I never thought I'd say this, but this weekend I got pissed off reading Real Simple magazine. Yeah, I know. First, let me say that I am unapologetically down with Real Simple's healthy recipes and am a sucker for a good no-obligation book club. But tucked amidst clever ways to use your nail polish to fix jewelry was a reminder of something that must be addressed, people!
Jennifer King Lindley's mostly-helpful article, "Nothing To See Here!" explores the nature of embarrassment, citing that the way people convey that stomach-sinking feeling translates to the same mannerisms across cultures. Lindley claims that a genuine display of embarrassment renders the embarrassee "more likeable" to their peers. Nothing too earth-shattering there. But then, the article goes on to suggest that this may be why Jennifer Lawrence's sheepish 2013 Oscar speech made her a media darling, while Anne Hathaway's ("It came true!") unlocked the gates of Hathaway Hate. Apparently, you can win an award, but you damn well had better not do something as arrogant as smiling:
"A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that subjects were more willing to trust someone who showed embarrassment after being lauded for an accomplishment than someone who reacted with a display of pride, like a confident smile."
It's not that the remark made me want to rush to defend Hathaway's honor; it's the idea that by acknowledging her dream had come true, she had somehow done something worthy of reproach. It's not as though she spent the entire acceptance speech luxuriating in her own success; the rest of it was an expression of gratitude to the people who helped her achieve that dream (even if it was a bit saccharine and over-rehearsed).
What is so wrong with accepting an accolade with a smile instead of a shrug, with taking appropriate ownership of your hard work? Nothing, if you are a man. If you display that kind of confidence, you are a "boss," a baller, talented, hard-working. If you are a woman, it's a bragging, bitchy and undesirable quality. Women are so ingrained with the idea that they should temper their talents with an attractive dose of modesty that even accepting a compliment -- let alone an Oscar Award -- becomes a formidable task. Amy Schumer did a hilarious job of addressing this on her show with the sketch "Compliments."
Oh, Amy... it's funny 'cause it's true.
Women, we need to learn to take a compliment. I'm not talking about the "Hey mami, can I get your number? Let me worship that ass" kind of harassment "compliment" that is thrown around New York City like creepy confetti. I am talking about a real, honest-to-God compliment. It is the beginning of taking ownership of bigger things. Did someone say they like your dress? Say thank you. Presumably, you took the time to pick out that dress and you wear it because you like it. Besides, it's polite.
Don't get me wrong; it can be very difficult to take pride in things that might be more dear to you than a dress because it forces you to be vulnerable. Last year, I played my first non-musical theater role, and it was a Greek tragedy. So, y'know, no pressure. The truth of the matter was I worked really hard on that role and was proud of it. But whenever someone complimented my performance, I thanked them but quickly undercut it with something like, "It's my first time doing a play instead of a musical. I'm lucky the director took a chance on me!" During a night out after the show, an older actress in the cast whom I deeply respect took me aside and said something to the effect of, "Stop doing that. It's not cute and you're better than that."
I needed to hear that. She was absolutely right. Being able to graciously accept a compliment is a simple exercise that strengthens the muscle of self-worth, which empowers us to have the courage to leave an abusive situation or ask for what we're really worth in a salary negotiation. How can we be expected to "lean in" if we can't even stand up for ourselves?
I know so many hard-working, selfless, luminous women who don't give themselves enough credit, women who I would love to see empowered by their wonderful qualities rather than constantly calling them into question. You can be proud without being prideful, so give yourself permission. Because, ultimately, sloughing-off compliments isn't endearing; it's insidious.
This piece was originally published on Luna Luna Magazine