Are "pretty" and "beautiful" too gendered?
May 11, 2016 10:58 AM   Subscribe

If you're a woman who does not present in a traditionally/stereotypically feminine way, are you uncomfortable being described as "pretty" or "beautiful"?

If so, are there other adjectives you would prefer? "I would prefer for people not to remark on my physical appearance at all" is also a perfectly understandable answer.
posted by Jamboree Lamb to Human Relations (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My boyfriend gets a fair bit of "you are a beautiful man" from men and women of all sorts of stripes, so I don't know, not everyone sees it as gendered.

Beautiful, for me at least, has a wider set of possibilities than "pretty." I think of Alexander McQueen's Savage Beauty, for example. Beautiful, it seems to me, can be less gendered than pretty.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:03 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

In most situations, I would prefer for people not to remark on my physical appearance at all - especially if it's with the assumption that doing so is a favour to me (like the people who, hearing that I've had a bad day or that I'm under the weather, say "Would it help if I say you're looking beautiful?"). One of the biggest favours I can get is the illusion that as a woman my appearance isn't always up for assessment or discussion every time I'm out in public.

That said, as a butch woman, if a friend is genuinely trying to give me a compliment, words like "dapper" or "dashing" or "stylish" are the way to my heart.
posted by northernish at 11:07 AM on May 11, 2016 [18 favorites]

Beautiful is fine, I don't see it as a gendered word (weather can be beautiful, a painting can be beautiful, etc). I see beauty as something that encompasses more than just physical traits, it can include personality, attitude, that person's smile, etc. . . so if someone says that i'm beautiful, I take it as a bigger compliment

Pretty is annoying except if it's my boyfriend saying it. I would take beautiful as a compliment and pretty would be a bit of a slight
posted by winterportage at 11:13 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would prefer for people not to remark on my physical appearance at all.
posted by mochapickle at 11:14 AM on May 11, 2016 [29 favorites]

You know, this is something I've thought about a lot because of one particular incident when I was little. I was dressed up all fancy for my fifth grade graduation, family was in town, and when my uncle saw me he said "you look beautiful, sweetie" in just a loving, parental kind of way. But it made me feel super weird, and I think it's because I don't think anyone in my memory had ever said those specific words to me before, at least not devoid of any other additional compliment/detail. (Like "you look really nice" or "you look so pretty in that outfit" or whatever.) It made me feel kind of cheap, like all there was to me was how I looked. (Usually the compliments I got were about being smart and doing a good job on things--that's definitely the kind of stuff I heard from my parents growing up.)

And it made me think gee, is this what my cousin has always heard growing up with my uncle as a dad? Because he tells her how beautiful she looks all the time. And not in a I wish my parents complimented me like that way but more how sad and hard it would be to only get complimented for how you looked--she's always been super feminine, so that's an easy compliment for her to receive. I wondered if she had ever really been complimented for her other talents. As we've grown up the differences between my cousin and I have become more stark, and I've often thought throughout the years how much bearing just that one very simple thing had on the kind of personalities we developed. That doesn't really answer your question, but it seems relevant.

Personally, as the kind of person who was clearly from an early age uneasy about hearing "beautiful" as a sole compliment, while I don't mind comments on my appearance, I'd prefer them to be about the choices I've made to look a certain way, rather than about some natural quality.

So, "I love your haircut, it looks great!" vs. "you're so pretty!" or "that's a great dress" vs. "you're so pretty!" or "wow, you look way younger than that, I bet you use sunscreen" vs. "you're so pretty!" I don't wear makeup, but if I did I bet I'd prefer to hear "I love your makeup!" over "you're so pretty!"

You can compliment a person's appearance by finding a way to compliment a person for who they are and what they do rather than patting them on the back for winning the genetic lottery.
posted by phunniemee at 11:15 AM on May 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

I'm an AFAB but not very ladylike personperson, and I royally detest being called pretty. I can just about deal with 'beautiful' from someone I'm romantically involved with. Other than that it's fine to compliment my clothing choices or my hairdo, and if you know me very well and are not my boss then saying I look "lovely" or "happy" or "amazing" or something would be fine.

