Stop telling me how cute I look. Please?



I wrote this a few years ago, and stand by it today. It came to mind recently as I've noticed my daughter often compliments women's appearances — including those she just met. I assume she is mimicking the behavior of other women (though not me!), who focus on each other's clothes, figures, hair and makeup instead of more meaningful attributes — perpetuating all the things we hate about sexism: focus first on women's looks. 

A few months ago I attended a weeklong seminar for female media professionals. On the first day, each of these dozen women — who I would come to learn were each remarkable in their ambition, smarts and professional success — wandered into the conference room and participated in standard-issue female professional meeting etiquette: Each placed her shoulder-slash-computer bag at a spot at the table, poured herself a paper cup of coffee from the urn, then proceeded to introduce herself to the others in an open, friendly way that included a requisite compliment on the other’s physical appearance.

“Oh, I love how you pair the bright orange dress with the yellow shoes!”

“That lip color looks so good on you!”

“Love your haircut! Where do you get it done?”

“Your necklace is fabulous!”

Each one, that is, except me.

Now, I’m a girl just like you. I care about my appearance and fret about what to wear when the pressure is on to make a good impression or meet lots of new people. I am not immune to the female complex that equates self-worth with physical beauty. When entering the seminar on the first day, I had a mini-existential accessory crisis about my simple brushed-gold drop earrings upon sight of a glamorous California businesswoman. She was so perfectly turned out from her teased hair to her chunky jewelry to her polished nails and patent-leather stilettos that I felt the urge to crawl back into the subway like a filthy rat in my green and black silk Kenneth Cole zippered sheath and no-name black pumps.

But I stopped. I observed. And (just being honest here) I judged.

Here we were in an environment designed to educate and empower women in business. The very, verrrry first gesture of support we offered each other was to admire clothes, hair and makeup. I’ve certainly done the very thing I was judging. Even on this day I felt the urge to chime in and butter up my new colleague with an ask about her intoxicating fragrance. But I restrained myself.

Why? Because complimenting other women on their appearance on first introduction is wrong.

Women everywhere, I urge you: Do not attempt to bond with other women via compliments on their looks. Especially not new acquaintances. And, for the sake of the order and advancement of women everywhere, especially not in business.

I’ll tell you why not:

1. Men don’t do this.

When I see this nonsense going down with women, to calm myself I close my eyes and envision Jamie Dimon and Lee Raymond moseying into a J.P. Morgan Chase board of directors meeting.

“Oh my god,” I imagine Dimon saying. “Those cufflinks are killer!”

To which Raymond might reply: “That suit! You. Must. Give. Me. Your. Tailor’s. Number. Seriously!”

Now, I’m making a bunch of wild guesses here, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t happen. Because they have other things to focus on. Like ruling the world.

2.  When the very first thing you acknowledge about a person is the way she looks, you reduce her to the way she looks. 

Now, if you’re like my West Coast dynamo pal, your appearance is a powerful asset. If not, it may be a point of consternation.

It’s like saying to a stranger over dinner: “Wow! You have a huge appetite!” Maybe that is received as a compliment, evidence of gusto for life. But perhaps the person has an eating disorder and the sum of food she consumes is a very sensitive subject. I would venture that most women have at least minor hangups about their appearances (which is why you’re deflecting your own insecurities by aiming to boost the confidence of your new friend). So let’s just skip that one little part of her whole person for the time being and focus on other things.

Instead, try: Where do you live? What do you do for work? How ’bout those Mets, huh? Have you tried those new seaweed snacks?

3. It’s bad for the advancement of women.

I know that your compliments are made with the best of intentions. You want to put the other person at ease, connect with her. But studies find that the more attention paid to a powerful woman’s looks, the less likely she is to succeed. One journalist studied female U.S. presidential candidates since 1872 and found – not surprisingly – that the women in these races were the focus of appearance-focused media attention four times more than their male competitors.

All that attention on Hillary’s hairdos and Sarah Palin’s good looks came at a price: A recent study found that when the media focuses on a female candidate’s appearance, voters are less likely to support her in the polls. This backs earlier findings by University of South Florida researchers, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The title of their paper says it all: “Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that objectification causes women to be perceived as less competent and less fully human.”

Now you know.



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About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Stephanie Robbins on August 5, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Really interesting post. I do this all the time. I know I like when another woman compliments me because I do put effort into my appearances. A woman’s compliment always feels so sincere. And well we do check each other out so why not make it positive

    However, I can see that it is not a professional approach in today’s business environment. But why not change that environment? Who determines if giving a compliment is non professional? it is something women do as a part of nurturing which is not something I think we should lose.

    It is about a balance and sincerity to me.

    • Emma on August 8, 2014 at 6:40 pm

      Good points, Stephanie. “And well we do check each other out so why not make it positive.” But I’m still boycotting compliments :)

  2. DarthW on August 5, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    If women start feeling at risk for getting hauled down to the HR department for “sexual harassment” like men do if they dare to make a compliment to a woman about her appearance, that oughta work really well to get other women to stop saying anything positive to anyone else about their “appearance” (and a slew of other things.) Even we men who enjoy color, taste, and the artistic flair that a women may have in her dress and style learned long ago to keep our pie holes shut about even expressing an innocent compliment. As a man, it’s really an interesting feeling to see someone wearing an outfit, or shoes, or earrings that you honestly think are cool – and not in any type of sexual way – but are actually afraid to even mention anything for fear of your job. It’s time women get the same.

    • Emma on August 8, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      I agree, oh bitter Darth. The sexual harassment thing has — or at least did — get way out of hand. Good point.

      • DarthW on August 8, 2014 at 9:11 pm

        Ha! “bitter”…It’s more like “softly jaded”. LOL.

