make the world a little better: compliment another woman today

I had been feeling really terrible. Actually, I’d been throwing up every day for three months, and I had long since forgotten why I’d thought it would be a good idea to get pregnant. But that evening, I had to put on a gown and go to a work event. An actual gown. It was twilight blue and clingy without losing elegance, with long sleeves and a cinch at the hip, where a sparkling faux diamond bangle nestled. I had gotten it on sale, during a miraculous day of minimal nausea. I felt ridiculous in it, riding the elevator down to the street to hail a cab. Everyone else was wearing normal clothing, and I was unsure of my thickening body—not obviously pregnant yet, but not my familiar shape.

A woman was looking at me. I looked away.

“What a wonderful dress!” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You look beautiful,” she said.

(I kind of wish I had more occasions to wear a gown… source)

I was smiling when I walked out the door. A twenty-something woman on the street paused as she passed me. “You look amazing!” she said.

“Oh, god, thanks,” I said, awkward and caught off-guard.

“Love the gown!” called another woman as I frantically waved at an approaching cab, running late as always. “Where are you going?”

“A work thing!”


I was queasy in the cab, but I felt awesome. I looked beautiful! I sat up a little straighter. I felt sort of queenly, a little glamorous. I imagined myself for a moment as someone leading a fabulous, high-society life, rushing off to expensive benefits and romantic penthouse soirees. As far as anyone knew, I might be doing those things. A woman in a twilight blue gown might have a life like that.

It’s funny, what a compliment can do.


I wouldn’t describe myself as starved for attention, or particularly insecure. Most of the time, I’m not walking around hoping against hope that strangers will flatter me in passing. I can get through my day just fine without even a single kind remark from a person on the subway. But just a few consecutive compliments have the power to make me abruptly happy. And for some reason, they mean even more when they’re coming from other women.

I was thinking about this in the cab on my way to the work thing. I’m not sure what makes compliments from other women feel particularly meaningful. Maybe men are simply more likely to dish them out to the women they randomly encounter, so when women do it, it feels special. Maybe the compliments from men almost always have an ulterior motive-y whiff about them. Women’s compliments can feel more earnest. Maybe I just care what other women think in some quiet, deep-seated, socially ingrained way that I don’t know how to parse or unpack.

What I am sure of is that compliments, though often brief, insignificant-seeming moments, make a difference.

And I guess many of the things that influence the way we perceive ourselves as girls and women in the world are brief, which is part of why the components and origins of our body image struggles are often difficult to identify, or get dismissed as irrelevant.

We are constantly moving through environments that bombard us with millions of tiny ideas about what makes us good and worthy and what makes us bad and undesirable and uncool. For girls and women, physical appearance is often tied intrinsically to worth. We see image after fleeting image of “ideal” women, we overhear clips of conversation between guys; without really noticing, we notice people casually evaluating the appearance of our friends, of every girl and woman they encounter. We soak up headlines and ads that pimp dieting trends and trumpet the horrors of weight gain. It registers somewhere at the back of our heads that we don’t really resemble the majority of the girls and women who are chosen to represent the height of beauty in our society.

(little things coming together to make something bigger. source)

In so many tiny, constant ways, we learn to turn a critical eye on our bodies and faces, and even for those of us who end up really suffering, seething with self-hatred, starving ourselves or viciously blaming everything that isn’t working on the way we look, the explanation feels slippery and complicated. “The media,” we say. “Sexism.” “Biology.” But it’s hard to pinpoint.

How do you combat the media? Or biology? How do you address sexism, as a whole?

I guess, like with all things, you have to be willing to start small. And that’s just it: the small things matter, when it comes to our self-esteem.

So maybe one of the things women can do to empower other women, to make the world a little better, and to face down some of the accumulated pressures of all of the small, negative messages, is simply to compliment each other more often.

Not just about appearance, of course, but appearance is maybe the easiest, since it’s often the only information you have about strangers, and since it’s our appearances that the world seems to have the most incessantly damaging casual input about.

It’s not much, but it’s a tiny step in the right direction.

I tried it out immediately, on a woman leaving the building I was going into for the work event.

“Love your jacket! You look awesome!” I felt awkward saying it, of course.

She grinned. “Thank you! I never wear this one!”