Call me a princess and I'll throw you bodily out of my house, ugh.
posted by emilyw at 11:16 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

It depends on the situation. How well do you know the person? Why are you complimenting her? Are you complimenting other women in the same situation?

On the one hand, masculine spectrum or gender-non-conforming women (or people read as women) are so punished by society for our appearance, and are so often told both directly and by implication that we are ugly and our bodies are disgusting that counter-opinions are, in some ways, nice.

For me personally, it is kind of....well, close to triggering to have non-queer, gender-conforming people compliment my appearance in a global way, because it feels like they are lying. I know what they are socialized to think, I know who they date, I know who they emulate and praise and use as inspiration and it is never masculine-spectrum people, so I feel like it's a pity compliment and I usually react negatively. It feels like "well, I need to say something nice, so even if I really think I would rather die than look like you, I will tell you that you look good just to ease this social interaction".

I would personally suggest something more individual - "that shirt looks great on you", "I really like your shoes", "that color brings out your eyes".....something that is not directly contradicted by every other message that we get about our appearances.
posted by Frowner at 11:17 AM on May 11, 2016 [13 favorites]

As a few others have pointed out, I way prefer a complement on my outfit or hair or whatever, something that was a choice I made. Saying someone looks pretty or beautiful is a hollow compliment. Tell me you think my shoes are bizarrely compelling or something like that, and I'll be way more impressed.

I get super pissed when someone says I look cute though. UGH please everyone strike that word from your vocab unless you're describing a puppy or a baby. Calling a grown woman cute is gross.
posted by silverstatue at 11:24 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

It depends on how I'm presenting that day and who are you. If it's a butch day, then "beautiful" is odd but I'm probably going to be like, whatever, unless you're being scuzzy about it. If it's a femme day and I've deliberately dolled up, then sure, call me beautiful or pretty.

If you're my wife, her girlfriend, or my boss who calls everyone beautiful in a non-scuzzy non-demeaning way because that's just what she does, you can call me anything complimentary you want whenever no matter what I'm wearing.
posted by joycehealy at 11:28 AM on May 11, 2016

I really do love being called pretty, gorgeous, beautiful, etc. I don't like when people harp on it or talk about such things all the time, but when people bring it up once in a blue moon, it's nice. And I like it from other women more than I do men, especially ones I am not dating. I also much prefer it from people I know rather than strangers.
posted by rhythm_queen at 11:32 AM on May 11, 2016

I'm a woman who presents feminine but not femme, if that makes sense.

Pretty has always bothered me because it's kind of juvenile sounding. My husband is beautiful and I tell him that all the time, but always with an internal awareness that thats' a "weird" word to use for a masculine person.

I guess if you are going for gender neutral compliments I'd look at: Attractive, striking, gorgeous, stunning, smart (in a "well-put-together" sense, smashing, or stylin'. If this is a person for whom being jokey about their looks is appropriate, maybe a well timed (and accented) "Daaaaaaamn [person]!" a la Daniel.

And the caveat on this answer is that I'm assuming that you would only provide these compliments to someone for whom it's appropriate for you to comment on their appearance at all. I assume that you know not to tell co-workers or students or service people how striking you find them.
posted by sparklemotion at 11:36 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a tendency to interpret such remarks as "I'd hit that!" and, you know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It seems like a really personal, invasive and objectifying thing to say. And it is rooted in an assumption that how I dress or look should cater to people-pleasing rather than be about my personal comfort or something like that.

