I was 16 years old when a boy on the big yellow school bus told me that I “look like a gerbil” and no one would ever marry me. The insult was needlessly cruel, to be sure, but what struck me most was the manner in which it was spoken — aloof and casual, more afterthought than criticism. It’s been nearly 17 years, and I haven’t forgotten the encounter. Ah, the scrutiny of schoolboys.
I hid my hurt feelings that afternoon in an effort to “be cool,” especially because Bus Boy was out for blood and tears, but I’m not hiding them now. Too many times men have offered their unsolicited observations about my physical appearance, and when they get a reaction out of me, they’re shocked to learn that their opinions are actually hurtful. They sometimes qualify their statements after the fact, but more often than not they blame me for “overreacting” to their painful pronouncements — we rodents just have sensitive nervous systems, I guess.
Below are five so-called “innocent” comments various boys and men have made about my looks over the years and a brief description of the emotional aftermath.
And while I don’t deny that women are also guilty of making these kinds of remarks, I’m willing to argue that females know what they’re doing when it comes to this stuff . If a girl tells me that my arms are really hairy, she probably intends offense or at the very least expects the possibility of hurt feelings, whether it matters to her or not. I mean, we’ve all seen Mean Girls, haven’t we? But dudes? They know not what they say, apparently.
Okay, so guys, I hope my experiences help illustrate how women internalize your offhand remarks about our appearances, however harmless you think they are. And to the ladies , if any of you out there feel me on this issue, you know you’re not alone. So let’s get going, shall we?
Comment 1 : You need to shave your armpits.
In my mid-20s, my friend “Lucy” invited me out on the lake with her, so I threw on my bikini and hit the road toward the marina. Because I’ve got dark hair, my hair follicles are visible through my relatively pale skin even after I shave. I never gave this much thought until Lucy’s boyfriend made us all aware as we stood awkwardly on the deck of his cousin’s houseboat, cheap beer in one hand and a half-soaked Camel Light in the other.
“You need to shave your armpits,” he said, flicking his cigarette into the water like it was no big deal as he looked at me. I pulled my elbows into my waist and said nothing in return. I was gobsmacked — worried that they all thought of me as some kind of dirty, hairy beast who never bathed.
I didn’t speak a word throughout our dinner on the dock, which was unusual for me, and Lucy noticed my silence. When she asked me about it, I told her how self-conscious I felt because of her boyfriend’s comment. To his credit, he soon apologized, but he seemed genuinely amazed that I took offense to a perfunctory remark in which he dictated how I should modify my body in order to alleviate his obvious disgust with it.
The aftermath : I bleached my underarms to no avail, refused to wear sleeveless tops for the rest of the summer, and actually felt jealous of the models in deodorant commercials. I literally ripped my armpit hair out at the root with an epilator — a torture device that looks like an electronic razor but acts like a hundred tiny tweezers of doom. I researched laser hair removal and even scheduled a few consultations, but it’s expensive, painful, and not actually permanent at all.
Eventually, I gave up the crusade to be silky smooth and stopped caring about my intractable “5 o’clock shadow” altogether, but it wasn’t the last body hair comment I’d receive from the male species. In fact, I heard the exact same thing from a customer at a sports bar I used to work at. That’s not what we mean by a “tip,” sir — I take cash or card.
Comment 2 : You look like a linebacker.
I was working at a restaurant when a fellow employee said this to me. I’d been hurrying through the kitchen, grabbing ketchup and sodas and whatever else, but this comment stopped me in my tracks.
“Excuse me?” I asked, setting down my drink tray on the counter as he sized me up.
“You know, the football players,” he said. “You look like ‘em ‘cause you got such broad shoulders.”
“Are you really telling me I look like a dude in big, protective sports gear?”
“It’s just something I noticed. Don’t get all upset about it.”
“Well, you kinda insulted me, you know.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Of course you don’t.”
Pro-tip : Don’t compare women’s bodies to anybody else’s body ever, okay, guys? Even if it’s a hot celebrity.
You may think it’s a compliment, or a neutral statement, or whatever, but she might not feel that way about the analogy. I certainly didn’t. And had this co-worker compared me to Miss America or Maxim’s Sexiest Woman Alive or a scantily clad Victoria’s Secret model, all of which are objectively flattering, it would’ve invited me to compare myself, too, and that’d be an unmitigated disaster : “I’m not as skinny as her,” “Her boobs are bigger than mine,” “She’s so much more toned than I am,” ad infinitum. I’m a better critic of myself than any dude out there could ever be, and the same goes for a lot of women.
If you absolutely must break out a simile, guys, scream it into a pillow or something. On a related note , I don’t like being told I resemble Olive Oyl from the Popeye cartoon. Unless your goal is to annoy the bejeesus outta me, stop telling me that, fellas. It’s not exactly the look I’m going for.
Okay, on to the aftermath . I began to notice the slender slope of my female friends’ shoulders, and I felt really masculine next to them in my “God-given” football gear. I wore fewer sleeveless shirts and scrutinized the seams of my sweaters, realizing that they didn’t line up correctly unless I bought clothes in the men’s section of the department stores. Blazers and structured jackets went right out the window, of course.
I waxed nostalgic about the ’80s, when women actually sewed pads into their dresses to give the illusion of broader shoulders. And like the body hair issue, I totally stopped caring in the end because I can’t change my anatomy, and there’s no such thing as shoulder plastic surgery, or at least, I don’t think so.
Comment 3 : I’ve got some cream for the spots on your face.
I went to Florida with my friend “Jenny” for spring break the summer after we graduated high school, and we were staying with her grandparents near Daytona. I was on the computer checking my email when her grandpa wandered in to offer me what I can only assume is the geriatric version of Proactiv, which I declined in horror.
