Why Being Called Pretty Sometimes Gets Ugly

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.