I have been intimately involved with at least one man who made me feel good about the fact that he liked how I looked. He made it a source of mutual pleasure. But, most of the time, I feel like this is just other people hanging their baggage and expectations on me. It often makes me want to say something like "Who the hell asked you?"
posted by Michele in California at 11:38 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Anecdata: my genderqueer partner (who presents as such) likes it when I (or their other partners) call them pretty or beautiful but doesn't really want strangers commenting on their appearance. But they also like getting called handsome or cute by their partners.
posted by Candleman at 11:39 AM on May 11, 2016

I am curious - could you say more about what you mean by "not feminine-presenting"? A woman who, e.g., wears skirts and has long hair but identifies as not feminine-presenting because she does not wear make-up or heels has a very different experience of the world than a butch woman.
posted by Frowner at 11:42 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I prefer if people not comment on my appearance at all, unless it is someone I know really, really well. Particularly if they are noticing something different about me (haircut, clothes, lost weight, happy, confident, etc.).

Both "pretty" or "beautiful" to me tend to a very conventional standard for looking good. I would, frankly, be confused if someone said those to me, as I would never apply those words to myself. I always self-talk as "I look great!" or "confident" or "sharp".

(I identify as female and have those bits, but am regularly called "sir" if I put a ballcap on or wear a hooded sweatshirt or am in the South, so based on the current societal understanding of gender, I suppose I am not very feminine presenting.)
posted by chiefthe at 11:48 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

This really depends on what your purpose is for remarking on someone's appearance. I had a teacher at a parent-teacher conference tell my mother once that I was pretty which was

1. totally inappropriate
2. totally made it seem like my looks were the important thing about me

Now I'm older and usually dress more asexually but I'm clearly built female and have long hair. Unless you are my partner or a close family member, I don't want you to call me beautiful or pretty unless I'm dressing up for a special occasion and I am clearly making a HUGE effort and maybe pulling it off. Because to me saying "You look beautiful" is like saying "You're matching some conventional standards of beauty according to me. Good job!" which, eh.

Even in the above context I'd much rather some variants that were specific like

- I love what you've done with your hair
- you are rocking that outfit
- that color looks great on you
- You've got such a great smile (and be cautious about this, women have been told to smile by men forever so this can be a tricky one)

All that said, I can usually figure out what someone is getting at so I'm pretty forgiving for someone who is really trying to compliment (as opposed to cluelessly reinforce gender patterns and/or boy/girl shit) so while I have these feelings most of the time I don't act on them, just make some mental notes and move on.
posted by jessamyn at 11:49 AM on May 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

I would prefer people not to refer to it at all unless it's a romantic partner (in which case presumably we could have a conversation about what sort of compliments I like/don't like).
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:50 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The way I look is the absolute least interesting thing about me and if that's what you're commenting on then I basically consider it a personal failing on your part. And since people making those comments are judging me and my acceptability to society in a gross and unnecessary way I have no problems judging them unfairly right back again.

I'm an awesome person and I provide value to the world and those I interact with and none of it has anything to do with how I brushed my hair this morning. Just because a lot of society thinks that my being female makes that not true and that my job is to look as sexually attractive as I can at all times instead doesn't mean shit to me any more (and hell yes words like beautiful and pretty are incredibly gendered when applied to other humans). I still brush my hair and wear nice clothes and whatever, I have just stopped being interested in hearing other people's opinions about something so dull.
posted by shelleycat at 11:52 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

(Me: Queer woman. I try to present as neutrally as possible, neither femme nor butch. I have long hair.)

My relationship to these words is fraught. They are something I think I "should" be. When I am told I am pretty or beautiful I feel socially accepted and approved of. However I don't connect to those words personally and if someone said them to me in an intimate situation I would feel unseen in some way. I'd prefer to recieve a more specific compliment, like I look focused and professional when I'm at my craft, or you like a particular feature of my face, or my laugh is lovely.
posted by mymbleth at 11:52 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm probably such a woman, more precisely: I'm a straight, butch ciswoman. If you'd describe me as pretty, I'd feel uncomfortable or I would simply think you're lying. I'm not pretty. Pretty is for people who are feminine and dainty. The word doesn't fit me.

