"Girl, you look so skinny!" It's one of the most commonly thrown out — and problematic — compliments in the book. And despite its troubling implication that every woman's #bodygoals include a svelte figure, we're all guilty of greeting our girlfriends with this observation on any given Friday night. So why do we do it? In an era when women are kicking traditional standards of beauty to the curb, not to mention kicking their sneakers through metaphorical glass ceilings, you'd think we would have found more meaningful and relevant ways to lift each other up. Whether we realize it or not, we all participate in this looks-obsessed compliment culture — and it goes beyond giving shout-outs to shrinking waistlines. Sometimes we praise a fellow female's glowing skin or mermaid hair. Other times we get all Inspector Gadget on a BFF's outfit, admiring every detail as if it were our first time seeing a well-placed ruffle. It's our way of breaking the ice with strangers, bonding with friends, and generally showing ladies some love. At its core, it's well-intentioned. But could our go-to, surface-level reassurances be sending the wrong message, potentially doing more harm than good? According to an article by Psychology Today, which evaluated a number of recent studies, "When women are praised for the way they look, although their mood may temporarily increase, they may also experience negative consequences [due to self-objectification]." Moreover, "Appearance compliments can perpetuate the societal norm that a woman's body is made to be looked at, judged, and evaluated." Sadly, picking apart women's bodies — both the positives and so-called flaws — is the norm. With women scrutinized for their looks on the daily, be it in news, advertising, or social media, it's no wonder we obsess over wrinkles and perfect beach waves alike. The good news: We have the power to change the conversation at large and on an individual level. With more and more media employing the female gaze, we have established movements like #AskHerMore, unapologetic ad campaigns featuring menstruating models, and feminist Instagram meme accounts that let us laugh off and commiserate over universal female experiences, thus creating a fresh POV and setting a new example. All we have to do now is let our own dialogues follow suit. Which brings us back to the big question: How should we be praising other women? Is it really all that bad to call someone beautiful, shout out "Cute outfit!" on the subway, or casually drop a "Brows on point" comment on Instagram? Does focusing on each other's personal strengths lead to more long-term self-love? If we could snap out of autopilot, tune out the male gaze, and unsubscribe from the mainstream media's unrealistic expectations, what would we say to each other? In partnership with Lane Bryant and its girl-powered, troll-squashing #ThisBody campaign, we spoke to women from all walks of life — from a comedian to a nutritionist — to answer these questions. Furthermore, we got super deep about the root of why we obsess over women's looks; how we can appreciate each other's beauty without doing harm; and how we can change the way women see, speak to, and support other women. To accompany the conversation (and challenge common perceptions), we captured tasteful images of a diverse group of women in the almost nude, proving that we can celebrate each other's bodies without objectifying the female form. Get ready for major posivibes ahead.
What does the female gaze — whether it be in the media or how women appreciate other women in daily life — capture that the male gaze doesn't?
"For me, the female gaze is about admiring the beauty of the individual and becoming inspired myself. I don’t think the straight male gaze captures that aspiration. But who knows, maybe some dude is looking at a hottie on the F train and thinking, I’ve really got to get myself a cool structural bag for fall." —Mikala Bierma, 32, creative director and comedian
"We are so used to being complimented by men for sexual reasons. Strange men on the street especially. And those compliments never feel genuine and are usually sexualized. I think we've even grown desensitized to them — so if a man were to ever pay us a genuine compliment, would we know? Women tend to mean it when they compliment another woman. I think we give them out selectively so when we see something we like about a person, we go out of our way to let that person know. And if you're shy like me, you have to overcome that, which makes it even more meaningful." —BriAnne Wills, 33, photographer and creator of Girls and Their Cats "I think sometimes women's comments go deeper — for example, complimenting each other on our speaking skills, creative projects, workplace achievements, etc." —Christy Harrison, 35, registered dietitian and nutritionist
"Taste and creativity, an appreciation of time and effort, and an understanding of the body it is looking at (at least if it is another female body)." —Julianna Dow, 33, marketing professional
I dig the bravery it takes to present differently as a woman — from sleeves of tattoos to gender-queer side-shaves to Upper East Side ballet flats. I wouldn't want that look for myself, but I love to see how it all comes together.
