Women have every right to be recognized, respected, and admired for their intelligence, creativity, and character. But they often want to be appreciated for their looks as well.
Once upon a time, I was in a relationship with a woman who was the most brilliant, creative, and driven person I’d ever known. I told her these things often because she didn’t see herself this way, despite achieving tremendous success and acclaim in her professional and artistic fields. She was also incredibly beautiful and sexy, though she seemed not to realize this either, so I told her these things often too. But while I thought it was more important to praise her brilliance, it sometimes seemed to mean more to her to be reassured that she was attractive and desirable.
When it comes to complimenting a woman, men often walk a very difficult line. Of course, context matters—in a professional setting, commenting on appearance is often inappropriate, but at the singles club, it may be essential. Unfortunately, everything in between is ambiguous. Women have every right to be recognized, respected, and admired for their intelligence, creativity, and character. But at the same time, they often want to be appreciated for their looks as well.
These two desires are not mutually exclusive, of course—one can tell a woman that she is both brilliant and beautiful. But to me, it feels likes mentioning a women’s physical appearance risks discounting any comments about her other qualities. It is all too easy to go overboard in either direction—we shouldn’t objectify women based on their looks, of course, but there is also the risk of ignoring their appearance altogether, which may be felt as insulting (especially if she expects such comments). Like I said, a difficult line to walk, especially for men who respect and admire women for their brains and their beauty.
Unfortunately, most guys cannot begin to understand this. If we receive compliments from women, they’re usually about our achievements or our character, not our looks. Most of us don’t expect a woman to tell us how handsome or sexy we are—and some of us would find it hard to regard such a comment as sincere if they did. On this point, Hugo Schwyzer wrote recently:
So many straight men have no experience of being wanted. So many straight men have no experience of sensing a gaze of outright longing. Even many men who are wise in the world and in relationships, who know that their wives or girlfriends love them, do not know what it is to be admired for their bodies and their looks. They may know what it is to be relied upon, they may know what it is to bring another to ecstasy with their touch, but they don’t know what it is to be found not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but worthy of longing.
As he usually does, Hugo hit the nail on the head: most guys don’t know what it’s like to be appreciated for their looks. And this makes it hard for us to understand the importance of this to women, especially at the same time that we’re making an effort not to objectify women on the basis of their looks.
Trust me, I’m not ringing the “oh it’s so hard to be a guy these days” bell; it’s the responsibility of every man to try to understand how to treat women with both respect and admiration. But as far as the right balance of these two is compared, we really have no frame of reference, especially when it comes to looks, which makes it all the more difficult.
Read Lisa Hickey’s response to the question of ‘Beauty or Brains’ here.