If you'd call me beautiful, depending on situation, it's possible that I'd enjoy that. It's much less gendered. But I think if I were being complimented on my looks, I'd rather hear 'looking great/cool/awesome' or something like that. It sounds more like 'I like your style' than it sounds like 'I like the way your body/face happens to look'. In other words, it's a compliment about something I have some control over.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:00 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I ascribe a more androgynous gender identity to myself, but I don't mind being described as beautiful in the correct context. I get "cute" a lot, which makes me uncomfortable a bit, because that also tends to come with other assumptions, and I'd rather not project them.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:02 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just don't see a compliment on X as suggesting that only X matters. Like, "You're pretty clever" also means "but ugly, boring, unfunny, and short fingered." Generally when someone goes to the trouble of saying something kind to me, I take it that way.
posted by Capri at 12:04 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wonder if you could comment with a little more detail on how you're planning to deploy these compliments. I wonder if some of the folks who are made uncomfortable by people commenting about their looks would feel the same way about, say, a romantic partner saying the same thing.

When I gave my answer, I thought of it from the point of view of things that I like to hear Mr. Motion say. But hearing that I'm "stunning" from a random stranger is creepy and awful. Ditto for coworkers, customers, etc.

Others seem to be making different, and perfectly valid, given the detail we have, assumptions in their answers so you might get better answers if you were clear about your intent.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:06 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

To me (genderfluid person often read as female), "pretty" is too gendered--and feels somehow trivializing? Recently a date told me I was beautiful, though, and it was really welcome. There's more gravitas in beauty than in prettiness, and more gender neutrality. I actually disagree with some of the answers above about complimenting hair, clothes, etc., because I think it puts the compliment on the object/change rather than the person. Masculine-spectrum people are told a lot, implicitly and explicitly, that to be masculine spectrum + female is ugly, unreasonable, undesirable. I'm all about complimenting the person rather than what they're wearing, because I think it's more meaningful.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 12:18 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would find it very strange to be called pretty or beautiful; the only times I can recall being called either was by an extremely drunk guy while dancing with my friends at a club, and once by a friend at prom who was having fun complimenting every person they saw with a new adjective. I'm average looking, and to be complimented so lavishly would seem either fake or delusional to me. In almost all cases, a specific compliment about a choice I've made (external stuff like clothing, accessories, or more internal stuff like energy, friendliness, humor, warmth) would go over better.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:26 PM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think this is something that is so idiosyncratic to each individual person, that there's no real way to develop a rules-based philosophy about it.

I'm a cis woman and A) dislike compliments based on my appearance from people I'm not close to, and B) have a laundry list of reactions to different appearance-compliment words. Beautiful is fantastic! Despite presenting as vaguely femme-ish and definitely not butch, I'd love to be called dapper or dashing! Anything slightly unusual like stunning, gorgeous, lovely, etc. would be fine. Pretty has always felt simpering and reductive, to me. Cute, ugh, do not ever call me cute. I've also seen a web of different reactions to appearance-based compliments I've bestowed on my partners, who have been all over the gender presentation spectrum, including butch women and trans/genderqueer people. And it's not always predictable who's going to go for what.

I think this is something you have to tailor to the individual, and if you can't tailor it to the individual because you don't know them well enough, best not to comment on their appearance.
posted by Sara C. at 12:31 PM on May 11, 2016

If you're a woman who does not present in a traditionally/stereotypically feminine way

I'm a woman who does present in a traditionally/stereotypically feminine way and I think both of those words are highly problematic. "Pretty" is diminishing, and "beautiful" is just and endorsement of an entire culture telling me what my fucking value is all the fucking time. The entire tradition of praising women for their appearance is problematic, in fact. So, I have to know you very well and we have to be very close for me to be confident that your compliment is free of that baggage, or playing with it.*

I'd rather hear "You look great" or "you look so well" if you feel socially compelled to comment on my appearance.

