Brand building through storytelling

The compliment conundrum

So here’s this impossibly gorgeous young actress. Most photogenic face since Marilyn Monroe, says the magazine I’m reading. And that body! What’s her notion of beauty, the writer wants to know. Her own beauty in particular.

Okay, so it’s not the most penetrating question. What stops me is the answer. The actress starts to babble about “typical female insecurity: ‘I’m too fat for all my clothes and I look like a turd onscreen.'”

Oh, please. If you look like a turd, honey, then where does that leave the rest of us? But it’s not just exasperation that makes me throw down the magazine; it’s also a nagging, complicated sadness. Even the most radiant among us are prisoners of the beauty imperative; that much I’ve known since my achingly lovely high school friend Ruth used to swivel in front of the full-length mirror and sigh, “My bum’s so big, you could set a tea table on it.”

Fat was only part of what she feared. The other part was the envy of less enchanting girls like me. In her company, I felt like a gnat beside a Monarch butterfly. Boys flocked to her; they never noticed me. One day I punished her for this. “You know, Ruth,” I said, “you’re really quite a trivial person.”

Forty years have passed since my high school graduation. Yet there’s a high school of the mind that’s not quite so easy to escape. It has two defining features: an urge to fit in and a horror of the jealousy that comes with standing above the crowd in any way whatsoever. When the gorgeous young actress lamented her looks, I’ll bet her brain was back in some cinderblock hallway full of clanging locker doors and spiteful teenage critics. The turd comment translates as “Hey, give me a break. You think I’m full of myself, but I’m just like you.”

My face has never drawn comparisons to Hollywood icons, but I’ve had my share of compliments through the years. And like a good many women—including the actress—I’ve been known to babble inanely when one comes my way. On the outside, I’m a poised grownup woman. On the inside, I sometimes revert to high school.

I learned this the hard way at a party, when a former classmate remarked on my dress. “Sensational,” she called it. “I found it in the back of the closet,” I murmured. “It’s so old, I had to take out the shoulder pads.” Meaning: I’m not a stuck-up clotheshorse who’s on intimate terms with the personal shoppers at Holt’s. She fixed me with a motherly glare, as if I were six years old and had been caught chewing Christmas turkey with my mouth open. Then she gave me a piece of her mind: “There’s just one thing you need to say, Rona. The right thing to say is ‘Thank you.'”

Compliments, for women, are a bonding ritual. I’ve never seen a man exclaim at a colleague’s choice of tie, but women delight in making small talk about every cool bag or jacket that catches our fancy. With approving comments about other women’s taste, we bring a sense of comfort to the most unlikely places—elevators, checkout lines and crowded subway cars. The real topic isn’t fashion, but trust. We’re saying, in code, “I’m on your side.”

Hillary Clinton, who has a trust problem with a segment of women voters, was recently interviewed by a female TV host in snazzy gold shoes. Said Hillary, “Boy, do they look fabulous.” Of course, my classmate wasn’t trolling for votes when she admired my dress. She just wanted to affirm our old connection.

So why had I blathered on about shoulder pads? False modesty, pure and simple. I wanted to fit in, to avoid the merest sign of a swelled head. And I’m not alone.

Ego is the ultimate female sin. Have you been to any awards dinners lately? Chances are you’ve noticed something. A male honoree ascends to the podium like a king to the throne. A woman tends to act as if she wandered up there by mistake and can’t wait to get back to her rightful place on the sidelines. A man basks in the glory of the moment. A woman frets about all the other folks who, as she tells it, should be standing at the podium instead. So what’s the selection committee, chopped liver?

When you stop to think about it, there’s a whiff of arrogance in a compliment brushed off or an honour deflected. I remember a phone call from an acquaintance, Margaret, who wanted to talk about the YWCA Woman of Distinction Awards. The deadline was coming up for nominations, and she thought I deserved an award.

I had a slew of reasons why I didn’t—and a long list of women I considered more worthy. I was writing magazine articles then; other women were advocating for breast cancer patients and starting shelters for the abused. How could my track record stand beside theirs? Who did I think I was? Margaret wouldn’t back down. “Articles you’ve written have changed women’s lives,” she said.

I tried to put myself in Margaret’s place. Suppose I called one of the supposedly more deserving women, and heard from her what Margaret was hearing from me. I’d feel that she was questioning my judgment, rejecting my belief in her. When someone offers you a gift, it’s just plain rude to say no. “Okay,” I said at last. “Let’s go for it.”

Woman Of Distinction CropWe did, and I eventually won the award. Over time, so did the women who had struck me as more deserving. The podium was plenty big enough for us all.

I used to believe that one woman’s blessing had to be another woman’s loss. It seemed that way back in high school, when there was never enough status or allure to go around. In high school we competed for crumbs, but I’ve found that adult life is a feast, with countless ways for a woman to light up the table. That’s why I like telling others what’s special about them—and why, at long last, I like hearing what’s special about me.

Posted by Rona

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