“Well, you’re rocking it.” God, I’m a dork.

“Aww, thank you so much!”

We were both smiling as we went on our way. I put my shoulders back in the twilight blue gown and went inside. It was going to be an awesome evening. That is, if I could just manage not to barf.


This piece appeared on Daily Life here. I also feel like I wrote something about compliments from/to women another time, but I have the worst memory. So if you remember it, and I was redundant, I’m sorry. But you should also prepare to run into a lot more of that from me. And also, I always hope that even if this happens, I manage to say something new and interesting just because it’s been bouncing around in my brain for longer. I hope that’s the case. I really hope. 

*  *  *

Do you compliment women you don’t know?

Unroast: Today I love the way my legs look, sticking out from under my silly belly. It’s funny.

Here’s a piece I wrote recently for my column over at The Frisky, about how I want people to touch my pregnant belly. Because I am different and weird like that.



Kate on April 15th 2013 in beauty, feminism, uplifting

29 Responses to “make the world a little better: compliment another woman today”

  1. Mandy responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Thank you for remindering me how powerful a kind word can be!

  2. Sheryl responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 10:28 am #

    I don’t know whether it’s conscious out of conscious effort or not, but I’m always complimenting other women. Maybe, thinking back, I made an effort to get into the habit of it years ago and now it’s become a habit to say it when I have a compliment.

    Getting those compliments always are the best, though. There’s something that it does to lift my mood and it always feels wonderful. They almost always come on those days that you really need it (ie, an “I love you hair” when I feel like I’m having an awful hair day.)

  3. Kate responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 10:31 am #

    And you reminded me of when I was shopping for that blue gown, and the saleswoman said, “Oh, you’re the one with the great hair!” when I came back to look again. Maybe this is silly, but I was sort of stunned. I don’t expect anyone to think my hair is great ever.

  4. Liz responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 11:12 am #

    I’m not confident enough in French to give compliments to random women, but *every* *day* I want to. When back in the States, I embarrass my husband because I love giving compliments to strangers.

  5. onebreath responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 11:46 am #

    Compliments can give such a lift, you are so right. I think part of it is that you actually have to be present and connected to notice something or someone and provide that compliment. We rush through so much of our lives in a state of disconnect.

    Can I suggest that we make a point to include people we do know too? I love getting compliments from anyone, of course, and I notice that sometimes I neglect to say them to the women I see and treasure the most. I get so familiar that I only tell them on special occasions or when big “stuff” is going on. Yet, there’s something pretty amazing about a close girlfriend randomly telling me “you know, you are really thoughtful, I love that about you”.

    @Sheryl – yes about the perfect timing! What I love about that is that it shows me that things that I obsess about maybe aren’t nearly as important or awful as I’ve built them up in my head. :)

  6. Jessica responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    I used to think it would be weird if I complimented a stranger. Weird for me and them. Yet I always enjoyed hearing them when directed at me.

    It occurred to me I can’t just receive compliments – I’ve got to put them out there too. I resolved to tell a person, even a stranger, if I had a complimentary thought about them.

    Since then I’ve told women I like their hair, or lipstick color, or beautiful coat. I love seeing that momentary happiness pass over their faces.

  7. Melanie responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    I love this post. I try to compliment at least one stranger a day, but I never make it for just women. My other rule is that it be a sincere and honest compliment. I can’t compliment someone on shoes I don’t like, just to get my daily compliment out of the way. I honestly do it for selfish reasons, because it makes MY day better to know I’ve made someone smile.

    I’m like you: I don’t need positive reenforcement or compliments from people, but when a random person gives me a compliment I do love it.

  8. ladr responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    I think women appreciate comments from other women mostly because women are usually competing against each other.

    For your mornimg sickness, I read somewhere that vinegar(apple cider) helps

  9. Anna responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    I agree that nice compliments from strangers can put a spring in my step! But I think putting value on feedback from strangers about our appearance is a slippery slope that can have a real impact on our sense of self-worth. What if we hear only unwanted/sexual comments about our appearance? Or nothing at all? Do we interpret silence from strangers on the street as a sign that we’re unattractive/unworthy of commentary? I work on street harassment issues with HollabackPHILLY, and we just launched an ad campaign on the Philly subway system to start some conversations around how strangers treat each other on the street. One of the questions we get all the time is “Where do you draw the line between a compliment and harassment?” It’s a really complicated subject! Here’s a link to our ads if you want to check it out: Obviously, we mainly work on issues of men harassing women and LGBTQ folks, so it’s not exactly what you are talking about with women complimenting women – but issues of objectification and self-objectification play into all of it at some level.