"Of course! I'm human. I see women in magazines and wish my lashes were a bit longer, my curls just a bit more defined and shinier, my stomach flatter, and my butt bigger. I wish I had smooth, amazing skin and didn't get dark under-eye circles so fast. I think we can't help but compare, but it really becomes a problem when we don't celebrate what we do have. The days that I don't love how I look are the days I envy others the most (or maybe it's the other way around), but the days I celebrate my favorite features are the days I feel unstoppable." —Sioban Massiah, 31, customer experience program manager for TED Conference
"I really try to be the best version of myself and I don't really care about expectations. What I'm saying should be more important than my super, super sexy shoulder blade skin. I dig the bravery it takes to present yourself differently as a woman — from sleeves of tattoos to gender-queer side-shaves to Upper East Side ballet flats. I wouldn't want those looks for myself, but I love to see how they all come together. If I'm going to be totally honest, I'm probably the most judge-y when I see women who are dressed overtly sexy and contoured to the gawds. That look makes me cringe a bit because it's so flammable. Now we know what I need to work on." —Mikala Bierma
"Of course I do. If it is someone who is clearly embracing their own style and pleased with themselves and seems comfortable, I tend to admire their badassery. But if it is someone who seems uncomfortable or trying hard, I tend to feel a little bad for them. But also, in NYC you see so many different types of people every day, with different levels of access to the fashion system, so it is hard to make blanket judgments — I don't know their lives!" —Julianna Dow
"I host a show for Essence magazine every weekend…and I’m not typical for the brand. I have tattoos. I’m bald. In the African-American community hair’s a big deal, and I’m shaving off all my hair. A lot of YouTube comments are 'Who is this bald, ugly girl?' and 'She would be pretty if…' I’m not trying to make a statement necessarily, but it’s who I am, and it took me a long time to get comfortable being this person and looking this way, so I feel I’m challenging a group to look at beauty a little differently." —Dana Johnson, 34, journalist
"As a fashion photographer, I try to represent a positive-body image. Different shapes and colors. I’m not a skinny person, and I want to see things that I can relate to." —BriAnne Wills
"I’m eight-and-a-half months pregnant with a giant baby right now, and there’s definitely a way pregnant women are told to dress. It’s lots of leggings and giant button-down shirts. Maybe a stretchy dress for date night or one of those terrifying T-shirts with, like, pleats down the side to accommodate the bump. Let me just officially say, fuck that. I’ve jammed my growing body into mostly non-maternity clothes my whole pregnancy. Not because I think pregnancy jeans are a waste of money, or whatever the mommy-blogger brigade might tell you, but because I want to feel good in what I’m wearing. I’ve felt fashionable and fierce this summer wearing whatever I want and avoiding leggings at all costs — unless I'm in a yoga class." —Mikala Bierma
"I just feel the whole way that I do my casting — how it's unbelievably celebrated if I put different types of ethnicities, different shapes and sizes, trans models, and all that in my shows — is like a fad right now. It's trending. But I want it to be a normal thing. It shouldn't be celebrated, it should be the norm. So when we're casting our commercials, when we're casting our television shows, when we're watching the news that night, we should see all different kinds of shapes and sizes and types and ethnicities. Where's the transgender newscaster? It's a rare thing right now and our entire culture should be exposed to it 24/7." —Gilleon Smith, 34, casting director
Many think the female focus on appearance starts at a young age, with girls being told they're pretty. What are your thoughts on and experiences with this? Or was that pressure never part of the picture?
"I have a daughter who is 20 months. And in terms of how I speak to her — she has bright-red hair and blue eyes — I don’t look at her and say, 'You’re so cute.' Instead, I’ll see that she’ll try a puzzle a hundred times, and I’ll say, 'I love that you’re so patient, that you try a lot.' I want to expose her to a well-rounded world of people instead of Instagram bloggers and show her how to really live life instead of (experiencing it) through a camera." —Jenny Taitz, 34, clinical psychologist "Growing up, my dad told me I was smart, like, every day. He definitely told me I looked beautiful from time to time. But, his big focus was on how capable I am. And my mom really encouraged and nurtured my sense of humor. I did my first stand-up show at 15, which is kind of amazing in hindsight. I wrote my own jokes. My mom would cheer in the front row and then we’d go get pie afterwards to celebrate. As a grown-ass woman, I still use those words I heard a lot growing up to describe myself: funny, capable...in the mood for pie. I don’t think of myself as pretty, but I don’t really care." —Mikala Bierma
"My family didn't really focus on beauty. They never called me ugly or anything horrible like that, but I wasn't told I was pretty often. I semi-wish they did, or instilled the importance of self-love a bit more. I didn't need to be showered with compliments, but they focused on intellect solely. It made me always feel like an ugly duckling amongst my friends who knew they were pretty. I also craved attention more. It took me a while before I realized I needed to see it for myself. No one could provide me with self-esteem." —Sioban Massiah
As nice as it feels to be complimented about my looks, looks are fleeting and I am much more flattered and pleased if someone compliments my work.
Are appearance compliments from other women encouraging? Or do you think they place too much value on women's looks?
