How to deliver non-creepy compliments in old age

Yesterday I accidentally did a horrible thing: delivered a creepy compliment to a young man.

Almost deserted sandy beach in Wellington City, blue sky with clouds, sea.
Beautiful Freyberg Beach in Wellington City almost deserted on a sunny autumn day.

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.

Graph of the aging brain showing that as the urge to procreate or bonk declines, aesthetic appreciation rises.

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!

32 thoughts on “How to deliver non-creepy compliments in old age

  1. Nyla Carroll says:

    Love your thoughts and wonderful that you were able to pass a well meaning compliment and equally, that it was received in the spirit it was given. It’s quite sad that we now have to almost censor everything we say for fear that SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE might take offence….

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Its tricky but im trying!

  2. Oh Rachel, this did make me chuckle. As always, I love your spirit. Never too old to flirt (ha, just kidding).

  3. I love the distinction between chosen and given. I will remember it best I can the next time I want to compliment someone. Great post!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hope it helps. Ive just been thinking about teaching: how specific praise is itself a teaching tool, whereas generalised approval can be puzzling.

  4. Sadje says:

    I am very hesitant on complimenting strangers. One never knows how they will be received. So I’m all admiration for the way you do.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Probably crazy of me.

      1. Sadje says:

        I’d say very brave! 😍

  5. You write about things in the most delightful way. I laughed at the compliment and was glad the young man was not offended.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So glad you laughed!

  6. auntyuta says:

    I like your sketch depicting various interest levels! 🙂

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Haha! The mysteries of our ongoing development…

  7. Guys tend to receive few compliments and treasure the ones they get. Source: I’m a guy.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you, I needed to hear that.

  8. LA says:

    You know, I told a troll on my blog yesterday that I didn’t like their comment. They argued that I was humorless. Some comments are meant to harm, and we should be offended by them. Other things really are harmless and we should try to think of the statement in context. We can’t think of everything we are about to say to the point where we just stop communicating. We have to listen, think and reflect. Then decide if a comment was “good” or “bad”

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      On the receving end, that’s so true. The “humourless” jibe is a classic and time honoured one. I used to find it confusing. Now I tend to sigh and think, not that again.

      1. LA says:

        I know.

  9. Great thoughts Rachel, and always a difficult decision, especially with older men commenting on younger women.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Decision” being the key word here for me. I need to remember, no more blurting, think first!

  10. alison41 says:

    Its exhausting having to filter everything through a PC/woke sieve. Enough already. People need to stop policing every breath society takes, every sentence, every everything. Enough already.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well, I’m happy to be cautious, Alison. Words can hurt. But yes, I watched this man almost thinking aloud: “That was a weird thing to say! But she’s old, maybe she doesn’t even realise it could be offensive. But she seems nice and hey, she means well. I’ll take the compliment!”

  11. JohnRH says:


  12. Not a big fan of Plato – too abstract for me – but I liked his idea that one’s love for a person tends, with age, to become love of people generally. Not sure how relevant that is but my, er, old brain found itself thinking about it anyway …

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I do feel an echo of recognition here. I hope it turns out to be true for me. Thinking about it.

  13. I find myself reflecting on something I began to consider years ago. I was an ugly duckling as a younger person, but always top of my class. My parents and friends always encouraged me in my intellectual and career pursuits, and, over time, helped me to develop a deeper and more abiding value of myself as a result. I’ve known many people, especially women, who were quite beautiful by conventional standards, even as children. I realized many years ago how truly sad, and limiting, it was for every one of those women to live their lives with their beautiful “faces;” people in general, even parents and other family, put all their value of that person solely in that single aspect of their being, even though they may have had so much more to offer. As a result, I think it’s exciting and wonderful that we seem to be slowly beginning to realize that we need to learn to look so much deeper. Yes – humans are, by our nature, visual to a certain degree, but we owe it to ourselves and our progeny, to practice “seeing” in a different way. Kudos for the self-awareness! Good for you!!

  14. Rein Zeilstra says:

    I find it delightful you could say this to the young man. But as a 80 yr old male with zilch libido (but happily married) I couldn’t even contemplate complimenting a beautiful woman of any age specifically on their body. I just admire them very quietly. I do occasionally but genuinely compliment my darling wife, female family and good friends (female of any age) on their appearance and comport. Not sure whether that is judged as flirtatious or strange.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m sure they love your compliments because they know you well. It gives me joy to feel that surge of admiration, to recognise the beauty in another human, and I would hate to stop. It’s with strangers I should be a wee bit cautious 🙂

  15. rkrontheroad says:

    This brought a smile! I’m glad it was well received, but yes, the situation of age and gender could have made all the difference. I have often said “you have such beautiful artwork” about tattoos and it brings a sincere thank you usually.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a highly acceptable compliment. For an achievement and for self expression, not for what nature bestowed.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    I had never heard anyone say what I have experienced too–a deep appreciation for beauty in bodies. I certainly took mine for granted when I shouldn’t have. I now keep my mouth shut but do love young men’s physiques.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Shh. It’s our secret.

  17. I do believe that we are now living on a different plane, thus we see those bodies from an artistic point of view. Crikey it’s hard to be politically correct these days!

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