Gender is a pervasive yet invisible social construct. From the moment we are born we are trained to fit predetermined gender norms by the clothing we are dressed in, the toys we are given, and the way parents and other adults talk to us and describe us to others.
Young boys are often told how smart, strong, brave or funny they are, while girls are warned not to dirty their clothing, and told they are cute, pretty or beautiful almost as a default.
This may seem like a harmless compliment, but children are constantly learning values and their place in the world by the information they receive from their environment, including the adults they interact with.
Looks-based compliments send the message to women and girls that their appearance is their most important attribute, and can lead parents to underestimate the strength and abilities of their daughters from a young age.
This problematic hyper fixation on women and girls’ physical appearance is a predictor for body image challenges later in life and can have devastating impacts on their sense of self-worth.
In adulthood, giving another woman a compliment based on their appearance can feel like an easy way to connect and brighten someone’s day. However, this habit may be harmful, as there is no way of knowing the impact of your words on the recipient.
For example, it may seem harmless to tell someone they look great after a noticeable weight loss, but if that weight loss is the result of grief, illness, or disordered eating, the person is likely incredibly uncomfortable and cringing internally.
Complimenting someone for their looks, which is largely a result of genetics and out of the individual’s control, also reduces that person’s worth to what they look like and reinforces the message that it’s more important for women to be beautiful than it is to be intelligent, strong, or a great leader, friend, or mentor.
Particularly in professional settings, where women have fought for generations to earn a place at table and receive the same opportunities and respect as their male counterparts, it may be time to start uplifting one another by giving compliments that that aren’t based on appearance.
Breaking this habit may take some time, but there are some great places to start. Here’s how you can give women compliments that aren’t based on appearance:
‘You are such great company’
People will forget what you say and do, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Telling someone that spending time with them makes you feel excited, inspired, or at peace can be a great way to connect with them, boost their mood by activating the brain’s reward system, and shift your focus to the person’s intrinsic values and what you love about being in their presence.
‘You are excellent at what you do’
The next time you feel the impulse to compliment another woman’s looks, pause and think of a skill or talent she possesses and compliment that instead.
When women constantly receive comments on their looks, they can internalise the notion that their physical beauty is central to their worthiness, and even start to deidentify with their skills, passions, and hobbies that truly make up who they are.
Cheering your friends on for what they are great at is a simple but effective way to start having more empowering conversations and relationships with other women.
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‘You are strong and resilient’
Most of us are quick to celebrate achievements or positive milestones in our friends’ lives, but shy away from discussing difficult or uncertain times, not knowing what to say or being cautious not to overstep.
However, acknowledging someone’s ability to bounce back from hardship, disappointment, or failure can bolster their sense of self-sufficiency and resilience, and reassure them that their efforts are seen and valued, even during life’s challenges.
‘You are wise and insightful’
The notion that women can’t be both beautiful and intelligent is an old, worn out trope based on prejudice and sexism, yet it continues to dampen women’s confidence and ambition.
Women who receive frequent appearance-based comments and compliments may be more likely to underestimate their own intellect, with one study even showing that women performed worse on an IQ test after being objectified by researchers.
There are many different types of intelligence, so make a point of praising other women for their unique areas of expertise to remind them of their worth and value irrespective of their appearance.
‘You are an incredible leader’
Sexism still influences many unconscious biases, particularly in the workforce.
Women who are considered attractive are regularly presumed to be less suitable for positions of leadership and authority.
Taking time to acknowledge the great leadership skills of the women you work with, publicly where appropriate, can help to change this narrative and support the advancement of gender equity in the workplace, so that future generations of women are empowered and liberated to pursue success in whatever field they choose.
TELL US: What compliments do you give your female friends that aren’t based on their physical appearance? Share your tips in the comments section below.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 17, 2021 and has since been updated to include new content.