Can Women Change the Way They Compliment Each Other?
Why appearance compliments can do more harm than good.
Posted May 15, 2016
Earlier this month, People magazine named Jennifer Aniston the world’s most beautiful woman. During an interview about her thoughts on this title, Aniston was asked about the most beautiful compliment she has ever received. In her answer, she doesn’t recall comments about her flawless skin or iconic hair; rather, she recollects the story of a woman who told her that watching Friends reruns kept her going through three years of cancer treatment. “It made her laugh,” recalled Aniston.
Other female celebrities in the issue were asked the same question. Although some answers were related to looks, the women mostly recalled times they were called kind, funny, or, most notably, a good parent.
It appears that the most meaningful comments for a woman involve her head and her heart — not an evaluation of her beauty.
And yet women continually compliment each other for their looks.
“I love your outfit!”
“You look great — you’re so skinny/fair/tanned/fit/[other supposedly complimentary adjective]!”
Comments such as these are commonplace within female dialogue, and research (perhaps unsurprisingly) suggests that women are more likely than men to compliment each other on their appearance (Rees-Miller, 2011). They are also more likely to give each other appearance compliments than other types of compliments.
(It should be noted that men may also be more likely to compliment women for their appearance than for other attributes, although this gender dynamic is beyond the scope of this blog post; see Parisi & Wogan, 2006)
Appearance Compliments and Self-Objectification
When women are praised for the way they look, although their mood may temporarily increase (Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008), they may also experience negative consequences (Calogero, Herbozo, & Thompson, 2009; Tiggemann & Boundy, 2008). Self-objectification theory — which involves the habitual monitoring of one’s appearance — can help explain this phenomenon. As psychology researchers Rachel Calogero, Sylvia Herbozo, and Kevin Thompson (2009) explain, appearance compliments are “objectifying because they direct women’s attention toward how their bodies look to others and encourage them to view themselves as objects” (p. 120).
In other words, appearance compliments can perpetuate the societal norm that a woman’s body is made to be looked at, judged, and evaluated. This is concerning, given that such self-objectification in women has been linked to body shame, appearance anxiety, depression, and eating disorders (Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn, & Thompson, 2011). With so many women suffering from these types of mental health concerns, it is important to be mindful of the impact of our words.
A More Mindful Approach to Compliments
Appearance compliments don’t always result in negative consequences. Janie Rees-Miller (2011) researched the gendered use of compliments in different settings and suggested that women may use appearance compliments as “a kind of small talk” to help them connect with one another. Furthermore, appearance compliments are often given with the genuine intention of building up another woman’s self-esteem, and some research suggests that they can have a positive influence on mood (Fea & Brannon, 2006). I often look at the women in my life, am struck by something beautiful about them, and want to share my observations. I argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing. However, far too often women default to talking about each other’s appearance and, as research suggests, even when the focus is seemingly positive, this contributes to the objectification of women.
So, what would happen if females were more likely to be complimented for their actions over their appearance? If “You so look pretty!” became “You did a great job at work today,” or “Thanks for being a great listener”? If young girls were called “strong” or “smart” more often than they were called “cute"?
Furthermore, when appearance compliments are given, what if women were more mindful about the language used? Specific references, for example, to another women’s weight, size, skin color, or clothing can perpetuate societal body ideals that are unattainable and often harmful. (See this post on the Beauty Redefined blog, about when the phrase “you look so skinny!” can do more harm than good.) Contrarily, appearance compliments that focus on the overall essence of the woman — for example that she looks healthy, strong, glowing, or happy — may better convey the intention of the positive affirmation.
Calogero, R. M., Herbozo, S., & Thompson, K. (2009). Complimentary weightism: The potential costs of appearance-related commentary for women’s self-objectification. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33, 120-132.
Calogero, R. M., Tantleff-Dunn, S., & Thompson, J. K. (2011). Self-objectification in women: Causes, consequences, and counteractions. American Psychological Association.
Fea, C. J., & Brannon, L A. (2006). Self-objectification and compliment type: Effects on negative mood. Body Image, 3(2), 183-188.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21 173-206.
Parisi, C., & Wogan, P. (2006). Compliment topic and gender. Women and Language, 29(2), 21-28.
Rees-Miller, J. (2011). Compliments revisited: Contemporary compliments and gender. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 2673-2688.
Tiggemann, M., & Boundy, M. (2008). Effect of environment and appearance compliment on college women’s self-objectification, mood, body shame, and cognitive performance. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 399-405.