  10. R responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    I started complimenting other women in my early twenties and, like Sheryl says, now it’s just a habit. I like the idea of women building eachother up rather than putting eachother down.

    Recently I’ve started randomly complimenting men, but it doesn’t quite work the same way. It puts you into odd situations where they think that you are hitting on them when maybe you’re actually pretty shy and don’t want to stop and talk. So lately with men I only give sort of fly-by compliments in situations where they can’t stop you. Or I’ll give them when I’m walking with my boyfriend which seems to confuse them.

  11. Hannah responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    Ever since I realized that I only ever try to break the ice with a compliment, I’ve been a lot shyer about giving them out. Like, do I really like the dress, or do I just think that without a statement that’s relatively acceptable to say to strangers to make them start talking about themselves I wouldn’t be able to connect with this new person and potentially make a new friend? Because I don’t want my compliments to be valueless, even if the only one who knows that they are is me.
    Is that weird?

  12. Barbara responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    I used to get teased about how I valued the compliment of a stranger on the bus more than a compliment from my husband. I guess I always thought there was more authenticity to a spontaneous, out-of-the-blue compliment. You don’t have to wonder about the intent.

    I think people should offer compliments freely. Go ahead — make some one’s day!

  13. Christine responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    I am fortunate to work in a building that is predominantly ran by women and it has been such an uplifting experience. We build each other up, help when things go wrong and nary a day goes by that you do not receive a few compliments. Working in this environment has allowed me to express myself outside of work. It is a great feeling to know you made someone smile.
    I returned to work today after receiving a devastating medical diagnosis and while on medical leave I had chopped off my once long hair. I was nervous to return knowing I looked different from the medications and the effects of my illness. I barely got any work done today due to the overwhelming showering of compliments and love by these beautiful souls.
    How we look is temporary but to be seen in a positive way in someone else’s eye is
    always nice to hear.
    Thank you for posting this today. I think you make a beautiful pregnant women.

  14. susan responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    It’s so funny you posted this. I’m 53 and have grey hair and out shopping today two women complimented me on my hair. One was taking the leap and slowly going grey and the other was still naturally dark. I get this quite often and when I walk past a woman who is grey I usually say, ” I like your hair” and then she looks at me and mine and we start to laugh. I also think it’s the fact of just being recognized, looked at and noticed.

  15. lik_11 responded on 15 Apr 2013 at 9:21 pm #

    YES!!! Random compliments are the best! I consider myself pretty shy, but my husband is always laughing at me because I approach strangers to give them compliments. Although I’m not good at small talk- I will go out of my way to tell people that I admire their clothing/accessories. It does make me feel good, because we usually part with both of us smiling. That- and I love when strangers say something nice, too.

  16. Angela responded on 16 Apr 2013 at 12:50 am #

    I used to compliment strangers, but I haven’t in awhile. I guess I have been a bit caught up in my own insecurities that I am not noticing people around me. Thanks for the article. It is a little ‘wake up’ call to start complimenting people again!

  17. Jen responded on 16 Apr 2013 at 8:46 am #

    I tend to keep to myself in public, but a few years ago, I decided to start doing just this on occasion. It started when I got on an elevator with a woman wearing a gorgeous embroided sundress. I had to comment, and she was so pleased because she had made the dress herself, and explained how she’d just had to buy the fabric, and waited for the perfect pattern to use it. It led to a fun conversation, and we both left smiling. I know how much I love to get a compliment on something I’m wearing (such as the fabulous emerald green wool dress coat that I was given last year), so I try to pass it on.

    Also, Kate, that dress sounds amazing. You should post photos!

  18. Amy responded on 16 Apr 2013 at 9:10 am #

    I compliment people all the time. It feels really good to make someone else smile. And you could make their whole day, you never know.
    Recently I went in to work feeling really yucky. A co-worker gushed over how cute I looked when I walked in and it turned my whole day around.

