Why Being Called Pretty Sometimes Gets Ugly Mary Traina

We’ve all witnessed it: a man tells a young lady in a non-romantic setting that she looks pretty. She makes a face like a deer caught in headlights then sheepishly says thank you. Or perhaps she just makes a fart noise. The man then teases her, “What, you can’t take a compliment?”

Sure she can take a compliment! She’d probably love to hear praise on a job well done or a joke well told or an outfit well put together. What she’s reacting to is the idea that, perhaps without trying, she’s attained the much-sought, often fleeting “pretty” label — and all the baggage that goes along with it. I’ve been trying to put my finger on all the emotions at play in these situations for years. My gut tells me that men, especially in a professional setting, should just knock it off.

Being called pretty isn’t the worst, by any means. After all, it’s awesome to feel pretty! How else can the popularity of the ridiculous “duck face” be explained? It is an expression that both slims the cheeks and puffs the lips. Perfect! Cut your Facebook friends some slack!

The downside of being called pretty by someone we’re not trying to seduce is the emphasis it puts on a quality we have no control over. Not having control means losing power and that’s always a bit off-putting. The more emphasis we feel people are putting on beauty, the more chaotic life tends to become. The clock starts to tick. Age-defying creams start to wield power over us. Maybe you used to spend your extra budget on movie theater nachos and now suddenly pro-retinol formulas are mocking you from the beauty aisle, “Oh, you don’t have the cash for me, sweetheart? Good luck freezing time, you soon-to-be hag!” Aaaah!!!! (Cut to waking up in a cold sweat.)

I think the discomfort women feel with the subject of beauty, and the male verbal diarrhea that comes along with it, is as simple as examining the role compliments play in our daily lives. Allow me to put to use my college education (actually, college is a blur. This is from about.com). In psychology, there is a type of operant conditioning known as “positive reinforcement.” I’m sure many of you currently use this on your roommate. Every time they wash the dishes, you say, “Wow, thanks! You are the best.” Then, because they desire to always be the best, your roommate continues to regularly wash dishes — thus creating a clean and friendly living environment. Congratulations! You’ve used positive reinforcement to perpetuate favorable behavior and improve two lives! This is because compliments serve to remind people they are doing something right; their hard work is noticed, they are appreciated and they should keep it up. However, when something as wildly subjective and uncontrollable as beauty is complimented, there is a sense that you haven’t earned it, you can’t perpetuate it and when it inevitably fades, you’ll be missing a significant piece of what made you worthy of praise in the eyes of society. Pretty is positive, but what’s being reinforced? Being called pretty is absolutely worthless in that it doesn’t encourage any worthy pursuits. It just sits there and slowly brews fear in the hearts of the admired.

Women don’t always hate compliments on our beauty. They go great with candle light and wine! Sometimes we are even able to brush all the societal pressure aside, stand tall and respond, “damn straight, I look HOT today!” But out in the world, away from the candle light, the pressure is there. These kinds of compliments remind us of that. Deep in our brains we know a good portion of our worth lies in the level of beauty we possess and that stings, to say the least. We can’t always be expected to keep up a sexy, confidant charade for the benefit of men who want to deal out meaningless compliments forever. It’s just exhausting — especially if we were hoping to hear a compliment with some substance. So please excuse us if sometimes… we just make a fart noise.


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  1. Wow! This is a can of worms isn’t it?

    I think that there are a lot of factors at play regarding this issue.

    It seems that compliments from friends or colleagues that you are close and comfortable with are welcome, if you have put some effort into looking nice then it feels good when it is recognised.

    What appears to be a problem is when a compliment comes in an inappropriate setting (at work for example when you have been working really hard and making important comtributions you don’t want to only be noticed for your face/hair/dress/shoes), or from someone that you just don’t really want to receive a compliment from. I’m not sure where the line is between someone that we are happy to receive compliments from and someone that we are not. Is it ok if we are friends with them but not if we are not? Is it unwanted if we feel that they might be attracted to us but we aren’t attracted to them?

    Personally I can find it hard to accept a compliment on my looks if I feel that there might be more intent behind it than just a simple compliment and I don’t feel the same way about that person. Maybe it’s being really big-headed to assume that there is more to it.

