Unsolicited: Why do we comment on other people’s appearances?

I’m no stranger to having people make comments about the way I look. Whether it’s being described as a ‘pixie gone wrong’, told I have a ‘moderately unusual face’ or informed that I have gained/lost my adolescent puppy fat, I’ve had my fair share of unsolicited comments. I’ve come to terms with the way I look (some people dig it, some people don’t) but I’m intrigued about what it is that drives people to make negative comments about other’s appearances.

When I first decided to ask my friends about their experiences with unsolicited comments, I was expecting to get a lot of amusing anecdotes about some truly terrible people. However, the responses I got were far more diverse and complex than I was expecting. Some were downright heartbreaking.

‘Smile sweetheart! You’d be so much prettier if you smiled’ 

One of the most common things shared with me was being approached by a stranger and being told to smile. This is something I’ve experienced myself on multiple occasions and it’s something that I’m always perplexed by.

‘It can’t be that bad love, you could at least smile!’

I mean, why do I need to be smiling when I’m photocopying at work or picking out vegetables or walking down the street?

‘When I worked as a bartender strangers would constantly tell me to smile more. And would imitate my face (sadface, apparently) and then would mime me smiling and give me thumbs up.’

I noticed a bit of a trend when it came to the people who were being told to smile. Although there were somewhat more women who reported this kind of comment than men (more women shared their experiences with me generally), it wasn’t quite as simple as being a purely gendered issue. Women were just as likely to tell a person to smile as men. From the responses I got, it seemed as though the people who were being told to smile the most were people who had worked in hospitality and retail: areas of work where casual staff are almost twice as likely to be female as they are male.

‘you should smile when you’re at work’

This got me thinking that maybe there is an element of power involved. The customer is the one with the money, the customer is always right and the customer wants to see you earn those dollars with a smile on your face and song in your heart. However it’s not just how you hold your face that can attract negative comments.

‘Do you wear makeup?’
‘No, not really.’
‘You should.’

Women are often subject to what I like to think of as the makeup paradox: where you’re expected to wear while simultaneously appearing as though you’re not wearing makeup. Too much or too little is open season for criticism.

‘the one day I used mascara, she called me out for being vain. I can’t win.’

Studies show that wearing makeup can contribute to women earning more and appear more competent, likeable and trustworthy. Articles about how much (or little) makeup women are wearing are a constant fixture in the news with even 2016 Olympic athletes being criticised for not wearing enough makeup.

Hair and clothes aren’t safe from public scrutiny either. Up until this point I thought maybe these kinds of comments were just about how attractive you are or were simply about policing women’s appearances. However, I had men tell me that they get comments about their hair and clothing as well.

‘I often get told to grow up, I’ve been told I can’t dress like that once I get a job, and at least once a day someone comments on the length of my hair, and the fact that I should cut it’

Everyone knows that girls should have long hair, and boys should have short hair, right? It was about this point that I realised that a lot of these comments were actually often aimed at people who were challenging stereotypes.

‘When I was six my mom cut my hair short and we went to the beach. Other young girls made comments about the boy in the bathing suit…then a few years later a boy on the bus who knew me and my sister also asked my sister what her brother’s name was.’

Not all comments were as underhanded as deliberately misgendering someone. Some of those about gender were much more blunt.

‘You’re so boyish. You’re like a man’

However if you conform too much to your gender, people often feel entitled to comment on that as well.

‘‘You look like a mess’, points at my cleavage that just exists’

People also seem to like to tell you when you don’t fit within a particular racial stereotype.

‘‘You don’t look like other Indonesians in my class, you look flamboyant’…I asked her what other Indonesians look like, and she said ‘very calm, with veils… and look conservative’…Others said ‘Because you are tall! Other Indonesians are short!’’

Then are the comments that people get about their size.

‘For a long time I had a complex about being so skinny, as people think that its ok to say ‘Oooooooooh, you are so skinny’’

Men seemed to be more likely to have people tell them how thin they are.

‘It definitely became, in my perception, a stab at my masculinity’

Sometimes this pressure to conform to gender stereotypes was even more candid.

‘Especially when you join a gym, they tell you you need to put on weight and muscle…No I don’t, I want to be fit: that’s all’

While men are expected to be big, women are expected to be small.

‘you are really pretty for a bigger girl’

I asked my friends why they thought people make these kinds of hurtful comments. Some thought it was just a sexism hangover.

‘I guess I think he said it because he has some deeply ingrained notion of the world and women doing everything he wants them to do’

Some thought it was more about stereotypes and fitting into preconceived notions.

