Yesterday I accidentally did a horrible thing: delivered a creepy compliment to a young man.
My friend and I were at the beach. Glorious almost empty autumn beach, warm sea, sunshine—and this, mark you, in the heart of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, late morning. After my swim I chatted briefly in the shallows with a young man of about 28 or 30 (guessing).
We crossed paths again after I’d showered and I crossed the line by blurting out these words:
“Because I’m 81, is it OK if I say you have a beautiful body?”
The correct answer was: “No, it’s not OK. Go away.”
But what he actually said was (after visibly processing this shocking remark), “Yes. I’ll take that.”
Three strikes against this creepy compliment: age difference, topic, and gender issues.
Imagine this scene with genders reversed: not acceptable
If an 81-year-old-man said those words to a young woman, it could feel nauseating. Even scary.
As I cringed at my unfiltered faux pas, I began thinking about the compliments that I bestow on random strangers, young or old but usually female.
A non-creepy compliment admires something people have chosen, like their clothing or hairstyle or smile. Never, never, never something that is given, not chosen: their bodies.
It’s not unusual for me to receive compliments from strangers too, and I love that. But nobody ever is crass enough to say I have a beautiful body. I’ve got a body. You’ve got a body. They are allocated to us at birth. Some of us feel the need to modify them, but they all work miracles even when they’re not working particularly well. And they are all beautiful in their way.
Does aesthetic appreciation rise as sexuality declines?
I have noticed a private compensation for the decline (well, total decay) of my urge to procreate (or bonk). My aesthetic appreciation of human beings rises in sync with this fairly common but by no means universal age-related change.
Over and over again I’m enchanted by the way human beings put themselves together and show themselves in public. Their chosen look. And frequently I tell them so, out of the blue. This habit, I now realise, is fraught with peril.
Last night, for example, I noticed a young woman with a black jacket and very short fair haircut, wearing black boots, bright yellow cuffed pants in heavy cotton and a 3-inch gap between them. How gorgeous she looked and how uniquely herself. I refrained from complimenting her. The other day I adored watching two happy women swinging their long, naturally curly hair as they walked down a hill. I did compliment them and they returned the compliment, which surprised and pleased me. My sexual interest in any of these human beings is zero, zilch. I just love their moving images.
(As for me, a long time ago I realised that I prefer to wear clothes that make people happy or make people laugh.)
What I really meant by “You’ve got a beautiful body”
I meant, and could have legitimately said, “Your tattoos are beautifully executed and positioned.” The tattoos were chosen, like clothes.
And I was also thinking, “How unusual to see smooth white skin on an autumn day, when most white Kiwis have a bit of a summer tan and the older ones have skin damage from our fierce sun. I’m used to brown skin and baby skin looking shiny and smooth but this is a surprise. Am I noticing it because of the colourful tattoos? Or because there’s nobody else to look at on the beach? Maybe you’ve just arrived from a northern hemisphere country where you live in snow gear all year round? Regardless, your overall appearance is very unusual in this environment and it pleases me.”
Watch out for unfiltered blurting, Rachel
Our dear Dad in his final years had no filter. One memorable moment happened in church. He turned around to look at the congregation. And he said, “Look at those three women! They all look exactly the same! Same hat, same face, same coats!” And it was not true, but close to true. They also managed similar deadpan expressions as his verdict was delivered. He also felt free to comment on body types too.
Note to self: in future, count to three before delivering a compliment. Remember geriatric loss-of-filter, remember the rules and follow them.
That said, here’s to giving and getting non-creepy compliments in old age!