lost weight” is problematic in its own right, regardless of anything else, because of the cultural narrative it reflects & reinforces.

    The part 2 vignette sounds more like somebody trying to score conversational points than seriously engage with the content. (Except in conversations that were already structured around that kind of market-based analysis.)

  4. You’re not being paranoid. Talk of weight and “looking good” in the same breath often carries with it the implicit notion that, the less you weigh, the better you look. And so if losing weight is one of the first things that comes to mind when someone suddenly “looks good”, then it’s not so unreasonable to wonder if gaining weight (or having previously been heavier) is an automatic way to have not looked so good.

    And if you have to have seemed to have lost weight in order to merit a comment from someone about your appearance, then ya, even though they don’t mean to, they are sending the message that your body maybe wasn’t worth commenting on / complementing in its previous (i.e. heavier) form. It’s a shitty thing to imply to a friend. And it’s an association that is so embedded in how we think about bodies, that we throw it around all the time without realizing that really, it is a backhanded compliment at best.

    A large number of factors goes into attractiveness and “looking good.” Therefore, if someone cites one specific factor when saying you look good, they are making a relative claim. They’re not saying “you look good.” They’re saying “you look BETTER, because of X”. They are implicitly encouraging you (whether they mean to or not) to keep on Xing, because you are aesthetically more pleasing than when you were non-Xing.

    (possible suppressed premise: it’s our womanly duty to look as aesthetically pleasing as we can. So yay, go you, by looking better, you are fulfilling your womanly potential.)

    Moreover, when that particular Xing carries with it the association that non-Xing signifies that you are making yourself more unhealthy, undesirable, oh showing evidence that you have shitty willpower and discipline, ya….that’s problematic. We probably all do it to some degree with fatness. I know I still catch myself making those associations. But it’s problematic.

    And it makes “You look great; have you lost weight?” into a back-handed complement.

    Oh, and it ALSO implies that how you look is the most important thing connected to your change in weight–as opposed to other things that could be involved, such as, oh I dunno, the onset of illness or an increase in chronic stress. I mean really, who cares WHY you lost weight. Because now you look great! So it must be a net gain for you!

    So no, you’re not being paranoid or overreacting. You’re being observant that often how we talk about weight, even to people we care about and love, is fucked up.

    Seriously. If you had acne, and then it cleared up, and a friend said, “Hey, you look great!” and then added, “Did you get rid of that acne?” Um, ya, that’s a decently fucked up compliment. It would be reasonable to think that the person who said it is either a frienemy or has -20 social intelligence.
    (Oh right, but that’s because it’s not really our fault for getting acne. Just bad luck. So it’s bad form to remind someone that something out of their control made them look not so great. But being fat is just from us “letting ourselves go,” so obvs it’s nice to compliment people now that they’re displaying a more appropriate amount of willpower and self-discipline.”)

  5. I guess I’m known for being a “bright” or bold dresser. A few weeks ago I came into the office when the season noticeably changed from summer to fall, and I was wearing one of my standard ‘fall’ outfits (which involves brown pants, and a green ruffled shirt). TWO people (man and a woman) commented on how I seemed off–something seemed wrong. And then they noted that my clothing wasn’t as vibrant as usual.

    A week later, it happened again. That time I finally drew attention to what was happening.

    I think what’s important is to recognize that the social pressures to notice women’s appearance are so strong and so engrained that even feminists engage in the practice problematically (hell, I’m sure I’ve done it too!).

  6. To be clear, Rachel, the problematic aspect of your encounters was not merely that your colleagues noticed your appearance, it was that this noticing was linked to negative comments (like something being off, and you being dressed less vibrantly than usual), correct? I ask to clarify only because I think there is space to genuinely compliment one’s colleagues on their appearances. Although, admittedly, this space is small: I tend to only compliment close colleagues when I am certain that they would not think that in so complimenting I prioritize their appearance over their intellectual worth.

  7. Rachel (and others), I am particularly interested in looking at factors that are putting pressure on women (trans or not). And, to follow up on Rachel, the pressure is not simply a matter of what Foot sometimes called ‘competition examples,’ where the criteria for a good one are quite arbitrary. Sometimes important traits at shows are connected to health or performance, but a lot are not. Having a few dark lines around a leg may rule out the siamese cat as a show cat, but it doesn’t make it an inferior siamese, unless we’ve lost perspective. But clothes, hair cu t, weight, cleanliness can be thought to show a woman’s real value.

    The question about men’s vs women’s attitudes is very tricky. About 8 months ago we had a post on the different ways men amd women look at women. Men tend to see women in terms of sexual parts, while women see women more as a whole, and not an assemblage of parts. Still, if a woman is relevantly more powerful/influential than the observed woman, she might be grading her bit by bit.

    I think saying may be more significant than thinking, but here as elsewhere I could certainly be wrong. Saying may amount to announcing one’s worth in a public market place.

    Anyway, please don’t hesitate to disagree.

  8. Simone: I agree that there’s space, and that it’s small. Certainly, I’ve found those spaces to compliment a colleague’s shoes (my most recent comment) or whatever. I think one way we can create those spaces is when we’ve already moved past greetings. Something like, “And by the way, I *love* your shoes” is usually fine. But a greeting accompanied–or, in Anne’s case, interrupted!–by a comment on appearance often isn’t.

    I recall running into a colleague at the P-APA this year. We hadn’t seen each other for a year (he knew me pre-transition, and we last met shortly after my transition), and at first he didn’t recognize me at the P-APA when I said ‘Hi.’ When he did, he said, “Oh, Rachel! Hi! You look great!”

    Now the attributional ambiguity kicks into high gear: why’s he saying that? And setting that question aside: why is that an appropriate thing to say?

    Anne: Have you seen my paper on stereotype threat and attributional ambiguity? Might be relevant to your interest in the “pressures” put on women.

  9. Rachel, I think I hear it? In the UK? If that is not the paper, please let me know where I might find it.

    I should say that I think I have a pretty good grasp on experiencing the pressure, but I wanted to see if others felt they would feel unhappy at the comments. Attributional ambiguity sounds v. interesting.

  10. Ah, you would have heard the very condensed version. It’s forthcoming in Hypatia. Here’s the pre-typeset version:

    I even very briefly touch on social pressures for trans* patients to dress according to dated binaristic gender stereotypes in order to access care (e.g., trans women who don’t dress like gender clinic doctors expect women–or men, for trans men–to look might be turned away as not being “really” trans). And yes, this still happens, although less frequently than even 5-10 years ago.

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