Yeah, my acne wasn’t great. I compulsively picked at it and wasn’t wearing makeup that week since we’d been out in the sun a lot — hey, I didn’t wanna melt.
I truly believe Jenny’s grandpa meant well, but it cut me to the core nonetheless. I was already really self-conscious about my skin. Besides, did he think a teenage girl knew less about zit cream than a 60-something-year-old man? I guess it’s possible he thought I was completely clueless, but did he think his comment wouldn’t embarrass me? He clearly knew that the “spots” were undesirable or he wouldn’t have brought me cream to get rid of them, right?
Either way, I faked a smile, told him “thanks, but no thanks,” and went back to browsing AOL. Fourteen years later, it still feels like yesterday.
The aftermath: Not much changed here since I was already hyperaware of my acne, though I did take home the lesson that I’m never safe from male scrutiny, even with senior citizens. I guess I assumed we’d all eat green bean casserole and play gin rummy and watch The Price Is Right on an old TV with a shoddy antenna while visiting Jenny’s grandparents, but judgment isn’t confined to the halls of a high school or to the brains of teenage boys. Le sigh, or whatever.
Shortly after that trip to Florida, I secured a part-time gig as a cashier at Best Buy. A co-worker around my age literally asked me, “What’s wrong with your face?” So, yeah, at least the grandpa offered to help, in his way. But maybe just don’t comment on a woman’s acne at all unless you’re a board-certified dermatologist, ‘kay? I mean, we women have enough insecurities as it is.
Comment 4 : You don’t need so much makeup.
This remark is closely related to the last entry, and I heard it too many times to count throughout college — at work, at parties, after class. Yeah, I caked it on, but I did it in a desperate effort to hide my acne. If I didn’t cover up the zits, dudes would keep asking me “what’s wrong” with my face, right? Well, damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because they commented on my skin either way.
Besides, how do you respond to that remark? Do you really wanna tell a guy that you wear three layers of foundation to conceal your pepperoni pizza face? Who wants to say something like that out loud to friends and co-workers? The whole point of the goops and powders and crap was to hide my flaws . Why would I wanna call attention to them? ‘Cause the dude’s gonna connect the dots — quite literally — the second I bring it up.
So here’s my message to men regarding makeup : If a woman is wearing what seems like a lot of it, don’t say anything, okay? She could be covering acne. She could be insecure about her skin. Or she could just really like the way she looks with more of it on. And who are you to kill her vibe?
To put it simply, please stop telling us what to do with our faces , and yeah, that includes telling us to smile, got it? Okay, good. And here’s to the ladies : You do you, boo.
Aftermath : I bought every color and consistency of concealer I could find, scheduled consultations at expensive makeup counters that promised miracle coverage, doubled down on my skin care routine, and worried about it all enough to cause even more breakouts. It took me a good 45 minutes just to do my foundation in the morning, y’all . Nobody’s got time for that.
Fortunately, my skin cleared up somewhere around my 30th birthday when I got prescribed some pretty strong anti-anxiety meds for my mental health issues. Stress seems to have been the culprit when it came to my acne, and now that it’s healed, I’ve cleaned out the makeup drawer. But I didn’t do it for you, boys. I did it for me — I just really like sleeping in.
Comment 5 : You look two months pregnant.
My friends and I were all in the parking lot outside the trampoline park, chatting next to our cars, when my friend “Nick” told me that I looked two or three months pregnant. Now, this guy’s a good friend, and I know he meant no harm, but damn if that isn’t the worst thing to ever tell a woman who isn’t actually pregnant — and he knew I wasn’t baby-bumpin’ ‘cause we were pretty close at the time.
Anyway, I have somewhat of a distended stomach. I’ve got no idea why . I’ve had invasive tests for celiac disease, which my mother suffered from, and I’ve done a million crunches and gone on terrible elimination diets, and I’ve crawled to the ends of Google looking for some semblance of a solution, but my doctors and I just don’t know why it pooches out so dramatically.
It’s not fat because it “deflates” if I don’t eat for a day or two — sometimes my anxiety makes me too nauseated to keep anything down. And it’s not all in my head, either, as some of my friends have suggested. It’s totally real, mkay? It’s been medically documented, and it’s a huge insecurity of mine.
So when a guy calls attention to my belly in a group of friends, I’m not gonna feel all the warm fuzzies about it, am I? Nick seemed really apologetic but bewildered at the same time . He didn’t get why his comment offended me; he said he meant it as a casual joke.
So listen here: If you’re a dude reading this article, and you take nothing else away with you when you scroll to the bottom, take this golden nugget of advice, okay? Don’t ever, ever, ever joke about a woman’s weight. Don’t do it. Don’t risk it. Don’t gamble with her self-esteem.
And don’t for the love of all things holy tell a woman that she looks pregnant unless she’s waving a sonogram in your face and screaming, “I’m with child! I’m with child!” or something really obvious like that. It’s better safe than sorry, amirite?
Okay, to the aftermath : That one comment proved to me that normal clothes don’t do enough to camouflage my bulbous belly, so I went out and bought some cheap maternity jeans. I swore off pants without an elastic waistband and dissolved into tears. The whole thing wasn’t very pretty , and in my eyes, neither was I.
I care less about the distention these days, but I still wear leggings and loose shirts almost exclusively outside of work. It does bother me at times, but I deal, and I guess that’s that.
Final Thoughts for the Dudes
So here’s what it all boils down to, guys : Avoid making “observations” about a woman’s physical appearance unless 1) you’re a total dick and actually want to offend her, 2) you’re kind of a dick and just don’t really care if you hurt her feelings or not, or 3) she specifically asked for your opinion about the exact area of her body you intend to comment on. And probably don’t ever tell a teenage girl that she looks like a gerbil, okay? I’m talking to you, Bus Boy. It’s as easy as that.