[TW: Body Shaming]
Friday night my boyfriend and I went out to BBQ with two couples we love to go out with. One of the women complimented me on my dress when I sat down, and then told me I “look small.” My immediate reaction was a smile, but I didn’t really know what to say back, so I just said, “Thanks, I guess.”
I didn’t really know what to say because there was so much analysis happening in my brain all at once. First and foremost, I took her words as a compliment. There is no doubt in my mind that’s what they were intended to be, and she meant well. She meant I look good. And then I thought about how, in that context, small was synonymous with good; you look small meant you look good. The last thought I had before blurting out a half thank you was why is ‘you look small’ a compliment?
I want to look at the detonated definition of small. Google tells me the adjective form of small means “of a size that is less than normal or usual; little.” One of the synonyms for the adjective form listed is thin. So in that exchange, my friend was not only telling me that I look thin (good/small), but also that I look less than usual. What does this compliment mean to women? To be told you look small is, for one second, to feel thin.
Do you remember that old, awful saying propagated by Kate Moss in the 90s, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels?” What does “feeling thin” really mean? In the context of my story, it means receiving a positive compliment on my body for the first time in a long time. It means, for one second, feeling unashamed about what I was going to eat. Whether or not you are thin by society’s standards, it is how you perceive your body, and how you think others perceive your body, that fills you with shame or confidence. If you see yourself as big—big taking on the negative societal connotations here—it doesn’t matter what you weigh or what size you wear. And because big is seen as bad/unhealthy/wrong, women hurt themselves just to hear those words You look thin; you look small.
I’ve always hated that small is a compliment for women. This is a great example of a gendered compliment. A gendered compliment is when someone gives you what is meant to be a compliment about your body, appearance, or behavior due to gender. In my case, being told I look small was a compliment precisely because I present as female. By society’s beauty standards, being told you look small puts you closer to the ideal.
Truly, I have a problem with any ideal. Having an ideal, whether it is gaunt frames or pear shapes, is dangerous because it asks people to be something other than themselves. It says bodies should be one way, and if they aren’t that way, they are worthless. Many people internalize these ideals and become ashamed of their bodies. For a lot of women, being told they look small is something they long to hear simply because of body ideals.
I don’t want small to be a compliment. I don’t want big to be an insult. These words in the context of our bodies are responsible for so much shame and bigotry. When we are not talking about bodies, these words have interchangeable positive and negative connotations. In that exchange with my friend, I felt the flicker of internalized body shame: I smiled. She told me I looked small and I smiled. And I smiled because, in relation to my body, I’ve been taught that small is good; small is feminine; small is desired; small is sexy; small is a compliment. But as Google showed us earlier, small is none of those things; it’s none of those things unless I define it that way.