The Transformative Power Of Feminist Compliments

by Teresa Newsome

When I log into my Facebook these days, I'm pretty much prepared for an onslaught of ridiculousness. But sometimes I see something that blows my mind in a way that requires so much more than an eye roll, a petty meme, or a donation to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence's name. Recently I saw a status update that said something along the lines of, "Apparently feminists think compliments are sexist and offensive now." And it got me thinking about how important — and even radical — compliments can really be.

Honestly, I get that feminism can be complicated in practice, and anything having to do with physical appearance just ups that ante by infinity percent. I've studied feminism for years — and I'm still in over my head a lot of the time. It's especially difficult when feminists don't even agree among themselves. Throw in privilege, race, party affiliation, religion, intersectionality and woah. It's a lot. But some things really aren't that hard to understand when you break them down. One of them is compliments.

And it's crucial that we do understand them, because compliments are intimately connected with so much of who we are, who we are socialized to become, how we view our skills and abilities, how we treat ourselves, and how we treat others. They're actually a pretty big deal. According to author and psychologist Patricia A O'Gorman, PhD in an interview with Bustle, "The struggle women have with compliments is that these acknowledgments of their ‘desirability’ hit what I’ve named 'girly thoughts.' Girly thoughts are how women internalize societal messages that inundate them with information about how they should act, should look, and what they should want, turning this into an inner toxic self-talk that misdirects their energies. This is what women need to learn to fight against."

"...women internalize societal messages that inundate them with information about how they should act, should look, and what they should want, turning this into an inner toxic self-talk that misdirects their energies. This is what women need to learn to fight against."

If you do compliments right, you can give someone the kind of self-esteem boost they need to move mountains. When they're done wrong, they can deflate someone's self-esteem and even feel like manipulation. Getting this stuff right matters. Here are some essential tips for getting your compliment game on lock. It's just one simple but powerful way you can change the world for the better.

1. Don't Only Compliment Appearance

You're beautiful! But is that all you are? Absolutely not. It's ridiculous that I would even ask that in 2016, right? So why are those the main type of compliments we give women (generally speaking, of course)? Turn on the TV and pay attention to the way compliments happen. Girls are complimented for being pretty, cute, gorgeous, beautiful. Boys are told they're smart, adventurous, talented, brave, and funny. It's part of our gender socialization, which starts before we're even born. What kind of BS is that?

We are literally teaching our girls that their value lies in their appearance, but boys' value lies in their abilities. When you only compliment girls and women on their appearance, you're unintentionally reinforcing this idea. You're now part of the problem, like it or not. It's harsh, but true. And we are all part of the problem sometimes, by the way. Here's where the feminist haters get it wrong, though. Complimenting women on their appearance isn't always problematic; only complimenting them on their appearance is the problem.

2. Compliment Appearance When It's What's Needed

Sometimes your co-worker's highlight is next level. Like, you really need them to know that you could see their cheekbones from space, and that you are living for their face. Should you tell them? Duh. Of course. What if your bestie was feeling ugly? Would you tell her she was smart or would you roll out the red carpet and march all her best qualities down it? Exactly. You'd tell her she was more beautiful than Cinderella and had hair like sunshine (shout out to Bridesmaids). It's about balance. Compliments aren't the enemy. Image-based self-worth is the enemy.

3. Attach More Value To Appearance-Based Compliments

If you say something like, "You look awesome today, I love that dress," you actually have a great opportunity to add some depth and value to your compliment that takes it beyond just looks. You can add in something like, "you have really good taste," or "you always know the right/perfect thing to wear for these events." You can also say things like, "you look really professional," or "you look sassy, like you're about to kick Monday in the ass."

There are tons of ways to add a little more substance to the typical appearance-based nod. When you do this, you're acknowledging that the person you're complimenting matters in a lot of different ways and has space to exist in the world in a lot more places. You know how feminists are always talking about creating space? This is a tiny way to help do that.

4. Pepper Your Conversations With Feedback Compliments

When someone gives you feedback, it's a great time to skip the average, "thank you," and say something like, "thank you, you're so smart," or "I really appreciate your attention to detail." When someone's talking to you about the fight they had with their parents, you can add statements like "You're always very fair," or "you're good at keeping your cool," or "you have a great sense of other's boundaries." When you begin praising your friends on the regular, you'll see a miraculous opening of their hearts and spirits. I know that sounds like a new-age romance novel, but it's so true. I've seen it happen first hand. Creating space for the people in your lives to be excellent and recognizing the ways they are already excellent is endlessly powerful. "According to Fern Weis, Parent Coach & Family Recovery Life Coach, when you praise an action or a person (i.e. You're such a good friend), it may not be received. That person might be thinking, That was today. You should have seen what happened yesterday!). When you praise a positive character trait (You showed compassion/were a good listener), that's praise the person can accept."

5. Use Empowering Image-Based Compliments

You can tell someone cool, empowering stuff. Instead of just saying they look great or awesome, you can say they look like a warrior, or like a goddess, or like a professional stylist. One time a friend told me I looked like Xena Warrior Princess and Tina Fey had an epic love child and I was high on life for days. You can also compliment someone in terms of their whole being by saying something like, "Your vibe is so killer right now," or "I'm literally loving everything about your life right now." I love the Instagram goals hashtag. When I see someone kicking ass, I make sure to let them know that is also #goals. #Goals is great when you're talking about eyebrows, but it's next-level great when you're talking about getting a promotion. Think about it.