    I feel that I look better now than I ever have. Some day’s I feel like I’m looking great, some day’s I think ‘who am I kidding?’. I think that some of the difficulty for women to accept compliments comes from their own body confidence and self esteem issues. Like Jess commented, sometimes you just don’t believe the compliments. It’s not that you don’t appreciate them, it’s that if you’re not feeling great and positive about yourself it can sometimes feel like people don’t really mean it and are making a joke about you. It’s tricky! What a minefield!

    While it’s nice to be complimented on your looks, it’s nice to be complimented on other less fleeting attributes too. I appreciate it when a man actually gets to know me and can make a comment on or be attracted to my intellect, my values, my personality.

    A few weeks ago I was in the supermarket and a man (total stranger) came over to me and said “Hi, what’s your name, you’re very beautiful, can I have your number?”. I said no, felt uncomfortable and freaked out. Obviously he just liked what he saw and didn’t know anything about me, which made me feel that I wasn’t anything special because he probably tried his luck with every girl he saw that he thought was pretty. It was a really strange experience. Now this is an interesting predicament because all we know about someone when we meet someone brand new, before we talk to them, is what they look like so what can you do?

    This is giving me a headache!

  2. When I’m complimented on my looks or even what I’m wearing I often say ‘I know right’ and my friends always tell me I shouldn’t say that, but its not personal to me and I wish more girls would be the same. When someone compliments my art though, I become all shy and gushing.

  3. While I understand where this article is trying to go (substance over externalities) and agree, there is one point at the beginning that I feel needs to be addressed (perhaps separately).

    There is nothing wrong with being pretty (or not), and there should be nothing wrong with admiring beauty in any facet (person, scene, work of art, etc). That being said, many of us women could really learn how to “take a compliment.”

    There are many other cultures who are not at all offended by being told they are pretty. They don’t view it as a come-on or an insult to their inner worth. They smile and say thank you and get on with their lives.

    Clearly this article digs at a deeper cultural issue in that we women feel pressured by beauty no matter where we land on the spectrum. In a world where we are climbing our way up the ladders of many fields and desire recognition for our work and achievements, we seem to feel that being told we are pretty is a fall-back, an insult to our achievements instead of an addition to the list.

    I’ll end with this. If a person in any setting compliments you on your beauty, why not be happy about it? Maybe they don’t know you well enough to know all of your other achievements, or maybe they know you really well and want to make you feel better about yourself because you do look pretty. If women can tell each other they are pretty, and women can admire men for being attractive (despite their achievements), then why can’t we, as women, allow ourselves this compliment from men without the extra baggage?

  4. Thank you for a great article, Mary. I just have to add that for me, it’s not about feeling confident. I feel plenty confident. For me it’s about substance – acknowledging a person for being a person, and not a thing. It’s objectifying. To me a painting can be pretty. A view can be pretty. Not a person.

    It reminds me of earlier decades where a woman should be pretty – and quiet. You know, tend to the house and the kids. While looking – well, pretty.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of compliment since I was 12. Always hated it. And not because of insecurity – but because I want to be acknowledged for who I am. For what’s on the inside – not some odd notion of me living up to some random societal conventions about natural beauty.

    I get annoyed about the empty kinds of ‘compliments’ because I DON’T CARE about my looks. I do NOT feel I have to look a certain way and I don’t feel pressure about getting older.

    I’m 37, getting white hair and wrinkles, and I am proud of it, because it shows I have lived!

    I have no special face creams. And still I get that kind of compliments. And before someone feel the need to dismiss my comment because I’m swirling my hair around on my profile pic, let me just say that picture was taken by me for a photography class. It’s about shutter speed. Not trying to get compliments on anything else than my skills.

    Oh, and ‘pretty’? That’s what you say to a 5-year old girl wearing her princess costume. She’ll love you for it.

  5. “My gut tells me that men, especially in a professional setting, should just knock it off.”
    You’re exactly right.

    “Being called pretty is absolutely worthless in that it doesn’t encourage any worthy pursuits.”
    How is it worthless? Doesn’t that compliment reinforce the idea that a woman’s efforts to look nice are successful? I tell women they look nice quite often. I do it because 1. It’s true. 2. In a society that is quick to complain, belittle and otherwise speak negatively, I think it’s positive to say something nice to someone, with no ulterior motive.

