The Art of Complimenting Women

Hola compañeras, I just got back from another guilt-free lazy-ass vacation, this time in Cuba, and I feel like a little flirty talk. Like many Canadians, I’ve been to Cuba several times. I’ve been with family, with friends, last year I went all alone and, this time, accompanied by my par amour. And the thing about Cubans is — they sure know about flirting and compliments! (Though it can be a little overwhelming, as I learned when I travelled alone.) My trip, along with last week’s Obama compliment debacle and the new Dove Real Beauty Sketches video, has got me thinking about how different things are over here.

Pepe Le Pew, perhaps too ardent in his approach

Pepe Le Pew, perhaps too ardent in his approach

I’d say I live in a pretty friendly neighbourhood; it’s not unusual for people to say “hi” to each other and many of the faces in local businesses are familiar smiling faces. But, let’s be real here, we Canadians are a reserved bunch! Visiting a place like Cuba where everyone acknowledges each other all the time with friendly greetings or flirty smiles really highlights our grey pod-like existence (quick — look down at your iPhone, someone might try to talk to you on the bus!).

Like many of my friends, I was lured to Ottawa after several years in Montreal by the promise of a secure public service job. And, like many of my female friends, I was single when I did this. I’m not certain that any of us expected the self-doubt that comes with a move from French Canada to English Canada and the sudden disappearance of compliments from strangers on the street. “Is it them, or is it me?” we’ve all wondered. Sister, it’s them! We’re still hot.

But why should it matter? Aren’t we past being judged for our beauty? Don’t we want to be appreciated for our brains? These are some of the questions that have come up recently regarding both the Dove Real Beauty video in which women describe themselves to a sketch artist and Barack Obama’s compliment to California Attorney General Kamala Harris regarding her looks.

Well-known image from a previous Dove Real Beauty campaign

Well-known image from a previous Dove Real Beauty campaign

First, the Dove video: Reaction to this video has been mixed and I understand why. While it is poignant (but not surprising) that women’s description of themselves produced less attractive sketches than strangers’ descriptions of them, there’s something totally creepy about the video. The setting is a sparse loft-type space, the music is melancholic, and we only get to see a handful of the sketches very briefly. It feels manipulative. I would have wanted a more scientific approach; for instance, I would have wanted to know how many women were sketched, and, out of those, how many of the strangers described the women more accurately than the women had described themselves. Putting that aside, criticising the video because it reinforces mainstream ideas about beauty, as many have, is not that useful. Sure, the video focuses on Caucasian blondes, highlights blue eyes and thin features as desirable attributes, and seems to say freckles are unwanted (whatever, my sun-induced freckles are damn cute!), the point is that everyone wants to be attractive.

The other point is that all the women in the video are regular, attractive women but that, for whatever reason, they tend to focus of the negative. One woman states that her mother told her she had a large jaw which, I think, speaks to the possibility that a lot of our most negative ideas about ourselves come from other women, and not always from media images. But is the solution then to say that beauty doesn’t matter in any case and that it is only our professional accomplishments and kind hearts that should be valued in every instance?

Some people don't think freckles are cute. Screw them!

Some people don’t think freckles are cute. Screw them!

Poor Obama: All he did was introduce an old friend in the context of a fund-raiser by saying she was the best looking attorney general in the country, and that only AFTER listing her great professional accomplishments, and the doodoo hit the fan. This isn’t like Berlusconi hiring former beauty queens and models for his cabinet, this is an eloquent man charmingly recognising a super accomplished, highly attractive woman. Anyone who thinks this was done in a manner to undermine her professional standing really needs to relax just a whole lot. Context is everything! By all accounts, this was an informal setting and the two are friends. If your boss introduces you to a potential client as “my beautiful account manager” while putting his hand on your arm, that undermines your credibility. If he says “you look nice today” as he passes you in the hallway, he probably just means that you look especially good that day and he approves.

I think this whole thing is proof of how weird we are about sex. The need for sexual harassment regulations is undeniable because harassment, sexual and otherwise, is extremely detrimental to someone’s psychological well-being. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about women’s beauty and whether or not it matters and should be commented upon. Let’s not pretend that being complimented doesn’t make a person feel good. And, yes, women are more likely to be complimented on their looks than on their critical thinking skills. So what? It doesn’t only feel good to be told I’m beautiful, it makes me feel alive! We are sexual beings. In some cultures, this is seen as threatening. In others, like ours, it makes us a little uncomfortable because we want everyone to be equal. We also want to keep sex hidden away.

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris

California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris

The irony, it seems to me, is that in cultures in which sensuality is an accepted part of everyday life, definitions of beauty are more broad. Women of all colours, shapes, and ages will be told they are beautiful in hot-blooded parts of the world. And in fact, like in the Dove video, most women are beautiful in their own way. Whereas, in places like the U.S., it strikes me (as an outsider) that beauty is equated with a very specific list of attributes like thinness, youth, and small features. And I also get the impression that Americans overwhelmingly think that sex is dirty and shameful. I don’t believe things are quite as dire here in Canada, but there is a bit of that.

So here’s a little guide to Flirtatious Complimenting for Canadians:

  • Compliments should be given selflessly with the sole intention of making someone feel good
  • You shouldn’t need to be drunk to give someone a compliment
  • Compliments are best delivered in safe public spaces, not in dark alleyways or a deserted bus stop at night
  • A smile counts as a compliment
  • Compliments should be general and not overly sexual (i.e. “you have a lovely smile”, rather than “your ass is very perky”)
  • A friendly compliment should be acknowledged with a smile, a “thank you”, or a compliment in kind if it comes naturally
  • Flirting is just a bit of fun! It does not, I repeat, flirting does not mean you want to sleep with someone
  • Flirting and seduction are 2 very different things; one can lead to the other but seduction is a much more serious game

Of course, flirting isn’t only about complimenting, it can involve light touches and making slightly suggestive comments once you get to know someone a little better. But even casual compliments from strangers and light flirting can put a spring in our step; it’s about appreciating each other’s unique beauty and celebrating our sexual nature.

So I think that I’m going to be more conscious of smiling and saying hello to people. And if someone is wearing a cute outfit, or if their hair is looking great, I will voice that opinion when appropriate in order to make them feel good. This place need not be sad and isolating!


  1. healthiestbeauty says:

    Reblogged this on The healthiest beauty.

  2. I love your blog!!!! When will you get an RSS feed?

    • Thanks Tanya! Hmm, RSS feed, you say? is still mostly one big puzzle for me so I’m not sure about that… I need a coach!
      Please sign up for email notifications for the time being. I’ve also recently (yesterday) started making a big social media effort- You can follow me on twitter ( and a Facebook page is in the works (Brenda Bjutie).

  3. You are sooo talented Brenda! I love reading what you have to say about everything 🙂

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