6. Save Your Backhands For Tennis

Someone literally once said to me, "That dress is gorgeous! Try it with Spanx next time and it will be perfect!" OK. I see you. You think I'm too fat to wear this dress. You felt the need to let me know while pretending to compliment me. Hard pass on that whole situation. Here's a pro tip: Unless you're a professional stylist, the person you're talking to has asked for specific outfit feedback, or you're super besties and know the person you're talking to will want that type of feedback, keep it to yourself. You're not helping, even if you think you are. And really, why do you care if you can see my belly rolls? Is your life dramatically affected by my lack of a specific undergarment? No. You just wanted to put me in my place – well, the place you thought I belonged. Backhanded comments say more about you than the people you say them too. There are better ways to spend your precious energy that policing someone else's body or being snarky.

7. Check Your Motivations

Here's where some people get mad at feminists for being particular about compliments. Let me break it down for you. Have you ever been chatting with some sexy stranger who spent all day telling you how beautiful you are? Then, when you told that stranger you weren't interested in dropping everything to have sex with them, they replied with something like, "You're ugly, anyway." There you go. If your motivation for complimenting someone is not that you mean it, but rather, that you want to get in their pants, that is absolutely offensive and sexist and abusive and all that other stuff feminists say it is. Plain and simple. If you are not giving a compliment for the sake of giving a compliment, don't give a compliment. Also, if you give a compliment, the appropriate expected compensation is "thank you" not sex.

8. Understand The Male Gaze

If you're unfamiliar with the male gaze and how it related to compliments, this is for you. The male gaze is the idea that women only exist to be pleasing to men. It's the idea that men look at us and see our bodies and nothing else. It's when we're treated or portrayed as objects that were invented solely for men to enjoy. It's seeing the world through male eyes because they're in charge of our media and entertainment. Sometimes when men give women compliments, it's hard to believe they're genuine and not just an appreciation of women as props in their male fantasy lands. Sometimes it's even hard to know if we're dressing a certain way for ourselves, or because we've been subconsciously told that this is what will please men. Keep this in mind if you're a male giving a compliment to a female. We're not just props that exist to look good for you.

9. Don't Put Yourself Down In The Process

A compliment that degrades you in the process isn't really a compliment; it's a comparison. You don't have to use yourself as a bridge to make others feel better. When you do this, you're undoing all of the good work your compliment has done. For example, you don't have to say, "You look great, I could never pull that off." You can say,"You look great." You don't have to say, "I could never wear red lipstick without looking like a clown." You can just say, "That red lipstick makes me want to do cartwheels." We don't need to build each other up by tearing ourselves down.

10. Don't Mix Compliments & Favors

Here's another tricky area where compliments get a bad wrap. Compliments can be a manipulation tool, and a pretty powerful one. Listen to how you're complimenting others, and make sure you're not only dong it to butter them up so you can ask a favor. Doing that leaves a slime trail all over your shared space, which, rude. Your praise shouldn't be something you hold over another person's head in order to get want you want. Humans are not dogs.

11. Skip Size-Based Compliments Most Of The Time

I always cringe when I hear people give size-based compliments, because I never know how they're going to be received. "You look super skinny today" is probably the worst. I mean, it's supposed to be the ultimate compliment, right? Really, though, what it often does is tell the person you're complimenting that they are at their best when they are at their smallest. That's problematic on about a million levels. I'm an equal opportunity cringer, too, though. When I hear someone say, "You're rocking that plus size style!" I worry because I never know how it's going to be received. Maybe that person is struggling with their body positive attitude. Maybe they don't consider themselves plus sized at all.

All bodies are good bodies. There's no need to attach a size-based element to the compliments unless you know you're in a body positive space. It's not really much harder to say, "I'm digging your rocking bod" than "I love that you're so confident showing off your belly rolls." Many may agree to disagree, but I think size-based compliments are just too risky for your average, run-of-the-mill daily conversation. Why risk making someone feel less than when you can just as easily make them feel amazing?

12. Don't Treat People Like Looking Good Is A Requirement

Have you ever overheard someone give their very spirited opinion about how others should or shouldn't look? Like, "You have to have zero self respect to leave the house in sweatpants." Or, "I don't understand why she's so opposed to wearing makeup." What about those shows where they humiliate people about how they dress and buy them new clothes under the guise that real, productive, together adults always look a certain way? Or those seemingly innocent, funny memes and social media rants about how obnoxious the latest trends are. Nobody owes anyone pretty. It is not your responsibility to look a certain way to make anyone else feel better. In terms of compliments, let's not use them to shame women into fitting into any specific mold. "See, I told you makeup would have you looking 10 years younger!" is not a compliment.

13. Learn To Accept Compliments

"When someone says congratulations, it's OK to just say 'thank you' and not feel the need to justify your achievement," according to mental health therapist Shemiah R. Derrick in an interview. This is some serious truth. When someone gives you a compliment, is it your first instinct to dismiss it, downplay what they're complimenting, or disagree with them? Stop now. Other people's opinion of you are theirs, and their none of your business. Plus, you don't need to waste your precious energy trying to convince someone not to love that thing they just told you they love about you. That's kind of silly. When you receive a compliment, just say 'thank you.' That's all you have to do.

This can be a lot to absorb for anyone new to feminism, or self-confidence, or anything in between. The idea of compliments as a world-improving feminist act may seem like a stretch. When it's all said and done, though, the most important thing to remember about compliments isn't their enormous power. It's that they should be genuine and that they shouldn't always be about looks. Knowing just those two things will take you a long way in the "uplifting other women" and "creating a safe and equal society" games. I promise.

Images: Pexels ; Hannah Burton, Bry Crasch, Isla Murray, Allison Gore, Mary Blount, Cora Foxx/Bustle