    “It just sits there and slowly brews fear in the hearts of the admired.”"
    Why would it brew fear? Is it normal for women to be so easily frightened? Does having someone say something nice to you, even if it’s in an awkward moment justify living in fear? I can’t say I really understand this comment.

    • To the gentlemen who honestly don’t get it, ask yourself this question: Would you tell another man (a co-worker, perhaps) who had obviously put a lot of effort into his grooming on a given day that he looked cute, or handsome, or manly, or hot, or that you loved his tie? Maybe so, if you were trying to pick him up, but in a professional setting I bet you’d be more likely to comment on his presentation in the last department meeting,
      If you consistently compliment female co-workers on their looks instead of on their professional accomplishments, you are essentially telling them that they are of no value unless they look nice.

      • That is ridiculous. You ignore the stigma of appearing to be gay. It’s still a huge issue for straight men to even show emotion, let alone compliment each others appearance.

        There’s nothing wrong with men complimenting each other on their appearance. Just because society is broken and views it as “gay”, doesn’t mean that act is gay or something that men shouldn’t be able to do with one another.

        Many men won’t ever admit that another man is attractive. EVER. It could be the most universally accepted hottie, and they’ll play the “how would I know?” card. Even though women are capable of complimenting each other, without sexual attraction attached. And gay men are more than capable of complimenting women, without sexual attraction attached. I don’t know any lesbians personally, so not sure if they freely compliment men or not…

        (and yes there are exceptions to every rule, don’t bother with that one. Doesn’t change the majority of straight men or the society we live in)

        • Yes, matter of fact I do compliment men on their looks, clothing, etc. because I know they won’t take it as an advance. I’d do the same for women but I can’t be sure they’ll consider it sexual harassment.

  6. A compliment from a man who you are attracted to is always in a romantic setting so what we are talking about here is the awkwardness of receiving compliments from people who you are not attracted to or those who you do not want to be attracted to you. You appear to be treating a compliment as a statement of intent towards a romantic engagement. Seen as such it makes sense to shun all those who you do not want to get involved with. If this is true, it is little wonder that nice guys are terrified to speak to beautiful women. Any attempt at complimenting something positive about their experience of you stands to be ruthlessly cut down. Even after reading your attempt to justify this response, it’s rather difficult to escape the idea that you are looking a gift horse in the mouth here.

    But let’s examine your argument in a little more detail. Firstly, you claim that an attribution of beauty sets a precedent which you then feel pressured to maintain. While I accept that insecurity might make this a concern in your moments of solitary reflection, in the moment of a compliment I wonder how often women are reminded to pick up some skin cream later that day. Is this really what runs through a woman’s mind when she is caught off guard by a unwelcome gesture? If so, you misunderstand the concept of beauty because what they are saying to you are a pleasure to behold like a flower or a sunset or a rainbow or anything else to which we attribute beauty. What these things have in common is that they are all fleeting, they all fade away before very long, but that does not make them any less special. We keep flowers until they wilt, sunset gives way to the artistic silhouettes of dusk and we still marvel to point out the faintest rainbow.

    You proceed to compare compliments to a kind of behavioural manipulation with an underlying agenda. This is an awfully suspicious way to treat a nice gesture and suggests that you see compliments as no more than a motivational device to realise your will. As such, there is no behaviour to reinforce when complimenting beauty. It is not a statement of romantic intent and being modest and polite instead of diffuse and dismissive is not an invitation to anything more than you make it. Of course there are men who play the game by your rules, they say things only because they want something from you. They see your insecurity and prey upon it instead of nurturing your confidence. I can imagine how exhausting it must be to maintain the illusion of confidence and to ooze sexuality. My advice would be to drop the charade and be yourself, then perhaps you can become substantially confident which will permit men to make substantial compliments about your other qualities.

    You may think that a great portion of your worth relies upon your beauty but you don’t seem to realise that these compliments serve to identify the truly beautiful girls from the merely physically attractive ones because true beauty has the good grace to accept a gift without thinking about what it’s worth to them.

  7. All I have to say about this post is ‘wwheee wwheee’. Seriously, such a hard thing to deal with – being pretty and being complimented about it. The downside is that eventually it will go away, and how hard that will be, and how you’ll have to get pro-retinol formulas?! What about all those women that have to struggle their entire life with maybe not being pretty? They have it better? Sorry, I don’t usually criticize online because it’s often misunderstood.