"Compliments from women can be objectifying, like, 'You're so tiny!' If I give looks-based compliments, I try to keep them global. It's tricky to compliment anything specific if you don't know the person. Like, what if they're actually trying to get comfortable wearing less makeup, and your compliment about their full-face makeup sets them back? And I don't say anything about anyone's body size or shape, ever. That said, I still remember a compliment I got from a random woman in a grocery-store parking lot one time: 'I love your whole look! So cute.' I like that kind of compliment because I think it shows an appreciation of the thought that goes into all of our aesthetic choices as women. It's not just 'I love your hair' or 'I love your shirt,' but 'I love all the choices you've made and how they work together.'" —Christy Harrison "As nice as it feels to be complimented about my looks, looks are fleeting and I am much more flattered and pleased if someone compliments my work. My favorite one recently was, 'Not to be a fan girl, but I've been following your work for a while and I'm so obsessed.'" —BriAnne Wills
"Only if it's sarcastic. Or catty. Or meant to hurt someone. Or, you know, I guess weight-related things like, 'Oh, you look like you've lost weight.' Things like that maybe could propel a woman or a man — my husband always talks about his weight as well — and I think that it could maybe create a situation where you may put pressure on yourself to maintain that weight. But other than that, no, I think it's all about positivity." —Gilleon Smith
Real talk: What's the best compliment you've ever received, or wish to receive, from another woman?
"One day after class, a student shared with me that she had recently gone through a breakup and one of the only things that was helping her not feel totally rejected and worthless were my classes. She expressed that I motivated her to feel sassy, sexy, and confident in her body, mind, and soul. She put herself in a vulnerable place sharing that with me and let her guard down." —Viva Soudan, 30, choreographer, dancer, performance artist, and founder of Viva Bodyroll fitness class
"Complimenting me on my positivity. Saying that speaking to me made [them] feel better or that they feel inspired by me in any way literally motivates me to keep trying to be amazing. I am always a sucker for the birthday post my friends put up saying how much they value me in their lives. I bawl every time. The secret superficial answer: 'Girl, your butt looks amazing! Is it getting bigger?'" —Sioban Massiah "I love when people tell me that they love my energy...how nice I am and how humble I am. That's the ultimate compliment because it has nothing to do with my hair or my butt. [It's] what is within me. That makes me feel like I'm putting good energy out into the universe and that's the perception people get of me, that I'm a good person. And that, to me, is really important." —Gilleon Smith
"I love compliments about what I do, rather than how I look, and compliments that are specific enough to where I feel like the person really sees me. Something like, 'Your online course helped me stop beating myself up about my weight,' or, 'I love the thoughtful questions you ask your podcast guests,' can make my whole day." —Christy Harrison
I’m self-conscious because I have adult acne, so when people say, 'Oh, your skin looks good today,' I'm like, 'Oh, shit, did I look psycho last week?'
Many people get weird about receiving compliments or giving them to strangers. What's up with that?
"I’m self-conscious because I have adult acne, so when people say, 'Oh, your skin looks good today,' I'm like, 'Oh shit, did I look psycho last week? Yeah, I had my period. I knew it, I knew it. Only today?'" It makes me uncomfortable. But I enjoy telling other women. And it's so funny because they're shocked, like, 'WTF?' Takes a minute to register." —Dana Johnson
"I always compliment a woman if I like something on her. It was super weird at first. You don't know how to just walk up to someone you don't know and spew this random compliment. What if they think you're a weirdo? Then I realized, there are going to be so many more women who appreciate the compliment than those who think you're a weirdo. You never know how that simple 'I love your eyebrows' or 'That lipstick is so pretty on you' will shift the energy of that person’s day. Most times I even feel better just giving the compliment." —Sioban Massiah "When I receive a compliment from a woman, I always feel an empowerment boost. I was on the subway the other day and an older woman complimented a teenager who was wearing a cap and gown. She told her how beautiful she looked and congratulated her on her achievements. This sparked a radiant glow from the teenager and she blushed. Feeling embarrassed, she looked away and caught my eye. I joined in and this sparked a three-way energy pool of positivity and support. Here we were, three empowered women of different generations, jammed into a packed train, enjoying each other's presence and allowing ourselves to release our power into the arms of another." —Viva Soudan
"The great thing about living in NYC is the access you have to a plethora of people in your face, 24/7. New Yorkers get a bad rep, but this really is a city of friendly encounters (for the most part). I welcome all compliments, and I do love to reciprocate when I feel passionate about it. It could be a day-maker. Holler!" —Gilleon Smith
So how can we do a better job of complimenting and supporting each other, beyond just the outfit shoutout?
"The action of the compliment [should] feel based out of respect and act as a gesture of camaraderie, kind of like, 'We we are in this together; I support you and I've got your back.' Girl-on-girl hate is a real and vicious cycle that, at times, we can all play a part of. As women, we need to first and foremost come together and empower each other." —Viva Soudan "It's just really important for women to support each other, get together, help bring each other up. We should never put each other through that — we get enough of that through the media and through society. It’s harder for us, so we should be sticking together, and if compliments are part of that, then yeah we should definitely compliment each other." —BriAnne Wills "[Tell each other] that we matter to each other. That we appreciate each other's thoughts and opinions on things." —Julianna Dow
"As cheesy as it sounds, I really do want people to be happy. I think life is a beautiful experience, [but] sometimes we get so caught up — especially women in New York — in our phones and getting from point A to point B. I don't know, you just have to engage people and remind them that they're human and that somebody sees them. Sometimes you just want to be seen." —Dana Johnson