My girlfriends and I often say things like "I mean, I know you're smart, but you look so pretty, and we all know what's more important!"
posted by DarlingBri at 12:32 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a gay woman who presents in a more masculine style -- it depends on who and where. In a relationship, I'd be good with 'beautiful', but my partner does not use that word for me -- I get hot or sexy which I like. At work or with friends, I too would prefer a compliment on my shoes or my haircut etc. I do get called cute sometimes by friends -- I don't like it that much, but I know it comes from a kind place.

A few years ago, I wore an old skirt suit to work as I had an important meeting and my pant suit was at the cleaners. It was extremely irritating when one female colleague kept telling me how "beautiful" I was....and I should wear skits more often.
posted by Lescha at 12:34 PM on May 11, 2016

Another data point, FWIW:

I've tried real hard to hate being called "pretty" or "beautiful" or "cute" in lieu of other compliments but never did get the trick of it. I do enjoy it. I guess patriarchy won this round with me.

For me a specific compliment on a clothing item or a hairstyle or whatever is actually a little more fraught, because I like to pretend to myself that people are mostly ignoring/too preoccupied to notice my granular fashion and grooming choices. I feel much more self-conscious after these compliments because it's like, "oh, so today I chose there's this weird pressure to choose well ALWAYS, because this person is watching and judging and oh god, I'll just never leave the house again."

Part of this is probably because I have been changing my look over the past couple of years and so I'm just highly aware of/unsure about a lot of my style choices. (For the first 32ish years of my life, I would have described myself as reading "somewhat femme," but not "stereotypically feminine." Nowadays I do read much more feminine.) But to some extent I would say it's always been true.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:36 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I was in high school, a teacher said (of me, to someone else) "bibliotropic is pretty when she wants to be." It was not meant as a compliment. In fact, it was pretty clearly intended as a kind of backhanded gender policing. That was, however, the only time I've actually enjoyed someone using the term "pretty" with reference to me, because there's power there. You expect me to be pretty, but I refuse to be pretty for you. I don't owe you my looks. ... Otherwise, "pretty" makes me really, really uncomfortable.

I also feel really gross when I wear something more feminine than usual and people fall all over themselves to tell me I look great... Pretty, beautiful, the adjective doesn't matter. I see what you're doing, there, folks. Stop.

All that said, I don't mind receiving compliments and I do dispense them liberally. 100% of everyone I care about is amazing in so many ways it's kind of overwhelming and I tell them that all the time. I've been told by a number of people in discussions concerning the politics of compliments that my tendency to compliment is neutralized by the fact that I do it so much and to everyone that it ceases to be about one aspect of the person or to create hierarchies and instead contributes a kind of culture of general admiration and respect (shine theory!). But I'm still really careful about what I compliment and how because I know it can be really fraught and more hurtful or controlling than helpful. It's complicated.
posted by bibliotropic at 2:01 PM on May 11, 2016 [10 favorites]

"I have a tendency to interpret such remarks as 'I'd hit that'"

As a straight man who finds certain non-femme features attractive, this is how I assume it would be taken if I complimented appearance. Not wishing it to be taken that way, I refrain from saying anything. If there's a tactful way to do this, I haven't yet found it. And, more importantly, I don't think anyone's holding their breath for me to find such a way.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:17 PM on May 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think what the responses here really show is that there is no generic answer to this question. Individual women's preferences are all over the place (I'm 57 and have no problem with a friend saying something I'm wearing is cute). I don't think it's ever a good idea for a man to comment on a woman's appearance if he doesn't know her. If a strange man complimented me in a grocery store, I'd be looking behind me when I walked to my car. It's a little trickier when you know someone. I would be fine with a man I know but am not super close to complimenting something I was wearing or a haircut, but a general "you look pretty" would feel really weird. And there's absolutely no winning in compliments related to body size or shape.
posted by FencingGal at 2:43 PM on May 11, 2016