    • In summation, this post is not about whether or not it is hard to be pretty.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment! I think most women, no matter if they are getting the compliment or just overhearing it, feel awkward hearing it at work. Just ain’t the place for it. There’s a time and place but everyone has their own comfort level with that… good rule of thumb is not to comment about looks at work or to relative strangers. True gentlemen know their audience before they comment on looks and the more men put some thought into women’s comfort level, the more true gentlemen we’ll have. Most decent people, whatever sex, know their audience and take that into account before they say something that might be considered invasive or make someone uncomfortable. For example, some people don’t mind if you ask how much rent they pay while other people feel offended… part of being in a civil society is knowing when certain behaviors are appropriate and talking about those behaviors is how we decide when they are appropriate. But, I mean, I’ve heard bosses introduced new employees as pretty and I feel like it’s a comment that just sort of brings up a lot of issues for everyone in the room — issues women aren’t comfortable talking about at the risk of being called crazy. But whatever, that’s what blogs are for :)

  8. If you want more meaningful compliments, be more meaningful. I don’t think everyone has to be Mother Teresa, but if you aren’t truthfully going out there and impacting other peoples lives in a meaningful way then the more character affirming compliments aren’t deserved either. Those compliments that have to do with something more than what you look like most of the time will come from people who know you longer, who know that this a consistent thing about you and not just momentary thing. People don’t compliment people just having positive traits everyone has positive traits, but how you use those to better those around you.

  9. made me think of this spoken word piece by Katie Makkai:

  10. I think the short version of this is just to say that it’s kind of desperately creepy to compliment a stranger in such a way at all.

    You might *think* it, you might even throw them a smile, but a guy coming up to a woman in the street he doesn’t know and telling her she’s pretty/sexy/whatever is generally just being a creep. The fact that these guys are often disappointed and even react with *anger* when they don’t get the right response is a big clue to what is actually going on.

  11. I agree with this completely.

    Before working at this company, I do now, I was 20 years old and I was naive about men and their compliments. I was never pretty and I was chunky. I was content being the unattractive nerdy girl, who’d rather read a book during lunch. However, being at the company, I got complimented for my looks so much. I began to feel attractive and, that’s when I felt the pressure to maintain this “attractive” I had gained. Suddenly, I began to ware make-up, tighter pants, and I began to workout. It took me a while to realized I wasn’t doing that for me, but for those perverted guys at work. Then I felt disgusted with myself.

    My was losing myself. But I am happy I have come to realize this. And I am trying to go back to the carefree bookworm I am. That’s who I am, who I enjoy being. Just Me. For me.

    Thank you for this article, it expressing all the feelings I have had but was unable to articulate.

  12. Cosmetic companies would go out of business selling their wares to men. You truly are barking up the wrong tree.

  13. I think most people are missing the point here. It’s not about women not liking it when they get a simple, everyday compliment, but it’s the idea that they are enforced to look pretty by those compliments. (Pretty because of their genes, not because of the time they spend in the gym or the effort they put in their hair, those cases do not apply here of course. Besides, it’s usually the face that is hard to change unless you apply 3 layers of make-up.) The author talks about positive reinforcement in order to explain that compliments on something that you have no control over might only make you insecure, because what if you lose those characteristics one day….. This is the whole point, putting TOO much weight on natural beauty instead of effort. And yes, it’s the same case when a girl compliments a guy, however guys tend to get even more handsome when they age.
    Furthermore, she never says that girls can never take a compliment. She literally says “So please excuse us if SOMETIMES…. we just make a fart noise”. Therefore I think this is a pretty fine written article only trying to make us realize to compliment other qualities a bit more besides natural beauty, and honestly, I don’t think that’s too hard…

  14. Guys, it’s not about the compliment itself! It’s the knowledge that we will only be worthy of “You’re beautiful” for a very brief time, in our youth obsessed culture. Then what? If you are impressed with my knowledge of an internal combustion engine, and not intimidated by that, well, that compliment can last a lifetime.

  15. What if she works out or put a lot of effort in the gym to achieve a good body? That would definitely require a compliment, and not a condescending one like you are suggesting.

    I would argue that you are fighting the fact that some women are just born pretty, and that’s totally acceptable. They already have an easier life, so yeah it might be redundant to keep reminding them of the fact.