‘It seems like people hold onto gender binaries; if you don’t fit neatly into one, therefore you must be the other, and not just someone who just likes what they like and not be an overt reflection of their sexuality’

Some thought it was about self-esteem.

‘It’s easier to bring people down than to better yourself’

Some thought it was more generally about power.

‘It’s a play of power, either to increase their feeling of power or to take power from you’

When it comes to unsolicited negative comments, there is one rather more sinister motive that is worth mentioning. ‘Negging’, a technique used by self-identified ‘pickup artists’ is definitely about sexism, and it is definitely about power. Negging is deliberately making a negative comment (often a backhanded compliment) to a woman in order to reduce her self worth and increase your own relative social standing, thereby increasing your chances of securing sex.

‘I had an excellent creepy dude stalk photos online, who told me I had a ‘weird jaw’’

Creepy is right. So what can you do about it? Some people have just learned to change their own internal responses.

‘I’ve learned how to embrace and be confident in me. Screw whether some old man thinks I look the part.’

Some wish that they could honestly say how these comments make them feel.

‘I wish I had the courage to say to these people that ‘I’m human, you have NO idea what’s going on in my life and what you said hurt’’

However, I think that having a sassy retort or two up your sleeve might also be the ticket. One example is pointing out how ridiculous someone’s comment is.

‘Another PhD student from Australia told me at the first glance ‘you are exotic’… I told him, then you are exotic for me too’

Another is giving the offender a taste of their own medicine.

‘A woman told me she didn’t like my hair when I shaved it off on the side, I told her I didn’t like hers either.’

Then sometimes you can just vanquish them with your own wittiness.

‘I once had a girl I didn’t know walk up and yell ‘DIET!’ in my face. Not being one to let others get me down I swiftly responded with ‘what colour?’ She was so stunned that she just walked away’ 

I only had a couple of friends admit to me that they’ve made negative comments to other people (like ‘smile’ or ‘you look terrible today’), but they weren’t really able to articulate why. While there was definitely an element of gender when it came to the people who shared their experiences with me, there didn’t seem to be any clear pattern about who it is who is making these kinds of comments.

Whether it’s to cut someone down, build ourselves up or point out that they don’t match a stereotype, maybe we all make these comments from time to time – innocently or otherwise. So next time, if you’re tempted to tell someone that they should smile, or tell them you don’t like their hair, or that they should dress a particular way, or that they don’t look how you think they look – don’t.

If you absolutely must say something to someone, make it a compliment. It’s much more likely to get them to genuinely smile.

Image: Sergey Zolkin

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Angharad Lodwick 5Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges

4 Comments

  • Shifra commented on October 3, 2016 Reply

    Thank you for sharing this!

    My family and I always get told we “don’t look Jewish” and it used to hurt A LOT. I now have a few witty retorts but it’s so annoying having to justify my “look” because I don’t fit into people’s stereotypes !!

    The make up thing is also interesting! Too much or too little …. Make up for work, make up for the office, make up for evening …. Etc etc it’s always about making the other person feel comfortable with how we, as individuals, look.

  • Carmen commented on June 19, 2017 Reply

    “Make it a compliment” — well, that depends on whether or not the person RECEIVES it as such. “Have you lost weight? You look GREAT!” is NOT a compliment. I think things like, “I love your style” or “You have a great eye for fashion” are about as complimentary as I get when it comes to a person’s appearance.

  • Stephanie Burton commented on January 6, 2018 Reply

    I think it’s best not to show hurt. Some sick people get a kick out of that. I’ve mastered the “up yours” eyebrow raise where I look them square in the face and give an eyebrow flash and forced mean looking smile. Seriously, get a life people. I dig me.

  • Christy commented on May 8, 2018 Reply

    I always give them a sarcastic remark, but only if their comment was blatantly rude. The other day I stopped at the supermarket for 3 items. I’d just changed into cutoff leggings and a long baggy T-shirt, along with a pair of sport sandals (in preparation for doing yard work). Then, I realized…I better run to the store now, before I get all filthy from working in the yard. While in line at the checkout, I heard some obnoxious girls behind me giggling at the cutoff legging shorts I was sporting. I abruptly turned around and said “Oh I’m sorry! Next time I’ll be sure to wear a prom dress to the supermarket, specifically to accommodate YOU!” Then I smiled and turned back toward the cashier – who was busting up laughing. The girls just stood there staring, and then went to a different line. Was too funny! But in all honesty, I don’t understand why people can’t just mind their own business!

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