How It Feels To Be Told You Look Small

[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.

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  • Ashley

    Very interesting thoughts you have proposed here. It would be nice to live in a world without ideals when it comes to bodies. Unfortunately, our society has developed an obsession with ideals in almost everything. We live in a status filled world, where something can’t be “good” unless there is “bad.” We seek status and hierarchy in a lot of things. We want to succeed. To be better than. To be the best, in body size, careers, relationships, etc, etc. We compare and compete with others to be all things “good.” i wonder if we can ever co-exist without putting us up against each other. In other words, I wonder  if we can ever live in a world where society sees no body type or size as better than another. 

  • The Real Cie

    To me, “you look small” is one of those awful “compliments” like “you look young” (because looking old is horrible, of course.) Or how about “that dress makes your rack look big.” (Because having small breasts is terrible, of course.) I hate body related compliments.

  • Angela

    Thanks for your reply Ashley. It sort of allows me to go into something I wanted to touch on in the article, but couldn’t frame properly within the context of the subject. We do live in a society where hierarchy is reinforced in pretty much every facet of life. 

    French feminist Helene Cixous discusses this hierarchy of binaries in her essay “Sorties.” Her thesis basically states that society is set up in binaries in which no grey area exists: you are this or that. A perfect example is the gender binary. Society has concluded that you are male or female, and any middle ground is deviant and abnormal. This is, of course, untrue, and the principle behind establishing binaries is to subjugate one half of the binary to the other via hierarchical value.

    By establishing binaries and using hierarchy to establish a value to  each half of the binary, oppression is able to continue. When we translate this binary hierarchy into terms used to compliment/devalue the body, “big” is dominated/oppressed by “small,” “fat” by “thin,” etc. etc. etc. simply because one is the ideal and is therefore valued much more. This value also allots one half of the binary greater societal privileges. And because there is no grey area allowed in a binary hierarchy, people lump themselves and each other into one of these two categories; thus, one half becomes oppressor, and one half becomes oppressed. One half becomes the ideal, the perfection, the coveted, and one half becomes the flawed, imperfect, and devalued.

    The overall point in discussing binary hierarchies in relation to my article is found in the final lines of the article, where I say that small and big are not mutually exclusive as compliment and insult unless we allow ourselves to make value judgments based on the binary hierarchy of small above big and thin above fat. Neither of these categories should be subjugated by the other (culturally), nor should these be the only two things a person can be: thin or fat. 

    I am asking myself at the end of the article to avoid the trope of small = compliment and big = insult. If I can break my mind’s relationship of these words to my body, then I can break the binary hierarchy that subjugates one half of a shitty binary to the other–in which case, I have broken the idea of a thin/fat, small/big binary all together.

  • Angela

    Thanks for the comment, The Real Cie. I saw this as well in the complexity of this exchange, but I don’t blame the complimenter. She was just doing what she thinks is a nice gesture. I was hoping this didn’t sound like I was bashing her for her compliment, but you are right; those sorts of compliments never sit well…

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