If women would get a dime for every compliment they receive for their looks, the gender pay gap would have been closed ages ago. Women mostly receive (and give!) compliments based on appearance, whilst people of other genders get compliments based on performance, talent or skill. Isn’t it nice to be told you’re pretty? Sometimes, but more often than not it’s unnecessary at best and inappropriate or degrading at worst.
I remember my high school teacher giving me a 10 (A+) for a piece of work I made in crafts class because I had “such beautiful red hair”. As a 13-year-old, I didn’t only feel embarrassed towards my classmates who had heard his “compliment”, but also wondered if it meant my work wasn’t actually worth the grade. When you keep being complimented based on how you look without receiving other types of praise, you start asking yourself: Do people only like me because of how I look? Am I more than my cute smile, shiny hair, sparkling eyes? As such, appearance-based compliments can fuel insecurity and kill ambition.
My high school experience is reflective of the deeply rooted idea that women’s worth is determined by their appearance. Libraries can be filled with books where a man falls desperately in love with a woman because she is so pretty. Surely, it’s nice to have some physical attraction, but a proper conversation or cracking a joke doesn’t hurt either, does it? In romantic movies we are constantly reminded of how beautiful the women characters are. Rarely do they receive praise because they, say, fixed their bike or solved a mathematical problem.
Appearance-based compliments are a form of benevolent sexism. Though seemingly harmless and often well-intended, such remarks reinforce the idea that women need to be pretty, and little more than that. These compliments keep women small and uphold existing gender hierarchies. Pretty women don’t pose a threat to the patriarchy. Women with brains and a mission do. The takeaway from all of this should be clear: Compliment women on their excellent ideas, their witty remarks, their creative insights, their thought-provoking writing, their impressive dedication, their clever sense of humour, the way they drive their car, their strength, their handiness, speaking skills, their lack of fear, their inspiration, motivation or the fact they pay their bills.