“But It’s a Compliment!”: How to Tell When “That Line” Has Been Crossed

Warning: Big post.  The biggest I’ve written.  On a very serious topic.  And it’s also has some feminism, too. 

Last Monday, on the eleventh of August, I ate dim sum with my friends from high school, who I haven’t seen in ages.  With my stomach full of tender shumai, sweet pork buns, and all the delicious Chinese awesomeness that you can think of, we tried to think of what we wanted to do next.  My friend suggested we visit the huge library downtown, and of course, being the like minded, bright young women we are, we go giddy at the thought.  With my girls with me, my stomach stuffed with dim sum, wearing my new shirt and new jeans, and visiting the beautiful library, I was feeling pretty good that day.

So, we take the bus there.  We’re all lined up on one side, and I am near the end.  And a woman sitting next to me gets off, and a man takes her place.  As he sits down, I do the polite thing by giving him some room, scooting over a bit by an inch so that my purse doesn’t get in his way.  I’d developed that habit by riding the bus at the university I go to.  Many times, I’ve had it happen where my stuff is pinned underneath the person next to me, only to result in embarrassment for both of us as I ask them to move.

But at the same time, I register that it’s a man sitting beside me.  Being a woman, I can’t help my guard go up a tick.

When I do this shift of my purse and jacket, the man must sense my discomfort, because he tells me with a small laugh, “I only sat next to you because you’re so beautiful, you see.”

I don’t comment back, but my mouth twitches in a wry smirk to match his chuckling involuntarily.  Yeah, right, I think.

At this point, I haven’t made eye contact with him.   I know he’s been standing on the bus hanging on to the rail, waiting for a seat.  I know that he’s on the bus with me.  But that’s all that I need to know.  I don’t need to make eye contact with him at all.  I’m not being rude to him in the slightest.  I acknowledge his presence when I shift a little to the side.  I have somewhere I need to be with my friends.  I don’t have to give him my eye contact just because he’s complimented me.

“How are you?” he asks.

“Fine.  You?” I answer.  And I answer because I was raised to be polite.

“Good,” he says.

And that’s that.

He doesn’t say another word to me.  And for the rest of the ride, I don’t look at him.  I turn to peer down the bus to chat with my friends, not looking at him.  I’m not interested in further contact with him, and he doesn’t pursue any further contact with me.

I get off the bus with my friends heading to the library, and that’s the last I see of him.  Relief hits me.

And you might be thinking one or more of these things:

Oh, my God! He sexually harassed you! You should have totally reported him!


Well, that was a nice thing for him to say.  What are you so upset about?


Thank goodness.  I’m glad that didn’t escalate into anything nasty.

To all of these thoughts, I have multiple things to say.

Sexual harassment is bad.  And it’s bad for everyone.  The victims and the perpetrators.  Nobody is going to lie or debate that.  Unwanted touching, unwanted comments—nobody likes those.  Nobody.  And nobody likes it when one group has unwanted power over another group.  This is what sexual harassment gives to those who harass others—the feeling that they can do and say whatever they want to another person and not get caught.

However, sexual harassment becomes a not-so-clear issue when those of us retort: “But it was just a compliment! I can’t give you a compliment? What if I genuinely think that you’re beautiful?”

Well, then… to that, I say thank you, and move along with my day.  If you genuinely think I’m beautiful, or another woman is beautiful, that’s cool.  Because I think I’m a strong, beautiful, respectful woman, too.   All women are, and should be made to feel that way at all times.  And when I say that they should be made to feel beautiful at all times, I’m not saying every man should say, “Hello.  I think you’re beautiful.”  That’s not the only way of making a woman feel beautiful.  In fact, saying nothing at all works just as well.  No one needs to be told that they’re beautiful to feel beautiful.  It’s not a requirement.

But just be mindful that if you do tell a woman they’re beautiful when you’ve never met them before, you’re treading on very thin ice.

The problem that comes between sexual harassment and complimenting someone is that beauty is no longer in the hands of the one being complimented, but in the “other”—the man, the coworker, the advertiser, the slut shamer.  Western society portrays the message that if we wear such and such clothing or don’t sleep with such and such men or take such and such diet pills, we’ll be happier, because we meet the approval of others who want us to have less power in expressing ourselves, when in fact, in most cases, the only one you need approval from is yourself.  While it’s true that our appearance displays a lot of information at one time, such as our socioeconomic background or profession, even then, you can’t assume everything.   I might be wearing a pencil skirt one day because I want to try out wearing pencil skirt, but more than likely, it’s not because I want to have a relationship with a man.  I might wear my hair in an afro, but that’s because I want to take care of my hair in its natural state instead of flat-ironing it, not because I’m “loose,” “easy,” or “carefree”.  I actually consider myself to be very serious, thoughtful person by default.

