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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Is it rude to talk about women's appearances?

Rika Kayama

I've been having some doubts about a Kaleidoscope of the Heart column I penned earlier this year.

The article focused on U.S. President Donald Trump's encounter with French first lady Brigitte Macron during his visit to France which I believe was in July this year. In particular, it discussed the way in which Trump complimented Macron with the words, "You're in such good shape... Beautiful."

Of course, Trump was probably just trying to flatter her. Yet the comment was lambasted across the world. It has been argued that suddenly complimenting a woman or even a man on their physique or appearance can be interpreted as sexual harassment depending on the situation. Indeed, particularly on a highly public occasion, the probability of a comment about someone's face or style being taken as rude behavior that does not respect the person's dignity is high.

In my article earlier this year, I suggested that Japanese people should take more care when speaking to others -- given that there is a tendency in Japan to use throw away phrases such as, "You're beautiful," or, "You've got a nice body," in a lighthearted fashion.

When Trump's eldest daughter Ivanka and wife Melania visited Japan in autumn, they were lavished with praise on television gossip shows, with comments such as, "beautiful like an actress," and, "having the style and dress sense of a model."

With compliments of this nature being flung around on Japanese TV, I braced myself for a potential public backlash -- based on the response to Trump's similar comments about the French first lady earlier in the year. However, there wasn't one. I did not hear anyone remark that it's rude to talk about appearances.

When I commented to a friend that I was surprised about the absence of any kind of protest, I was told, "That's because you're neurotic. Melania and Ivanka are both beautiful and stylish, so where's the harm in talking about these things?"

I wonder whether my friend is right. It seems that telling a woman in Japan that she is beautiful or has an outstanding physique is not a social faux pas -- because it is essentially meant as a compliment.

Nevertheless, I still feel slightly uncomfortable. My theory is that these kinds of remarks could lead to a situation where women are evaluated depending on their appearance. Furthermore, for women who are trying hard in their jobs and in society, it must be disappointing just to be told, "Hey, you look like that actress."

The question remains. Should the appearances of women be something that deserves to be praised, or not talked about at all? I am personally in the latter camp, but I have come to realize that not everyone else is. This is a more complicated issue than I had previously thought. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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