Before I go, I have something to say

Aw, Shucks

Someone complimented me the other day, when I was least expecting it. I had taken my glasses off, and this person said, “You have beautiful eyes!” I just smiled and said “Thanks!”

The fact that this person was a woman, and someone I know, made it a fairly neutral experience. I’ve been complimented on my eyes before, so that factored into my reaction as well. It got me thinking about compliments, how we perceive them, how we react, and how and when we deliver them ourselves.

It’s not a simple subject. Had my complimentor been a man, it could have been complicated. If a man said that to me in a bar – not that I’ve been in a bar since college – my defenses would have instantly shot up. If he were a nice guy and not a lecherous creep, I might have thanked him. Since I’ve got a couple of gold rings and a very pretty diamond on my left hand, I would also have countered smartly, “My husband tells me that all the time.”

Compliments on a person’s body parts are interesting. We can improve some of them through hard work – running five miles a day, swinging kettleballs, climbing every mountain, fording every stream. Changes wrought by hard work, I think, are worthy of mention. Who could object to hearing, “My, you’re looking splendid these days”? If you’ve been working out at the gym for the past year, you might be relieved to hear that someone has noticed.

Then again, I know a woman who is so vain about her muscled arms, she goes around sleeveless while the rest of us shiver in turtleneck sweaters. I might envy her those sculpted biceps, but I’m not about to let her know.

What about weight? If I run into a person, male or female, who used to cast a much larger shadow, I’m usually torn. Should I ignore the 100-pound weight loss, in an attempt to let her know that I never noticed how large she used to be? Or is it okay to say, “Holy cow, Sally, you look great!” If I say that, will she be pleased, or worried that if she gains it all back, I’ll judge her harshly, whether I mention it or not?

Bodies have a lot of other components, though, that a person can’t change, no matter how hard she works out or how much she pays. Sure, there are nose jobs, but look what happened to Michael Jackson. When Joan Rivers began to look otherworldly, at least she could use it in her jokes.

Even though I shouldn’t, I find myself admiring things a person can’t take credit for. My old friend Eden had, and always will have, lovely hands. Her fingers are long and spatulate, the perfect artist’s hands. I have a thing about toes, too – just ask my children. I love what I call “finger toes,” where the second toe extends beyond the first, and the others are similarly long and thin. Both times I gave birth, I had to check out their toes. Normal, thank goodness, unlike their mother’s. My big toes are okay, but the others? Embarrassingly short. I once got a look at my Grandpa Ripperton’s feet, and knew immediately when mine came from.

I can’t help the kind of toes I have, just as I have no control over the color, shape, or size of my eyes. So it feels kind of odd to hear that a person hates her toes, or her elbows, or her belly button (innie? outie?). Those are pretty much set in stone or rather, in the flesh, even before birth. Just so, it feels odd to thank someone for praise of something she had no hand (or foot, or eye) in. Maybe when we thank people for those compliments, we’re actually thanking them for saying something kind. When was the last time you complimented a friend?

We watched Ken Burns’ program on the Roosevelts a few weeks ago, learning all sorts of things about Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor. While I felt deep admiration for FDR’s daily struggle to move around in a body turned to stone by polio, his wife’s own struggles struck me as not only difficult, but unnecessary. Her mother found her ugly, calling her that to her face, and as a result, she became a woman who, though blest with an amazing mind, held no confidence in her looks. “Looks” may seem a vain luxury, but when you spend your life in the public eye, well, just take a look at the tabloids the next time you’re in the check-out line.

The best kind of compliment, as my friend points out, is for personality or personal accomplishments. Says Eden, “You can lay claim to the honing of your sense of humor or language skills in ways that aren’t possible when it comes to your smile or the [natural] color of your hair.” I’ve also learned that the best compliment is the second-hand kind; the kind that Joe hears from Steve about Mary’s presentation and passes along to her the next time they see each other. I love to do that, and if I don’t think I’m going to run into Mary (or whomever) soon, I’ll tell her by email about Steve’s compliment so I don’t forget.

Brilliant work presentations are admirable, and worthy of praise. And yet, and yet. Don’t we all long for just one tribute to our looks? Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments were incredible, but the thing I couldn’t help thinking, every time her photo came on the screen, was this: She had such beautiful eyes. If only someone she loved had told her.