Every woman has, most likely at one point or another, been the target and/or the perpetrator of an if-but-for “compliment.”
They’re a standard among women when it comes to talking about other women. It gives them an excuse to make commentary about and pass judgment on someone’s body without the guilt of an obvious insult. These statements are often dressed up as compliments and/or well-meaning advice then the if-but-for clause is slipped in, almost as an afterthought. And they don’t discriminate. They are said between family members and friends about one another. They’re relied on to discuss women in the media and on the big screen. Even complete strangers feel comfortable talking about other complete strangers in this manner. They are said in private, behind backs, and sometimes, directly to the person.
Here are a few examples of each usage, all overheard in public, said to me about someone else, or said about me:
“Wouldn’t she be gorgeous if she didn’t have all those tattoos?”
“You’d be such a beautiful girl if you grew your hair out long.”
“Have you tried acne medication? You’d be even prettier if your face cleared up.”
“She has a nice face. Imagine how beautiful she’d be if she wore some makeup.”
“She’s overweight but at least she has a pretty face.”
“She’s a pretty girl but why does she have to dress like a boy?”
“She used to be a man? But he’s a prettier woman than I am!”
“She’s pretty but way too thin; she needs to eat a cheeseburger.”
“She’s pretty for a black girl.”
“She’s pretty for a chubby girl.”
“She’s pretty for an older woman.”
“She’s pretty for a lesbian. I couldn’t even tell she was gay.”
Do you see a trend? Most of these statements have the undertones of a compliment but are wrapped up in a thinly veiled insult. Many women have this idea that they can say whatever they want about another woman’s appearance as long as they use some equivalent of ‘pretty’ inside the judgment. It allows them to be racist, to body shame, to perpetuate stereotypes without the usual ramifications associated with such behavior. “I was just giving her a compliment” is a go-to excuse when they get called out.
I think at the heart of these statements is an attempt to define a woman’s beauty by your own personal beauty ideals. And it probably isn’t even your opinion of what beauty should look like, but one that you’ve borrowed from society without even realizing it. Think about the ideal woman as defined by today’s media: young, white, cisgendered, straight, thin but curvaceous, dressed feminine, long hair, clear skin, made-up to minimize ‘imperfections’. When you use an if-but-for statement, you’re buying into that societal construct. You’re telling the recipient that she doesn’t meet one of those particular standards. Then, in some cases, you follow it up by giving her a way in which she can remedy whatever it is you find problematic: lose weight, cover up her tattoos, dress more feminine, grow out her hair. Chances are, she’ll take it to heart. She’ll think of ways she can change this perceived flaw. And if it’s something she can’t change (her race, her sexual orientation, her age, etc), she’ll internalize the negative message you’ve put forth – that she’s pretty when compared to a group who isn’t seen as conventionally attractive but will never come close to obtaining the ideal beauty standard set forth by society. She will make long term goals, some of which may be drastic or unhealthy, in order to better fit your mold. Best case? The shame passes until the next time someone decides to point out something that’s wrong with her. Worst case? She picks up some detrimental habits, acquires a mental health disorder as a result, defines herself as a ‘less-than’ part of society, or takes your ‘advice’ and changes herself needlessly.
This needs to stop. Women have a hard enough time fighting against the beauty standard without pushing these ideals onto one another. Instead of comparing every single person you come in contact with against a borrowed societal construct of beauty, look at the individual and celebrate her for who she is outside of that norm. Compliment the things that set her apart from those societal ideals, maybe even things you thought she should change about herself upon first glance. Easier yet, the next time you’re tempted to use an if-but-for clause in your ‘compliment,’ omit it. You’re left with something simple and beautiful: “She’s pretty.” That’s enough. Why add a caveat?
Fixing this problem goes beyond changing your own language. Don’t enable the people in your life to talk about other women this way. It doesn’t have to be a fight every time someone makes a statement like this, but there are steps you can take to make them question the behavior. Something as simple as kindly disagreeing – “I think she’s pretty just the way she is” – is a good start and may spark a discussion as a result. If you don’t have a problem being more direct, you can ask follow-up questions – why would she be prettier with long hair; why does she need to wear makeup; why is she ‘pretty for a black girl?’ Are you saying that black women aren’t attractive? Chances are, you’ll be met with a blank stare. People don’t really know why they think the way they do about beauty. It’s so ingrained that certain traits are and aren’t desirable in a woman, that we often don’t question their validity.
Perhaps the hardest step to take in eliminating these damaging anti-compliments is to speak up when they are directed at you. I know from experience that it’s easier to take it with a smile to show it doesn’t hurt. Or even to say something to make them think you’re working toward their opinion as a goal. You don’t have to yell, you don’t have to be rude (but you can be, they are technically insulting you, after all) but you should say something. Better yet, tell them you feel insulted and watch them try to backpedal in order to make it sound better (it’s pretty hilarious when this happens). Stick up for your own standards. It’s okay to like what you like, to be who you are, to fall outside the beauty standard, to feel good about yourself even if others don’t like it.
Most of all, don’t let these anti-compliments get to you. If you do, if you make it a point to change every time someone has an if-but-for thing to say about you, you’ll end up more them than you. You’ll become an amalgamation of ingrained beauty standards instead of your own unique blend of what makes you special.