    Plus, this is the reason men will never understand women. You over analyze something as basic as a compliment. That or you were pressed to write a blog.

  16. Depends on the compliment. I’ve been told I’m ‘fit as f***’ (charming men in Britain, I know) which just makes me laugh because I’m convinced they’re talking about someone stood behind me. Compliments from men about how I look make me feel uncomfortable because I just don’t see it… And I think they’re either humouring me or… I don’t know. I don’t get what they see! I just want to laugh!

  17. You girls are crazy

  18. Honestly, I think that what you’re saying is ridiculous. A man giving a compliment shouldn’t be unwelcome.
    Yes, in the wrong situation it can be harassment. If, for example, it comes from some creepy man who seems more interested in getting in your pants than you, that is uncomfortable and uninvited. If you’re in a work environment it can be an issue, but only really if there is some sexual intention behind it. You haven’t highlighted these situations here anyway, you seem to be talking about the everyday benign compliments that are sometimes given.
    Just as I feel pleased when a girl compliments me, it’s nice to be complimented by a man. I remember once being complimented by the ticket man on a train after he’d checked my railcard. He also told my boyfriend that he looked handsome in his railcard picture. I got the impression that he probably said that to everybody he saw everyday. But that just made me think he was a lovely man, cheering people up everyday. It was completely welcome and made me feel positive about myself
    A few weeks ago I was shopping with my mum and we ran into one of her friends who said that my sister and I were very pretty. This was equally pleasing to me. You seem to focus on men giving women compliments, but I wonder if you feel the same when it comes from a woman and if not then why? What about a man giving a man a compliment?
    I don’t know anybody who thinks that it isn’t nice to be complimented on their appearance. You say that it is awkward as it’s something that we cannot change, but so is out intelligence. Obviously you study to improve your knowledge but some people get a head start, I don’t think that they would mine being told that they are clever. What about an accent? That is something that is completely uncontrollable, but I don’t think that anybody has a problem being complimented on their voice.
    The only part of your article that I can agree with is that sometimes we put too much focus on beauty (and that comes from somebody who reads beauty blogs everyday and loves them). I feel it’s easy for women to become pressured into trying to achieve beauty. We see so many celebrities looking gorgeous and feel like if we don’t look like them then we’re not doing something right. But that’s partly why random compliments are so nice to receive.
    I hope you don’t feel like I’m attacking you I’m sure you’re a lovely girl, I just can’t agree with your views in this article. I also feel like you’re attacking men for complimenting women – you haven’t mentioned women complimenting women once in your article. This is the kind of view that sparks ‘all feminists hate men’ rumors. It is not aiding the cause in the slightest.

  19. Welp, guess I can’t be nice to all of my female friends. Shucks. As if I didn’t have enough insecurity about telling a girl she’s pretty because of fear of rejection, now I have to worry about somehow insulting her. Had lunch with a girl the other day and afterword sent her a text telling her she “looked really nice today.” I never implied that’s all I’m interested in or all I see, I just wanted her to know I think she’s pretty. I think she’s smart and interesting and funny and fun as well, but god forbid I think she’s pretty! Such a superfluous compliment just means she’s worth less as a human being, apparently.

    Glad to know how insulting my affections are to women. Keep em to myself from now on.

    • Oh, please, guys, it’s not rocket science. How would you feel, if a girl called you pretty?? A compliment is when you make the other person feel good about them selves – it’s about THEM. Not you.

      I mean, really??

      Just because you think something about a person – female or not – doesn’t mean, you should just blurt it out. Take a second to think. You might think all sort of things about all sorts of people during an average day. Does that mean, you say it? No!

      Women are not mysterious creatures, even if you somehow enjoy that idea.

      Were pretty simple actually. You just have to think a bit. Like to remember we’re not in the 50′s anymore. Women are actually powerhouses to be reconned with. If you really want to compliment a beautiful woman, acknowledge her brain.

    • I agree with you.

      I’ve actually stopped talking to women who I don’t know because I don’t want them to get the wrong idea.

      Either offended by something that I didn’t mean offensively.

      Or that I’m hitting on them. Apparently if you’re nice to a woman in a social setting you’re hitting on her.

  20. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of this article, more than anything the significance of a compliment is determined by who gives it and when it is given. In the wrong setting a compliment of physical appearance is harassment rather than flattery.