This originally appeared on Everyday Feminism. Republished here with permission.
If the first thing you routinely think to say to a woman is something about her looks, we’ve got issues.
It’s the affirmation that every woman allegedly wants and even needs to hear: “You’re beautiful.”
Like many girls, I aspired to be beautiful.
As a child, I spent hours playing with makeup. My mom would meticulously curl my hair for every picture day. From a young age, I associated beauty with exceptionalism.
Also like many girls, my relationship to and perception of beauty became tumultuous throughout my adolescence. I worried about my weight and felt anxious about my appearance.
On days when I didn’t feel beautiful, I was filled with self-loathing. Although I knew that the superficial wasn’t everything, I understood that beauty was inevitably one of the cornerstones of my identity as a young woman.
If I wasn’t beautiful, how could I put my best self forward? How could I designate myself as worthy of someone’s time?
The intensity of the unrealistic expectations placed on girls has justifiably received increasing amounts of scrutiny and backlash, with numerous groups endeavoring to expose the extent of the media’s distortion of women and attempting to spread body positivity.
One of the most recognizable examples of such an effort is the Dove Real Beauty Campaign, which attempts to show that women can be beautiful across a variety of sizes and ethnicities.
There is a familiar anxiety that runs throughout all of these movements, however—the idea that all women must feel beautiful.
The idea that if you don’t feel beautiful, you’ll be miserable without any self-esteem.
In that sense, not feeling beautiful becomes almost threatening.
Which prompts the question: Why? Why should women be obligated to feel beautiful? And what happens when we consider that fact that beauty may not matter?
Beauty as Sexism
This one is pretty common sense. If the first thing you routinely think to say to a woman is something about her looks, we’ve got issues.
You might be well aware of unattainable beauty standards. You could feel the need to constantly remind women of their beauty to make them feel good about themselves.
The problem is that beauty can often be inherently reductionist. Imagine how it feels to have all of your accomplishments superseded by your appearance on a daily basis.
We see it with female public figures all the time. “Who cares if she’s a strong leader, let’s talk about her outfit!”
Whether you’re an empowered politician or an athletic ballerina, it can be defeating. At the end of the day, sometimes it feels like we’re defined by little more than how desirable or ladylike we look.
Sure, compliments on appearance can be nice in the appropriate context, but there’s also a good chance that I’m trying to communicate with you or focus on something else or maybe just go through my day without being objectified.
We need to start teaching ourselves that womanhood doesn’t constantly need validation. My womanhood can thrive without your approval. Further, my womanhood comprises a hell of a lot more than my fashion sense.
Womanhood and femininity are not inextricably intertwined, contrary to popular belief. You don’t need to be feminine to feel like a woman, and you certainly don’t have to be beautiful to feel like a woman.
Every woman’s identity extends so far beyond the superficial, and they deserve for others to start recognizing that.
I always felt uncomfortable thanking people for calling me beautiful because it seemed to indirectly reinforce the behavior by giving the impression that I was insecure. Instead, without thinking about it, I began to reply to “you’re beautiful” with a joyful, minimally sarcastic “Thanks, I know.”
This quirk produced quite a few chuckles initially, but it also steered the conversation in another direction because I was able to reclaim my right to validate myself and take appearance off the table.
Beauty Ideology Extends Beneath the Surface
In an effort to compensate for impossible physical expectations, there has also been an emphasis on inner beauty.
You’ll often hear a well-meaning friend or parent try to comfort a despairing young woman by pointing out the importance of a good personality or strong sense of self.
These internal qualities allegedly contribute to a different sort of beauty that ultimately outweighs and outlasts the aesthetic side.
On one hand, it is important to remember that beauty exists beyond physical desirability. Perhaps someone is just trying, however misguidedly, to acknowledge that other qualities can make you stand out.
Yet again, there is a nagging insistence that we always have to find beauty in everything and that there has to be something analogous to beauty in every situation to make a person whole, especially in regard to women.
Beauty may be more than skin deep, but unfortunately it remains omnipresent.
Over time, this idea can warp girls’ self-perception and quickly snowball into the “I’m not like other girls” mentality. Are inwardly beautiful girls better than outwardly beautiful girls because they’re presumed to be less superficial and therefore be less shallow?
Predictably, this polarized mindset only creates more misogyny, both among women and men. Men and women alike learn that only “certain girls” are worth their time.
It might be a difficult disentanglement process, but we need to learn that sometimes beauty is irrelevant.
Beauty doesn’t always have to have meaning. That meaning is socially constructed and, even though it has the potential to be empowering in certain contexts, more often than not it causes more angst than good.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful as long as you don’t allow society’s definitions to overwhelm you or make you doubt yourself.
Remember that beauty is your tool and your canvas.
Still, others could use a little reminding that just because you look great, you don’t want your physical appearance to dictate and distract from every interaction.
Some Alternatives to Beautiful
Hopefully by now you’re starting to grasp why you might want to think twice before you call someone beautiful.
So what should you say instead?
Appearance is often the go-to compliment for women, which should tell you how much gender influences even our most initial judgments and perceptions. In lieu of commenting on the physical, focus your attention on attributes less associated with gender.
Here’s a handy list of some examples you can try:
“I love your enthusiasm” – this shows the other person that you’re reading their mood and that you’re receptive to positive energy.
“You’re looking vivacious today” – again, emphasis on the positive without relying on femininity. Everyone likes being told they’re full of life.
“You look confident” – upbeat reinforcement with the added bonus of a self-esteem boost.
“I admire the energy you contribute” – because it’s always good to be acknowledged as bringing something to the table of everyday life.
“You’re so much fun to be around” – reminding them that their presence matters and is appreciated.
Any of these are likely to engage the person more than an assessment of the superficial would.
Let’s face it: Even in its most flattering context, beauty is predictable. Choosing these alternate phrases conveys a more genuine interest in everything the person has to offer.
Some of us might enjoy being called beautiful, and that’s perfectly fine. Beauty isn’t a four-letter word.
If there’s anything you should take away from this piece, it’s not that calling someone beautiful is necessarily an insult (depending on the scenario), but that you should critically examine the social reflex to analyze and interpret a woman’s appearance.
No one wants their appearance to dominate how they are perceived. Women are smart, talented, fierce, passionate individuals.
We are so much more than simply beautiful.
Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to Bitch Flicks. Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91 and read her articles here.