“What I really remember…was the man telling my mother and me that it was difficult for his wife to live in Norman, because in Norman, no one tells you that you’re beautiful. ‘Not at the grocery store. Not at the hardware store. Not on the street. Nowhere! That is so hard for her.’”
Of course I as drawn to Rivka Galchen’s childhood memoir as an Israeli immigrant growing up in Norman Oklahoma in the 1970’s. (“Who Will Fight with Me,” The New Yorker; October 3, 2022). I was an immigrant of sorts myself in that place and time; where my Jersey edge was almost as foreign as Ms. Glachen’s Judaism. Yet the line that grabbed me had nothing to do with either the particulars of Rivka’s enchanting, mercurial, meteorologist father (Norman OK, nestled in Tornado Alley, is home to the National Severe Storms Center. The place is teeming with meteorologists.), or the lulling, happy childhood that a place like Norman can induce. It was this one-line vignette that another immigrant—a graduate student from Brazil—offered Rivka’s family.
At first glance, you kinda wanna slap the Brazilian wife upside the head. Really, girl? The worst thing about living in the United States is that no one fawns over your beauty? Get a grip. Until the husband’s complaint seeps in, and you realize the pain we all endure in a society where so much cannot be spoken.
When was the last time I told someone I did not know well, in public, as a matter of daily course, that they were beautiful? The answer for me, and I imagine many others, is: never. American culture has always been stingy on unsolicited praise, and in these days of toxic misunderstanding, giving someone you don’t know well an unsolicited comment is like begging to be cancelled.
In my years of staffing the Information Desk at my local hospital, I learned that it was alright to give unsolicited compliments to some people who approached: the matronly Black woman’s fabulous hat deserved notice; the woman with inch-long finger nails enameled and rhinestoned, glittered for attention; the disheveled gent wearing a crisp “Marine Veteran” cap stopped belly-aching about being screened if I said, “I appreciate your service.” If I was feeling feisty, I might even compliment a young Black man on his razor-sharp haircut. But I never complimented a white woman, or any age, for any reason. They are too prickly to risk a venture into pleasantries.
Yet even among those I complimented, my focus was always on some component they had personally shaped; their defining accessory. Never anything as all-encompassing or arbitrary as, “You are beautiful.” Although that statement means the exact opposite of, “You are ugly.” Each is equally, and totally inappropriate.
The Brazilian man’s wife is certainly not the only person who would appreciate receiving a positive compliment from a well-meaning stranger. Flattery is a basic human boost. The problem, of course, is that the compliment stirs the bubbling pot of power dynamic, entitlement, and who gets to define beauty. Note: the Brazilian man does not bemoan that no calls him beautiful; he likely has other means and measures of receiving affirmation. I suppose many the well-intentioned feminist would advocate for the man’s wife to find other, deeper, forms of affirmation, rather than pining for comments from strangers about her physical proportions.
All of these arguments are valid and true. They are also dispiriting. For it seems a shame that we live in a world where, when we come upon someone who is beautiful, we can’t simply express our joy in their gift.