What Is So Wrong About A Compliment?


Maybe I just don’t get it.

I’m one of those people who is effusive in giving compliments. I’m known for telling men and women alike that I love certain aspects of their outfits, or their hair, or that I think they’re beautiful.

With full realization that receiving compliments can often be awkward, I still don’t understand why President Obama is catching so much flak for commenting at a fundraiser that California District Attorney Kamala Harris is, “by far, the best looking attorney general.”

The President even prefaced his compliment on her appearance by also acknowledging her brains, guts, and dedication to her job. Now he is being called out by a constituency that is generally a fan of his, Democrat women, for being sexist.

When I initially asked about the outrage the question posed to me was, well would a straight man say that about another man? Yes, absolutely! Maybe it is just my experience, but I know my fiancé frequently makes comments about other men.  “Adam Levine is beautiful man,” he’ll tell me, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. Being appreciative of beauty is a sign of openness, security, and maturity. There is quite a difference in admiring the way someone looks and demeaning a person by objectifying them.

Remember all the shirtless pictures of then-candidate Obama that came out during the 2008 campaign? I certainly remember a lot of people talking about how “sexy” he was. Ditto with the “Obama Girl“, whose video hardly screams, “I’m voting for you because you are promoting policies I like.” And let’s not forget Lena Dunham’s allusion of voting for Obama being like losing your virginity.  Many have complimented Obama on his appearance, and he is allowed to do the same to others.

I’m completely open to being shown why I’m wrong, but I just haven’t seen any strong arguments.

Many critics are saying that the harm is in the discussion of her beauty outweighing the talk of her accomplishments and the quality of her work. But wait, isn’t it those critics who are driving the distraction? Obama said 62 words about her toughness, ability to do her job well, and friendship, and only 17 about her looks.

I understand that commenting on someone’s appearance isn’t necessarily professional, especially from someone in a position of authority such as the President, but being candidly unprofessional in front of a friendly crowd of people who are your supporters is not sexism, and I think to call it so is to cheapen the actual instances of work-place sexual harassment that still occur every day.

  • I agree that it’s not sexist. But I do think that what President Obama said was unprofessional. I wouldn’t be comfortable in a work environment in which men are saying that I’m good looking, especially so publicly. It would make me wonder if that’s all they see as my worth – whether I’m good looking or not.

    I don’t think it was sexist, but I do think it can be awkward, even uneasy for a woman to be told that in a work environment. Especially when women in work settings are less confident than men in their abilities. So being told about how good looking you are, I don’t think that helps that confidence in terms of working.

    Although, the President did say things about her work, so I don’t think it was sexist, just a bit unprofessional. That’s all.

  • I know that if my boss made a public statement about my looks, I would be super uncomfortable working for him. I would feel like I was being appraised for my looks instead of my ability to work. This is particularly true when women are more often praised for their appearance than their accomplishments.

    The real question is, why say anything at all about her apperance? If you want to tell someone they’re beautiful, tell them personally. Saying it to a room full of people strikes me as cheap and phony. If he wanted to compliment her, just tell her in private.

    • I agree – I would feel so uncomfortable if my boss or co-worker announced at the Christmas Party or a job function that I was good looking.

    • I actually agree with you in large part on this coming from management in a Fortune 100 Co. Doesn’t matter the sex of the employee or the boss. If the employee is uncomfortable with the comment, it is an issue. I’ve had to sit trough hours of sexual harassment training and know it can be a slippery slope. At the same time, attractive people know they are and are likely to be blithely indifferent to a compliment. Most people enjoy a sincere compliment. I’m not talking about a quid pro quo situation.
      Liz is is quite right in observing that there is a difference between admiring the way someone looks and demeaning by objectifying the physical attributes.
      I, however, will take an honest compliment most anytime.

  • I agree with Ms. Robinson’s post on several levels. First, “Obama said 62 words about her toughness, ability to do her job well, and friendship, and only 17 about her looks.” This fact, combined with his pretty benign word choice, makes it a non-story for me. Second, it is impossible to construe this as the President selecting or promoting an employee based on appearance. Her success or failure is simply not in the hands in of any
    President. Third, Americans do not want a President that is strictly professional. Why do Presidential candidates go have beers with voters? Isn’t it extremely unprofessional for the person who controls the nuclear arsenal to have even one drink? That is a major reason why policy-wonk Clinton lost to almost pure charisma Obama. Look at the very ‘professional’ Mitt Romney…he was criticized for being stiff and difficult to sympathize with. I agree with the commenters that Obama’s comments were unnecessary, but to make this an example of a women’s issue is selling short the problems women face.

  • 62 words about her qualifications, and 17 about her looks? Interesting way of putting it – when the person who did it is a democrat. Had Rush done the same thing, I think it would have been described as “He spent more than a fifth of the time speaking about her looks! Sexist pig!”

  • Nancy P

    The Presidency is one of those jobs that splits a person into two distinct spheres. There’s “President Obama” and “Barack Obama.” The President is, by definition, a representative of the people. Even though other Presidents blur that dividing line, President Obama probably should not express Barack Obama’s personal opinions or make judgements without considering his (massive) constituency. A compliment to one person is an offensive comment to another. Even though he probably meant nothing untoward by the compliment, the fact that he made it while in his public “President” role was unwise.