Why Can't a Man Ever Tell a Woman the 'Truth' About How She Looks?


In TV, magazine and etiquette lore, a man who dares to comment on a woman’s appearance in a negative or critical manner is on dangerous ground. “Honey, does this spandex see-thru jegging/tube dress make me look fat?” is trotted out in some sitcom or another by a validation-seeking female, then we cut to the awkward pause, the laugh track, the struggle in vain for the dude to find a way to answer truthfully, but tactfully, what we, the audience know to be too “cruel” for him to so much as imply. Wah-wah.

Because what? Because a woman has no idea if she’s gained weight? Because women haven’t spent nearly their entire lives considering their body from every angle? Because to be told the truth about how you look as a woman, if the answer is not “perfect,” would be devastating? Because women don’t really want to know the truth? Because this is one arena where men are persona non grata? Based on all the advice I could find, the answer to all of those questions is yes: Women are vain but insecure creatures who can’t handle the truth about how they look, so men have to lie to them. Does anyone else find this infantilizing?

In a Slate column for men called “The Gentleman Scholar,” Troy Patterson takes on a question from a reader who trudges petulantly down this very path.

Dear Scholar,
How do you tell your wife that her new short haircut that she so loves makes her look like a fat little boy?

Taking the safest possible route here, Patterson frames the solution as a matter of good-mannered civility:

Under the influence of sodium pentothal.
Thanks for checking in before attempting this, but I’ve got to wonder about the nom de plume: Exactly how is the speed that you’ve chosen?
A gentleman does not offer a lady any unsolicited negative critique of any aspect of her physical presentation. A gentleman is allowed exceptions to this rule in precisely three instances.
1. You are making yourself helpful by drawing her attention to a clear problem easily fixed (such as when pointing out an undone button on your wife’s blouse or a glob of pigeon poo on a stranger’s shoulder).
2. You two share a professional relationship predicated upon her physical presentation. (Think of hairdressers and clients, models and modeling agents, dancers playing delicate White Swans and leering French ballet directors.)
3. You are trying to start a fight or something.
Maybe the ‘do will grow on you, but definitely it will grow. And if, 18 months from now, it flows lustrously down her back, run your fingers often through its tresses and compliment its length at every opportunity.

I really enjoy Patterson’s column and find it to be witty and engaging. I would not advise the man to drop the truth bomb the way he phrased it here on his unsuspecting wife, because that would be mean and insulting. But unsolicited or otherwise, the idea that telling a woman you’re married to what you think about her hair will start a fight seems to me to perpetuate the notion that women are so fragile that it just isn’t done, all under the guise of polite society approved tact. The only correct answer here he gives is to lavishly praise her hair when she grows it out, in the hopes she’ll get the hint and leave it that way. Isn’t there a middle ground? A more tactful, honest way to foster real communication here, or to even laugh it off?

Still, Patterson’s advice is far superior than what other sites offer men, which is to, say, slideshow extremely repugnant tactics to hope your lady will get the hint she’s fat without you having to tell her, like forcing her to go somewhere that she has to wear a swimsuit. Charming.

Yes, I know, I’m answering my own question. When dealing with buffoons, it’s much better to tell them to shut up than to assume they can handle the nuance of real talk. Patterson perhaps senses this man’s tendency to go huntin’ in his underwear, and correctly steers him to shut the fuck up, because the alternative is disastrous.

But still, I have to ask: Why, in a relationship that is ostensibly willing and equal with someone who is not a buffoon, could one partner not tell another partner something truthful about their appearance without launching World War III?

These people are actually married, for cripes’ sake. I’m not talking about a stranger or acquaintance insulting your personal presentation, unsolicited. I’m talking about your husband or partner, the person who knows that you always get the same three zits before your period, the guy you bought the fungal cream for. How can that person not know how to talk/laugh/cry about a bad haircut with you? Isn’t this person also your friend?

To so heavily gender this and move on leaves out the possibility that the husband could be honest in a humorous or tactful way, and that the wife might:

a) Laugh it off
b) Appreciate the honesty but not give a shit
c) Be hurt but appreciate the honesty, or
d) Be unsure about it herself, was just “giving it a try” and now loves it, but might grow it out again because WTF, who knows, when winter rolls around she might hate the way the wind blows directly into her ear canal.
e) Truly enjoy looking like a porcine 6 year old.

Relationships and people and their bodies and their haircuts are complicated; they all change over time, due to age, willful neglect, childrearing, Netflix, a Bowie phase, the sudden ubiquitous presence of banana pudding on restaurant menus. Finding a language to talk about this with your partner is challenging but necessary, and advice that purports that you skip it entirely is, to me, as dangerous as sounding like a big oaf.

In other words, knowing your husband hates when you wear your dirty Uggs is good to know the next time you want some time to yourself. We may express our preferences to our loved ones, and they may consider them, but this does not obligate them to please us primarily or even most of the time when it comes to their personal presentation choices.

Moreover, a person who loves a person sees a person they love whether it’s Friday night at 9 p.m. after a glass of wine in a dark bar or 6:30 a.m. in the shower under fluorescent light. The packaging inevitably changes, but loving someone literally changes what you see. It does not make you blind to a bad haircut or 10 pounds or that awful sweater, if anything, you’re far more attuned to it, but it does make you aware that what you’ve shacked up with is not, in fact, a haircut, but a human. Of course, haircut fetishists are free to argue otherwise.

As changing, complicated, contradictory people, we have to have the space to be fully messy people, good and bad haircuts included. And by the way, when we cut our hair, we play God with our own universe, and we know it. All haircuts are experiments in mood, temperament, whimsy, power. It takes guts to lop it off at all, especially for women, who are STILL told often explicitly by men in their lives that the one rule they must never break is to lose the long locks and defy the rules of femininity. Bad haircuts are a hilarious, disastrous lark, but they are, at worst‚ to criminally misuse a line from an Anne Sexton poem — an accident of hope.

All women know this. To assume we do not know this is to insult our intelligence. But to assume the only thing we can manage after taking this risk is limitless, unyielding praise, or outright lies — whether or not we hate the damn thing ourselves — is to insult our humility. So, for the love of God, out with your opinion about this new goddamn haircut. We can handle it. It probably changes nothing, but we still want you to feel like your opinion was heard.

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