How to Recognize a Backhanded Compliment

Ah, the backhanded compliment. The most clichéd version of this comment may be,“Your face is so pretty, if you just lost some weight….” But there are a million variations, from subtle comments about your hair or clothes, to out of line judgments poorly mitigated with a verbal winky face. It can be difficult to figure out if such awkward “compliments” are truly insults in disguise (sometimes not very good disguises), or if they can offer constructive ways to make yourself feel better about your appearance.Often, the differences are subtle and come down to who’s saying them and what their intentions are. How would you interpret and react to these situations?Situation #1You just moved to the town where your sister lives. With her help, you joined her family’s golf club. You play a little golf, but you really joined for the social opportunities, and to meet new people in your new home. Tonight you’re all going together to a summer cookout at the club so you got dressed in your favorite cute shorts, top and flip-flops. When you walk out to her car, your sister says, “It’s a bit more formal than that—can you please change into something a little nicer?”Situation #2You have been putting in long hours at work in the hope of impressing your supervisor with your latest project. It pays off and she invites you to accompany her to a meeting about the project with several other high-level supervisors. As you’re discussing the agenda, she mentions that you will feel more comfortable at the meeting if you wear something more conservative than your usual work style. You’re tempted to reply that you want to be judged for your work not your fashion, but you value her support and figure that wouldn’t be the most prudent response.Situation #3You’re hanging out with a few friends and conversation turns to style. Before you know it, they’ve decided to give you a makeover. After some time, you find yourself with a new hair and makeup style, and wearing an outfit of borrowed clothing that is quite different from your own. Some of the changes you like, and some you don’t, but your friends are all saying that you look amazing.Situation #4As told by writer Robin Kurth in her article “My ‘Naked’ Truth,” you are a very fit 59-year-old woman. After dating a seemingly wonderful 55-year-old man for a while, you ask him why he fends off your approaches to intimacy. He bluntly tells you that he isn’t attracted to your 59-year-old body because he has “spoiled” himself with younger women. The good news, he continues, is that you can now employ strategies (like undressing in the dark, wearing certain stockings and clothes) that will help him get past your appearance so you can still have an intimate relationship. Hell no, you tell him, and you try to heal your battered self-confidence.These different scenarios probably evoke different responses—likely depending on the source of the comment, and the reason for saying it. For example, the first and second stories seem to at least be positively motivated and without malice. Taking it personally will get you nowhere—while taking it to heart could get you new friends, or a promotion. The fourth example, of the dating couple, is clearly reprehensible (and I secretly hope that karma brings him similar commentary from a younger woman). No debate there.But the makeover is a little more difficult to predict. You may feel criticized and like your friends are ganging up on you, or it may be good-natured and fun. It depends on the dynamics of the friendships and the baseline of your self-esteem. If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these comments, and you’re trying to decide if it was a compliment, “constructive criticism,” or an insult in disguise, think about these considerations but don’t be afraid to trust your instincts. If you feel that you’re the butt of a joke or the target of body shaming or some other form of bullying, you should definitely ignore the comment. If the same person creates such situations repeatedly and you can’t end the relationship (e.g., employment), you may want to consider calmly confronting the behavior and sharing your perceptions. If it’s not a necessary relationship and the behavior doesn’t stop, it’s probably time to find new friends. Real friends should build you up, not tear you down.MORE: No Mirrors for a Year. Could You Do It?

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