On Reading Body Language

A Scotsman asks Margo to help him understand how a flirtation at a party went awry:

Dear Margo: I recently moved here from Scotland. I thought you might have some insight into an experience I had involving an American woman’s image of her body. I met a really attractive and intelligent woman at a party a few weeks ago. It was a public event at an art gallery. She was a high-school teacher in her early 30s. We had been talking for a good half-hour and really seemed to be hitting it off. We’d even made plans to meet for coffee sometime. Then, things suddenly went downhill.

I commented that she had a “really nice hourglass figure.” I thought she would be complimented, but instead she became deeply offended. I went into damage control mode and tried to clarify my comments, but I think I only exacerbated things when I used the term “healthy.” With a look of complete disgust — WHAP! — she slapped my face and departed. I will never forget those agonizing moments in the immediate aftermath, as I was standing there rubbing my cheek, drawing some judgmental stares from onlookers. Needless to say, it was not my proudest moment, LOL.

She had a classic hourglass figure — large bust, narrow waist, shapely hips and legs. I guess she had interpreted “hourglass” as meaning overweight or full-figured. I just thought it meant shapely. I have her e-mail address. Do you think I should send her an apology? — Kevin


I don’t think she “interpreted ‘hourglass’ as meaning overweight or full-figured.” I think she had a problem with a a guy she doesn’t know saying, “hey, I like your large bust, narrow waist, and shapely hips and legs–let’s get coffee!”

Clearly he enjoyed meeting this woman, talking to her, and looked forward to getting to know her better over coffee.  In addition, he found her physically attractive.  And there’s nothing wrong with that….but he expressed it poorly (not even taking into account, for the moment, his random use of “LOL.”  I’m choosing to assume that it didn’t figure into his conversation with this woman).  It doesn’t sound like he was just leering or trying to get some action, so it’s a little bit too bad that he was lumped together with catcalling construction workers and drunken lurkers, and got the slap this woman had probably been saving up from years of interactions with such types.


But, if you meet a woman you like, and and hope to set up a conversation and caffeine date with her in the future, why, why, why would you attempt to seal the deal by complimenting her boobs?

So, then, the dilemma:  I think it’s rather silly for anyone to pretend they don’t notice or appreciate any aspect of another person’s outward appearance.  If you’ve just met someone, you don’t know him or her well enough to sincerely comment on their intelligence, sense of humor, kindness, or integrity.  You think they’re attractive and friendly.  It should be OK to say so.

But in what way?  Clearly, boobs, bellies, and butts should be way off-limits, even veiled under the euphemism of the “hourglass figure.”  To this list we’d probably also need to add hips, legs, neck,….maybe any body part taken in isolation.   But what about eyes, smile, and hair, which would also fall into this category?  Is smile OK, but lips not?

In the context of conversation with a person that you’re attracted to and would like to date–we’re not talking about shouting from a street corner or car window here, that’s a whole separate issue–what kinds of comments on appearance are welcome, and likely to prolong the conversation, rather than end it with a slap?


5 responses to “On Reading Body Language

  1. I wonder if she would have felt complimented if he had simply said “You have a nice figure” versus using the term “hourglass,” which, having somewhat of one myself, know only to be valued in this society in relation to Mad Men references. I actually had a discussion with a male friend recently about what is okay to say about a woman’s body, noting terms like “hot,” “beautiful,” and what body parts were on or off limits like you describe. What it came down to that it really depends on the individual (and you should know how they feel before you use such terminology) and that so long as it’s respectful (“hot” may be acceptable to some and objectifying to others) then it’s okay.

  2. Oddly enough, I read almost this exact letter in another advice column, although I can’t for the life of me remember where… it had fewer details than are provided here. Bizarre.

    But that columnist’s response was that, really, after knowing someone for just 30 minutes, you shouldn’t need to remark on body shape. It’s too fast. I’m sure this woman just felt creeped out.

  3. Weird! It’s certainly common enough to see repeat letters, but it seems especially suspicious that this one has been floating around for so long, and Margo just published it…now. Wonder if she’s grabbing letters from the web, or if she’s had it for years and just pulled it out to answer…..?

    creators.com puts a randomly generated “featured” article at the top of their advice section every day, and on occasion I’ve read those and didn’t realize until later that they were years old. But that’s not the case this time–this is, indeed, Margo’s latest colum: http://www.denverpost.com/dearmargo/ci_14883524

  4. I think one thing that should be noted is that he recently moved from Scotland. Perhaps he had used this compliment on women when he lived in Scotland and was not slapped in the face. There’s certainly a different social scene there, where some things we scoff at are not off limits to them. Now, I do agree that what he said is a wee bit inappropriate. This really could just be a small case of culture-clash. Or he’s a perv. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

    As an aside, when I did an internship in London during college, my male superiors often called me “Love” rather than my actual name (“Could I get you some coffee, love?”). I was not offended – it was endearing, not meant to be demeaning, and seemed perfectly normal. If that happened here, it would be BEYOND WEIRD. Granted, this was not about my body, but I think this is an example of how different countries/cultures can be about even the little things.

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