Straight woman here who dresses in a fairly androgynous manner but wears makeup, has long hair, etc. I work with the public and am frequently told by strangers that I am pretty, beautiful, have nice hair, etc., and I fucking hate it. I don't even really like it when my boyfriend pays me those kinds of compliments, but my appearance was something that was NEVER commented on when I was a kid, except for my mother telling me to stop picking at my face or that I inherited her big butt. The first boyfriend I ever had told me that I was "conventionally attractive" and I honestly had no idea what he was talking about, as I had never viewed myself that way (I'm totally fine with how I look, but never though of myself as terribly attractive to others). On the other hand, I don't mind if my boyfriend tells me I'm cute. Cute has more of a silly/goofy element rather than a sexual one so it doesn't strike me as demeaning the way that pretty or beautiful does.
posted by jabes at 4:39 PM on May 11, 2016

I hate compliments on physical attributes (like "you're pretty/beautiful", "you have lovely eyes", etc.) from anybody except my spouse and friends or family. You don't know me; don't presume intimacy like that.

On the other hand, compliments about less-personal things are often fine. I was walking down an aisle in my local supermarket the other day when a guy walking the other way said "I like your hat! And I love the way you stylin' it!" That was great.

If going this way, stick to neutral accessories (hats, shoes, scarves, maybe brooches) or maybe "sharp haircut". Anything closer to the center of the body can seem uncomfortably as if you've been eyeing the other person assessingly.
posted by Lexica at 7:06 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Telling a man he looks sharp is a great compliment to me. I think it's funny when people do not tell me that I am pretty or beautiful when I dress down to what is most comfortable for me. But when I feel like putting in the effort, people would mention that I was "cute" or my personal (read: NOT) favorite, "hot". I have been called beautiful by one of my best woman friends and I felt abashed but took it as the sweet and endearing compliment because she meant in as an all encompassing way. She knows my personality and who I am and that's why it was ok. Plus, it's quite rare that she would say something like that to me because she knows how awkward and uncomfortable I get when someone makes a comment on my appearance.

As far as I can remember, someone had something to say about how I looked. It didn't matter what it was, but I felt so violated when people felt they had a right to talk about how I looked. It felt invasive. A coworker the other day said I looked cute. I was wearing shorts, a sweater and ballet flats. I was like, heh? Why? But after years of people feeling like they have to voice their opinion on my looks, you gotta let it roll off your back.

However, I did mention to a woman on the train that she was beautiful. She caught my eye and I was mesmerized for a moment and I thought maybe it would be ok coming from another woman. I don't know, it was a strange circumstance. I have met two women that I thought were gorgeous. One when I was younger, but I didn't tell her. And another, a TA of mine that I was crushing on so hard. I think gorgeous is more sincere than pretty. I wouldn't say beautiful is gendered. An ex of mine was beautiful and handsome and I told him so interchangeably.
posted by lunastellasol at 9:44 PM on May 11, 2016

I am genderqueer/androgynous, masculine-of-center. I'm very vain about my appearance and I like being called handsome, good-looking, gorgeous (weirdly, gorgeous seems a lot less gendered to me!), hot, or adorable. Pretty and beautiful really depend on context. If you mistake me for a guy and say "he's so pretty" I will love it. If you tell me that my cheekbones are beautiful, I will gladly accept the compliment. However, the way that most cisgender people who perceive me to be female use those words makes me uncomfortable.
posted by lieber hair at 7:42 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Generics are lazy. Only my intimates can drop those.

From a stranger? You better be specific or have a real good follow-up (ie, we have things in common, you're not trying to pick me up, you use the compliment to start a conversation that quickly veers to richer loam). "Oh, your hair is fabulous, where did you get it done?"

From a strange dude? STFU & GTFO. You already look enough at my body.
posted by fritillary at 5:02 AM on May 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

For me, personally, I want you to compliment me on something you've learned about me that shows you've noticed me. Tell me I'm unique or funny or a good listener or very creative. If you like my shoes or my shirt, that's cool too. My outward appearance is my own, not conventional and not yours to judge. I'm OK with it and telling me I'm pretty or beautiful makes me feel patronized.

Stick with real, unique compliments.
posted by bendy at 12:14 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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