        I don’t buy that by first acknowledging how a woman – or anyone – looks that the viewee is necessarily diminished by the viewer. Obviously there are times that may be true: if a woman – or man – is coming to a business meeting in something ridiculous like a tank top and rump high cut-offs, they are going to visually diminish themselves to everyone in the room, and that image will be extremely difficult to overcome with even the most business oriented conversation – regardless of whether someone compliments them. However, if I see an attractive woman in a nice dress at a meeting at work, and compliment her on it, only an idiot – man or woman – will dismiss that the woman doesn’t have some professional worth to bring to the table merely because I think red looks good on her.

        Further, how many bazillion times does a man or woman find the dress, hair, nails, perfume, etc. of other women in the room attractive, yet never say, or acknowledge the fact. (As I stated in my previous reply, most men simply don’t say anything…doesn’t mean they don’t think it.) Simply not saying you think the red in her dress brings out her new lipstick, doesn’t mean you – and 8 other people in the meeting – don’t already note that fact. So, regardless as to whether or not it’s acknowledged one can’t control the thoughts of all in the office about it. If you aren’t going to be considered professional because of your appearance, noone has to say a thing about it for the lack of consideration to already be happening.

        Finally, during Sarah Palin’s run I certainly found her attractive at first glance. I also suspected she didn’t get to the position of governor because she is an idiot. Millions of men (and probably women) both found Sarah attractive, and also thought she had professional ability to do the job. Later, when I found her lacking as the campaigning continued, it wasn’t because she is attractive, it was because of what she said and did. I wholly disagree that a woman can’t be viewed as attractive, wearing a nice outfit, or sporting those cool earrings, and yet not be taken seriously as a professional.

        If women are so concerned that other women – but, let’s be honest they are more concerned about being taken seriously by men – then, be professional in the majority of what you do. Dress professionally and tastefully so the low-lifes in the office won’t objectify you so easily. More importantly, LEAD others- not take power simply because you think you deserve it because not enough women are managers in your division. MENTOR those around you rather than believing the hype of silly movements like “Be Bossy” that are more accurately telling girls and women to “be a bitch” to men. EARN respect by doing the job you currently have, and working toward the career you want. I’ve worked with several women who exemplify leadership, mentorship, and management styles that most men in the office see as professional and able (sure there are some idiots still in the workplace, but fewer every day).

  3. Veronica J on October 8, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    I give compliments all the time. They are always genuine. Sometimes they are about looks, other times they are about intelligence. Sometimes they are about both. Wow, you’re beautiful and you did great on that report! If people don’t know how to take compliments, that is their own low self esteem showing. They may deep down believe that they do not deserve them. In that case, I will compliment them more – because they need to see that it’s true. If being nice to others is doomed to hurt me career or society wise, then that’s not a career I want to be in, and it’s a society I hope to change.

    • Emma on October 8, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      Good for you, Veronica – wow, taking on the whole world! But my issue here is with women focusing all their interaction with each other on physical attributes specifically.

      • Veronica J on October 12, 2014 at 1:39 pm

        “Good for you, Veronica – wow, taking on the whole world!”

        You just sound bitter, snide, and sarcastic. Maybe people only compliment your looks because they have nothing personality wise to compliment.

        • Emma on October 13, 2014 at 1:56 pm

          Actually, I don’t get so many compliments on my appearance.

          • Nick on September 13, 2017 at 6:45 am

            Try growing your hair out, Emma. You are a fox. Compliments on our appearance can really boost our moods… and sex lives. Hair pulling is fun.

            I don’t get where you are coming from on worrying about “reducing women to their looks” by immediately complimenting them. I compliment men on their looks and wardrobe choices, too. It’s a fun way to lighten the mood in business especially with older men. The flip side of this is women becoming socially invisible after a certain age when society says their looks fade. The acresss Kristin Scott Thomas talked about reaching the age where strangers suddenly stopped holding doors for her. Hence, I’m on team Notice Women.

        • lisa on October 29, 2017 at 12:12 pm

          ” it’s a society I hope to change”. Veronica, handing out personal attacks toward the author does not seem to support a mission of (positive) change for society.

  4. lisa on October 29, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Emma, You are so right-on! I love this article. Appearance focused complimenting is a socially conditioned habit that plays into the sexism we experience in the workplace and in everyday life. It is a low-effort attempt to connect. I suggest we challenge ourselves to focus our complements on personal qualities. For example; we can open our radar to pick up on opportunities to remark on her dedication, positive energy, problem-solving hack, how she clearly explained a complex idea, etc. It takes more effort, is more sincere and a massively positive boost to the recipient.

  5. Stephanie Nguyen on June 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your article! It’s funny because recently I had an episode involving a “compliment”. I was visiting my friend and she told me how great my outfit looked and her boyfriend then chimes in and says, “Yes, it really compliments your bustline nicely”. And it doesnt help matters that he has a grin on his face after he says it. I’m a bit busty (34D) and the outfit was form-fitting, but its not like I was flaunting cleavage or anything. There is an awkward silence and then WHAP! She slaps his face and demands he apologizes to me for making an inappropriate comment. He is of course very embarrassed and apologizes, and I told him not to worry about it. He then walks away, rubbing his cheek, and she says something like, “What was he thinking?! But you know what, it really does show off your boobs tastefully.” And then we both laugh. Just shows you that we women can get away with saying all sorts of things to each other, but men, uh not so much ;)

  6. bongstar420 on March 23, 2019 at 7:09 pm

    Come on. It is group think to keep your prospective “men” on lock-down. You know they don’t have sex with personalities and bank accounts.

    Also, take note how women treat the ugly vs pretty women. Then notice the men. Ugly women are relatively ignored by both groups.

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