Why A Stranger's Backhanded Compliment About My Body Bothered Me So Much

Bonus: How his attempt at flirting could have actually worked.

picture of author's face Author

For whatever reasons, conscious or unconscious, it seems as though far too many men these days learned how to flirt with a girl on the heels of some pickup artist who thinks 'negging' women with backhanded compliments is the only way to fly.

I'm here to tell you now — no, it is not. And here's why.

I typically spend the night at my boyfriend's apartment somewhere around once during each work week. On the mornings when I leave his apartment to commute to my workspace, I stop at a deli along the way, where I order myself the same exact breakfast each and every time: a breakfast sandwich and a large iced coffee with milk, no sugar.


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Today was one of those mornings.

I darted into the deli to get out of the rain, placed my order, and was minding my own business as the man behind the counter put together my coffee when the voice of a stranger next to me piped up out of nowhere ...

"Aw, no sugar? Go on, treat yourself!"

I looked over to see a middle-aged man, a handsome construction-worker type ... and I immediately felt annoyed.

Maybe it was the humid weather. Maybe it was the gorilla-spit rain pouring down. For whatever reason, I wasn't having it.

I ordered my iced coffee without sugar because I happen to not like sweetened coffee. To me, that's a dessert. It's not something I want often, and particularly not first thing in the morning.


"Excuse me?" I asked.

He smiled kindly, seeming nice enough. "Get some sugar," he said. "I won't tell."

I blinked and asked, "... Are you flirting with me ... by talking to me about the body image issues you think I have?"

The guy immediately reddened and spluttered, "Sorry! It's just ... you're a pretty girl ..."

Now I immediately felt embarrassed for lashing out at him, so I smiled and apologized in return.

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"Sorry," I said. "No coffee yet!"

I grabbed my stuff and scuttled quickly out of the deli.

But I couldn't shake the encounter.

At that moment, I felt a confusing mixture of emotions.


First, I was simply annoyed that a man was flirting with me before the hour of 9:00 am.

Second, I was mad that because he saw me, as a fat woman, he decided that the best way to get my attention was to tell me that he wouldn't judge me for adding calories to a beverage, i.e., not watching my weight. What a prince. It reminded me of the time another guy in a bar couldn't stop telling me that I had "such a pretty face."

But then, after seeing him react with shame, confusion, and embarrassment, I immediately felt guilty because it wasn't about me being fat anymore. It was about something bigger.

It's about the way everyone on Earth is taught to think of human bodies, particularly the human bodies belonging to women.


It doesn't matter if you're fat or thin or somewhere in between, people, particularly men people, would never imagine that saying something like, "Aw, treat yourself!" could ever miss the mark, because they assume every woman out there has body image issues.

And here's the most messed up part of it all ... they are totally right!

No, I'm not saying that men should stop flirting with women because nothing they say will ever be considered acceptable.

If that same man (who again, seems to be a lovely person) had wanted to make small talk with me in order to see if there was a mutual attraction between us, which is all flirting really is, he could have said something about the weather. He could have told me how relieved he was to finally get his morning coffee, too. He could have wished me a good morning, or even said a simple, "Hello."


Instead, he gave me a backhanded compliment related to what I was choosing to put into my body, and in the process he made me feel self-consciously aware of my body as a sexual object. He made me feel worried about my potential "promise" as a woman with a body in his eyes.

In short, because of the culture in which we all live, he basically greeted me with the equivalent of, "Hey, we guys have considered you gals to property or potential property, and that's the only way I know how to relate to you right now."

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To be clear, I don't think my behavior towards him in response was correct, either.


For this guy, it was just a chance to say hello to a pretty girl. It wasn't something he thought about before he did it and it's something he probably won't think about again, and that's not entirely his fault.

Should I have snapped at a stranger trying sheepishly to make small talk with me? No, probably not. But smiling and apologizing for having pointed out his error wasn't the right course of action either.

I could have kindly and calmly explained to him why his comment took me aback, but as my editor said to me when I recounted this story to her, "You can't change the world every second of every day."


We as a culture have to make a serious change.

It's got to start from the base level and it will take the undoing of a lot of serious knots in our culture.

It has to start with teaching our children that people of any gender are all just people, and as such, we all have value, and that value has nothing to do with our physical appearance, or at least, that it shouldn't.

We need to teach people that it's never okay to comment on another person's choices when it comes to their body.

In my opinion, none of that will happen until women have complete autonomy over their own bodies, and frankly, whether or not we should is still a serious point of political contention.


But, if we don't try to begin making these changes, we're doomed to keep repeating this kind of seemingly innocuous encounter until the end of time.

What I experienced today was really "no big deal" — and that's a BIG part of the problem.

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer and the former Senior Editor of Pop Culture at Newsweek with a passion for lifestyle, geek news, and true crime.