Communicating with other people is fraught with chances to put your foot in your mouth, even when you have (or think you have) good intentions. Learning how to give a woman a compliment doesn't outwardly seem like something we would have to teach ourselves, but in fact, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong and incidentally end up pissing someone off. Sometimes, you can find yourself in the maelstrom of an ultra-PC Sharknado, digging yourself into a hole you'll never be able to climb out of (your best bet is to just start covering yourself in discarded soil and hope that no one notices). But not every compliment you give to a woman is necessarily offensive. What makes something offensive or not is primarily defined by context and intention. If you give a genuine compliment to a woman you are familiar with, guess what? That's likely not going to be perceived as offensive! If you, for instance, give an overtly sexual and unsolicited compliment to a woman in the street who is a stranger to you, that's both threatening and offensive. Likewise, if your compliment is backhanded, condescending, or intended to belittle, it's offensive.
That means it IS possible to give a compliment, even one that might seem offensive at first, to a woman. You don't always have to be pandering to conversational political correctness and you can express genuine sentiment without being hunted by the feminist-police. But let's make no qualms about it: the appropriateness of following examples hinges very directly on how you mean what you're saying.
1. "You look like you've been working out!"
This compliment works best if it's given to someone you know, who you know actually does work out. Then, it's not so much giving unsolicited feedback about your approval of their body (who needs it?); it's more validating something you know means something to them personally. As someone who goes to yoga 4 times a week, I LOVE when people notice my arm muscles getting leaner or my bottom becoming rounder. It gives me a great sense of pride and achievement, and for many people, both men AND women, exercise is a feel good accomplishment, and it's lovely to hear someone complimenting your efforts. This compliment is only offensive if you're a total creep being creepy, or saying it spitefully, to call attention to a defect in the woman (or even the man!) rather than her achievement. Otherwise, bring it.
2. "You're so maternal."
As a very maternal woman, I never find this compliment to be offensive, although I can see how it could be taken as such. With women fighting to break down stereotypes and historically entrenched gender norms, it can be frustrating and feel reductive to keep harping on these elements of the female persona. But if the person giving the compliment is one who understands that the woman they're giving it too is multi-dimensional, there's no harm in complimenting one of the myriad facets of that woman's personality, just as you could compliment her independent, tenacity or ambition. Also, there's nothing wrong with being maternal. It's actually a really lovely, positive quality.
3. "That's impressive for a woman."
Before you get your panties in a knot, a lot of the time, this can be really offensive. When you use the addendum "for a woman" at the end of a compliment, it's generally a compliment that's intended to belittle an achievement. BUT on a case by case basis, there are times when this compliment is just a compliment. For instance: if a woman has managed to work her way up in an all male work place to become boss, based on her hard work and merits, then that is impressive for a woman in that situation. When a female recording artist breaks a record and is the first woman to do so, we want to acknowledge that. When Hilary becomes POTUS, and is the first woman to do that, we will acknowledge her too. When a woman fights against gender biases in society, she is doing something impressive as a woman and for women. We're not quite at the point yet where people are just people, so it is impressive for women, as women, do break certain glass ceilings, and it's perfectly inoffensive for us to acknowledge that. Or maybe the fact that I personally find this compliment to be inoffensive while so many other women hate it is a testament to the fact that everyone is an individual, and you can't really make sweeping generalizations about what is universally okay to say to all women, and should probably save personal commentary about people for people you actually know.
4. "You look beautiful."
Sometimes a woman looks beautiful. If you have the kind of relationship where saying stuff like this isn't threatening, then say it. Every person, no matter what gender, feels good when their looks are complimented in a safe environment (which is constituted where there is no fear of harm and it's understood that "beautiful" encompasses body, mind and soul). On the other hand, if you're a weirdo in the street and feel inclined to tell a woman this and follow it with growling noises or other obscenities, then you are being deeply offensive. But if you're talking to your girlfriend, best friend, mother, sister, friend, friend's girlfriend, or whoever it is in your life that such a compliment would make feel GOOD, then say it. Basically, if it's not sleazy or scary, it's a lovely thing to say.
5. "I like your outfit."
See above re: kind vs. creepy. Chances are, whoever you're talking to has put some thought into their outfit, and that outfit makes them feel good. It can give a woman (or a man) a great sense of pride to feel like their efforts have been noticed. It doesn't make them or you superficial, it's just life. We get dressed every day, and we all like to feel like we're getting it right.
6. "You're so funny!"
See, this is one case where you don't want to follow this with "for a woman". But it's okay to tell someone they're funny, as long as there's no gender bias in your language. Not everyone is funny! It can be surprising to learn that someone really is, whether they are a man or a woman. You don't have to avoid telling a woman you find her funny just because "women can be funny too!" As long as you address her as a person, or as you would a man, it's perfectly fine to compliment a woman's sense of humor.
Images: massimo_riserbo/Flickr; Giphy (6)