Compliments That Double As Insults: On Being Called “Barbie”, “Crazy”, & the Twin of an African-American Girl

25 08 2011

Do people ever tell you things about yourself that make you cringe?

It seems to happen to me. Quite a bit.

Usually, people offer up something that they think is a compliment, but actually unwittingly insult me in the process. They mean well, so I can’t get angry–but it makes my soul wince in agony sometimes.

In college, a guy who had a crush on me once remarked that I reminded him of a certain actress he found attractive. When I pressed him for a name, he airily remarked, “I don’t know her name. It’s that one with the super-annoying voice, don’t you know who I’m talking about?”

Owch. I remind him of a woman with an annoying voice? Zing.

Another one of my friends has been telling me for years that he thinks I’d enjoy the show Madmen. While my husband was in Jamaica on a mission trip a few weeks ago and I was bored silly, I decided to fire up the ol’ Netflix and check out this show. I could sum up the show in three short words: 1960s, booze, and plentiful affairs.

Why did my friend think I’d love that show? Do those sound like things I do on the weekend? Do I enjoy watching people self-destruct on television? My self-esteem sprung a small leak there.

I only mildly resembled Barbie's platinum 'do at one point in my life....

Or take this recent happening–I was standing around talking to several adults and teenagers, and someone remarked, “Gee, Cassie, you look just like a Barbie doll today.” I looked down and realized that I was wearing a silky pink shirt, black pencil skirt, and high hot-pink heels and did somewhat resemble a Barbie doll.

Later, I remembered that my own Barbie had the exact same peep-toe heels in the late 80s–so their remark was definitely accurate. But nevertheless, I found myself loathing the idea that I resembled Barbie–of all the toys on this planet. Ugh. Why not an intelligent toy that didn’t drive around in a plastic pink Jeep?

It’s really amazing how personal the well-meaning attack on your character can get sometimes. I once had a guy I dated briefly try to talk me out of becoming a Christian youth leader. His reasoning? “I just think you’d be better off as a nurse–you know, something that actually requires a bit of intelligence.”

It ended quickly. No further explanation needed.

One of the most vicious attacks on my personal sense of style came about a year ago, when a student of mine dared me to step away from my signature tropical wardrobe and intentionally “dress down”, wearing clothes that reflected a sedate Midwest color palette. I donned the plainest clothes I could dig out of my closet: dark jeans, plain brown flip flops, a dark navy t-shirt, and a crocheted cream sweater. I wore no jewelry or makeup and did my hair in a bun to top off the extreme “Anti-Cassie Experiment”.

I kid you not: I had no less than four students compliment me on my outfit that evening. And one of them dared to burst my ego with a well-intentioned, “Oh, Cassie, you look so comfortable tonight!”

Comfortable? Yeah, maybe that’d be a nice description if I was wearing my pajamas. No woman wants to be told she looks comfortable. That’s like the equivalent of telling Lady Gaga that she looks normal–she just doesn’t want to hear it.

It packs the same self-esteem punch as a comment that men unwittingly make on a regular basis to women: “Oh, you look tired today.”

Translation to that woman’s mind? “You look absolutely awful. Noticeably uglier than usual. So much so that I actually recognized your hideousness and chose to make a comment on your physical appearance.”

Men, you’ve been warned. Don’t do it.

The ultimate remark that still makes me cringe, though, takes the cake:

During my freshman year of college, an acquaintance came barging into my room one day with her friend while I was diligently finishing my art history homework, and insisted on borrowing my Disneyland pass so she could sneak her friend into the park without paying. I resisted automatically, without raising my eyes from my book. That’s when this acquaintance said forcefully, “Look, Cassie, you guys look EXACTLY alike. They won’t even notice. You guys could pass for twins, seriously.”

I met eyes with the girl she was talking about–my “twin”.

She was a very plump, dark-skinned African-American girl with long black hair down to her waist wearing a belly shirt and tight pleather pants.

I was a slender white girl with short blonde hair just below my ears, wearing a button-up shirt and shorts.

That one stung at the time. I can laugh about it now, but I spent the better part of a month trying to figure out what that girl saw in the two of us that, in her mind, made us look “exactly alike”.

Am I the only one who’s ever experienced this, or is my life just that odd?

Oh, well. At least the maintenance guy who came to repair our internet connection today told my husband he liked my “crazy sense of decorating style” in our apartment.

I’ll just pretend that he didn’t use the word “crazy” to describe my taste in interior design.

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