Why feedback is important

I found this thread on the Straight Dope Message Boards, where I periodically lurk. It was started in the designated forum for rants, by a lady who sincerely believes she is ugly, and that this has resulted in maltreatment at the hands of society. Having not seen the lady, nor having witnessed the course of her life, I can't testify to the veracity of this assessment; going farther into the thread, I note that someone eventually gets her to give a physical description -- no photo -- and it's generally agreed that, while life is probably easier for the beautiful, there's nothing about her that sounds particularly hideous.

I've met people like this. People who are perfectly acceptable human beings, at least physically, and have absolutely no idea. I know that a lot of people screech about media and Photoshop and unrealistic ideals and so forth, and they're probably not entirely wrong. But I really can't help thinking that some of the blame should be shared with the people who think that the best way to get rid of offensive speech is to get rid of all speech. It is never acceptable to make a comment on another person's appearance, they say, especially a woman. You have no right to make a judgement of any kind. It is not your place to declare whether another person is attractive or not.

Except, it kind of is. The whole concept of 'attractiveness' is explicitly based on 'value as a potential mate'. It's not like ethics, something you can evaluate solely by comparing it to an internally-held ideal. It's not other peoples' place to tell you what you should or shouldn't do, or to speak for the entire rest of society, but the idea that it's never, ever permissible to tell someone how they look to you removes their ability to generate an accurate image of how they appear to others by combining the personal opinion of many different people with their own self-concept. How are they supposed to know what about them is valuable to a potential mate if the potential mates aren't allowed to tell them?

I'm not just being argumentative here because censorship annoys me. We literally use other humans as mirrors when judging ourselves -- it's supposed to be a sort of checks-and-balances system, to make sure our own internal monologue doesn't diverge too far from the shared reality. People argue that it's not a good idea to let society push you into looking a certain way, and it isn't. But we do need to know what others think of us in order to make an informed decision. When a person deliberately cuts off the flow of external feedback (from family, or friends, or strangers, or, you know, mirrors) we call that a symptom of a particularly nasty strain of psychiatric disorders, like anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder: A huge part of these diseases is finding that there is discord between what your internal assessment tells you, and what your various reflections say, and deciding to ignore the reflections. Everyone has run into someone at some point who is so wrapped up in themselves they've started bouncing reality checks left and right; why are we doing this to other people on purpose?

I quite agree that it's unacceptable for men to follow women down the street making crude comments about her body and what they'd like to do it it, or for anyone to imply that someone's skin color/body shape/manner of dress makes them less of a human being. But the problem here isn't that they're commenting on your looks -- the problem is that they're being assholes. I'm sure if you had the misfortune to follow them around all day, you'd find that they were assholes to any number of people on any number of topics, and that quite frankly if they're accustomed to being sphincters of that magnitude they aren't going to care whether you think their conduct is appropriate either. On the other hand, this whole "never, ever breathe a word about anything you see" deal is preventing other, more reasonable people from telling you, as they happen to cross your path on the sidewalk, that they like your coat.

I propose a new standard: You, the decent yet terrified dudes of the world, are allowed to give a compliment to a woman if and only it would be acceptable for you to give the same compliment to your baby sister. Being mean is still absolutely verboten -- it is generally, according to the laws of etiquette -- but it is not morally in the wrong to tell a lady, in an upright gallant fashion, that she looks very nice today. And I recommend you use that word -- "nice". It's not very specific, I know, but it's probably the blandest, least-offensive word in the entire English language. Please do not do this in a situation where the people involved are supposedly being judged on some other criterion, such as during a math test or a race for the US Senate; keep it to places where interactions are judged on a sort of scale of general sociability, such as while walking outside in the city, or at a party. Unless you are being introduced by someone else, compliments are best delivered as you and the lady are parting company, e.g., as you are passing her on your way to disembarking from the train.

And you, the chronically-offended women of the world, please for the love of little green apples, encourage people who are polite. Don't bite their heads off for saying they like your hat. Feel free to respond coldly to someone who is being creepy or crude or transparently fishing for something with the compliment, but if some guy passes you in the entrance to the subway and says, "That's a really nice scarf," quit clutching your goddamn pearls in horror and making like he's a rabid wolf. You're making the decent people afraid to say nice things, and you're giving the assholes what they want, i.e., the power to make you uncomfortable in your own skin.