Saying “you’re beautiful” also doesn’t carry much weight anymore, because several cruel, power-hungry people try to use compliments as a means of lowering their victim’s defensive walls, which are already high due to the fact that the world is, sadly, a dangerous place.  When the man that sat on the bus next to me said he did it because I was beautiful, I questioned whether or not he was genuine, because I know flattery is sometimes the sign of a manipulator.

What really makes it sad is that good, well-meaning men and women can compliment, too, which makes it harder to spot the good from the bad.

Yet there is one way to tell who are the ones that you don’t need to worry about or report:

They’re respectful.

They respect your existence.  They acknowledge your boundaries—what’s okay, what’s not okay.  They’re just polite.  No fuss.  No muss.  They’re just respectful.

If you want to tell someone they’re beautiful, tell them.  Politely, of course, with, “Excuse me,” and all the other necessary words.  Don’t follow it up with “Can I have your number?”  That makes you look sleazy and manipulative.  Don’t say, “I think you’ve got beautiful legs”.  That makes you look like you objectify people, which also makes you look sleazy, manipulative, and creepy. Don’t do it when you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, because there might be someone next to them that doesn’t find the compliment welcoming and may get suspicious.  The world unfortunately doesn’t change ultra-fast.  Just tell them, respectfully, they’re beautiful, and that’s all. Then leave.  Don’t ask for anything in return, because when people ask for things in return, it shows that they’re selfish and inconsiderate.

There are some people in this world that have the ability to take your breath way.  Don’t make them clench their fists and question whether or not to punch you by yelling at them and saying, “Hey, Beautiful.”  Beautiful is not a name.  It’s an adjective.  Using the word “beautiful” in that way is disrespectful, especially towards strangers, because it turns the person into a concept, an idea.  The word “beautiful” being used in place of a name erases who they are and turns them into an object characterized solely by their physical appearance rather than their merits or their personality.  It tells the stranger that you’re not willing to get to know them on a deeper level, and that you’re looking for shallow, surface contact rather than diving into the intricacies of their human nature.

It’s disrespectful.

This is why, after sitting down and considering it, I now realize that the man that sat on the bus next to me in that moment was one of the good guys, and that I may have judged him too soon.  While it would have been best if he said nothing at all, he could have been a lot worse.  Probably sensing my concern that he was sitting next to me, and was aware of how women react to men in close proximity, he told me in a non-offensive manner that I was beautiful.  He asked me how I was.  And then, he stopped it at that.  He respected my space, and that I didn’t want to talk to him at that moment.  Nothing to worry about.

He didn’t cross my line.  Had he touched me inappropriately or referred to me as “gorgeous” or any other manner of unwanted contact, he would have crossed it, and I would have had to tell him, politely, to stop.  I wouldn’t punch him or shoot him with pepper spray.  I’m not that aggressive of a person, and I don’t believe that fire puts out fire.

Which brings me to the point of how everyone is different.  There are all kinds of women and men out there.   Everyone has different levels of comfort with strangers and others’ opinions.  Some of them welcome what others call “harassment,” and find it boosts reaffirms their beauty and sexuality, encouraging them to be more promiscuous.  And their promiscuity is none of my business, because… well… it just isn’t.  I’m not going to shame another person for their sexuality, because I’d be just as cruel and manipulative as those who would think to harass me.

There are also others that get harassed to the point where they’re tired of even the simplest compliment, which is very sad.  But to them, that is their reality, and their comfort level with strangers.  Some people are just not trustworthy of others, and that’s okay.  Sad, but okay.  We can’t force them to open up unless they want to open up.

It saddens me that I live in a world where I have to be defensive at all times.  I hope that the children of the future aren’t raised to feel that way, or to make someone else feel like less of a human being than they are.  And while I realize I’m thinking idealistically, and that even utopias have their drawbacks, I know it can’t hurt to dream.

After all, I do it all the time.  I’m not  “Hey, Gorgeous.”  I’m not “Nice legs!”

I’m a writer.  I’m a dreamer.

I’m beautiful, no matter what anyone says.  And if they compliment me in a respectful manner, even better.


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