  19. schoome responded on 16 Apr 2013 at 8:28 pm #

    I’m not a woman so my contribution here is probably pointless but I like the sound of my own voice…………
    back in the early 1990s my family and I were on a ‘self improvement’ journey. If you were alive back then you will know what I mean…….. anyway….. We were learning heaps about body language and the way that humans think (I think they call it psychology) not necessarily the Pavlov’s dog stuff but more the Napoleon Hill kind of thing. It was exciting and it made a difference in our lives. At this time we were home schooling our two boys and they were absorbing what we were learning. Like you, we were eager to try out what we were learning and so we would actively engage with people we met. We all got a kick out of watching people’s reaction.
    We didn’t always succeed in getting people to feel better about themselves but it was not for the want of trying.
    Our boys and I worked on the girl who worked in the kiosk at the basketball stadium for about three months before we got her to smile. For us it was as good as winning a championship.


  20. T.K. responded on 17 Apr 2013 at 12:04 am #

  21. Dot responded on 17 Apr 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Once again a beautiful and true post! I agree with everything you say, as always. I try to give women compliments, but I often feel awkward and shy about it. Your post reminded me to do it more often.
    I also try to gender-flip compliments, making it a point to compliment women on something they have done or achieved, à la “I am very impressed by your writing/photography/baking/soccer match winning/research in molecular biology/grasp of international politics”. Conversely, I try to compliment men on their appearance. Whenever I do, they are so surprised it makes me a little sad. Men are so often told that their appearance is either negligible or downright repulsive (especially when completely naked), they forget that they have beautiful faces and bodies too.

  22. Tulisaa responded on 17 Apr 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    A kind word can go a long way. Even if you don’t want to give a kind word a smile goes a long way too.

  23. Women’s News: The Problem With Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches Campaign – LadyRomp responded on 19 Apr 2013 at 7:01 am #

    [...] opinion of strangers (which is definitely powerful and important, as I recently wrote about here), but on our being able to own our own beauty, in all its complexity. Including aging. Including [...]

  24. SB responded on 19 Apr 2013 at 10:25 am #

    I totally agree about giving compliments, and the mood boost it gives both parties. But like Dot, after reading a post on Beauty Redefined about how to talk to little girls about being more than their appearance, I realised that most compliments that women get are appearance based. I’ve been making a conscious effort to say things about achievements or qualities I’ve noticed… and that makes it so much harder for completely random strangers, but that woman you see jogging every morning? “I admire your dedication!”
    And if I feel like I just HAVE to say something about someone’s shoes (I’m that girl :P ) “I love those shoes – you have great taste!” I try to bring it back to her agency in picking the shoes, rather than how they make her look.

    I couldn’t remember which post it was, but all of them are great!

  25. Elizabeth responded on 21 Apr 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    I love complimenting other women. I’m not ‘girly’ in the least, but giving a compliment to another woman feels ‘feminine’ in the best kind of way. It’s like we’re members of a secret club of people who are having a private moment in a public place.

  26. tanner responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    I totally agree that it feels good to get a compliment from another woman. It just feels more real.

  27. Eat the Damn Cake » the problem with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign responded on 04 May 2013 at 10:33 am #

    [...] positive opinion of strangers (which is definitely powerful and important, as I just wrote about here), but on our being able to own our own beauty, in all its complexity. Including aging. Including [...]

  28. Tracy responded on 04 Jun 2013 at 2:19 pm #

    I love the random, moment-in-time connections that can be created with strangers. It’s so important to pop out of our bubbles from time to time. People are so interesting if you stop to pay attention.

    In the last year or 2 I’ve had unfortunate negative interactions with strangers. It seems that people feel the need to tell me I look like a man in a variety of ways, either to my face or loud enough for me to hear. This type of stranger input has been incredibly damaging to my self confidence and I find myself bracing for interactions when I go to the grocery store or a restaurant. I have stopped going to bars all together.

    I wholeheartedly agree that input from strangers is important to how we feel about ourselves. However, in some cases, the negativity is the only noise about making self acceptance the only important item on the list.

  29. Teny responded on 20 Jul 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    Great information on this site I enjoyed reading your articles this is truly a great read for me