Asking for a friend…

When I was a little kid, people (including family and teachers) made a big deal about my intelligence. In strong contrast to what I understand to be the experience of many black children in white-dominated environments, I was always complimented for my intellect and encouraged to push further. It was a rare occasion, however, that my physical appearance or size was made an issue (except in the sense of “you’re bigger than the other kids, so be more careful”).

There was a recent dust-up when the President attempted to crack a joke while fundraising for an attorney general in California:

President Barack Obama has apologised to the California attorney general for remarking on her appearance at a fundraising event on Thursday. Mr Obama described Kamala Harris, a long-time friend, as “the best-looking attorney general in the country”. Ms Harris’s spokesman said she strongly supported Mr Obama but would not say whether she had accepted his apology. Critics have cited the remark as an example of the ongoing hurdles women face in the workplace.

Speaking after Ms Harris at the fundraising event in California on Thursday, Mr Obama said she was “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake”. Then he added: “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country… It’s true. Come on. And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years.”

On its own, divorced from context, this is exactly the kind of compliment you would like to receive from a friend – that you are hard-working and capable, and attractive to boot. However, eyebrows were of course raised because this isn’t just one buddy saying a nice thing about another – this is the President of the United States making the physical appearance of the Attorney General of California an issue. It is somewhat inconceivable that he would give a man the same kind of compliment in that situation. And in an environment where women’s appearance is used to dismiss or denigrate their competence – regardless of their station – the comment takes on a disturbing element.

Black feminists, however, have noted that there is an unexplored phenomenon in this story: Ms. Harris is a black woman. The well-worn stereotype about black femininity does not often include the possibilty of being competent and attractive. In the realm of black femininity, they say, the compliment tacks sharply against both the stereotype of black women as not competent and as not attractive. Far from being troubling, some black feminists have found the comment a welcome one, and have criticized white feminists for failing to take the racial element into account when parsing the president’s words.

In the spirit of honouring that type of intersectionality, friend of the blog Slignot has reached out and made the following request:

I was writing about the importance of complimenting children on things they do rather than things they are when I realized I had a deeply limited experience as a white woman who grew up in an overwhelmingly white place (Utah). As I made a generalized background point about boys more commonly being complimented for being smart & girls for being pretty, I realized I have no idea whether this is remotely true when you’re not assuming white experiences being the default or norm.

As soon as I recognized my mistake, I tried to see if anyone had done any sort of discussion of this when talking about the pretty/smart gender divide but either it’s not readily available or my google-fu just was lousy today. So I decided to ask Crommunist on Twitter if he’d be willing to tell me about his experiences with compliments growing up. However, this ran into the problem of his experiences not being necessarily representative outside of the particular circumstances of his upbringing in Canada. I was able to get a few other answers from people through Twitter that lead me to believe that there’s probably a whole lot more going on here with other stereotype threats that need recognition when we talk about inequitable treatment of kids based on gender.

So if you’re willing to share your experiences, I very much want to know what sort of compliments you received growing up, who gave them to you and honestly how much of the time they doubled as microaggressions. (As someone pointed out to me, people told him he was smart, but in tones that conveyed this was surprising to them.) Does the smart/pretty gender divide apply?

Because my audience is a bit larger and more diverse than hers (I think), I’m boosting the signal for this request to see if others can bring their personal experiences to bear and help to flesh out her piece. Please leave a comment here, or contact her on Twitter.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

UPDATE: Kevin Drum posts an analysis of this worthwhile empirical exploration of the effect that introducing appearance has in these kinds of discussion.


  1. says

    I have little to offer as far as race/gender goes as I am a cis, white woman. I possibly have something to offer as far as weight/size goes because I was chubby as a child and teen and am fat now as an adult.

    When I was little and very active, my mother would tell me I was pretty and would scold me for being stupid if I couldn’t get my spelling words right. (I’m still a horrible speller.) When I got older my mother would say, instead, “You’d be so much prettier if you just lost a little weight.” She then started to compliment my intelligence and how well I would do in school. I think by the time I was a senior she figured I’d never be thin so she focused on the fact that I was doing well in school so she didn’t have to think about it.

  2. says

    I get that it’s nice to hear a public figure with status show approbation of the appearance of a female PoC: it’s doubly hard when you as a woman are judged primarily by appearance and by default, your appearance can’t measure up to the hegemonic beauty standard (for crappy racist reasons). What if the AG had been a fat white woman and the president had made the same compliment? A similar ambivalence might have resulted: finally some alpha male has said that fat girls can be pretty too. In a way, such a compliment means that women of colour have “made it”. They can be measured on the same scale as white women and come out on top. But my problem is still with the scale itself. Is it really something good to always be judged as an object for the aesthetic and sexual pleasure of men? Sure, it might be flattering in a way to get such a compliment, but as a woman I want to be judged, as men are, for their accomplishments.

    I want girls to feel that becoming a politician or public servant or journalist doesn’t require you to be subject to judgements about your beauty or lack thereof in the eyes of the men in power–whether that judgement is positive or negative, based on skin colour, or weight/body type, makeup/hairstyle, wardrobe, or whatever else they deem valuable.

  3. theobromine says

    One way to approach it is to ask whether it would have been considered appropriate for Obama (or a woman of power) to make a similar remark about a male AG.

    Also (as I mentioned on Twitter a couple of days ago), I wonder if the fact that California is known for being a place where a person’s physical characteristics can be critically important to their success in life has any bearing on the situation. (I also wonder if any president ever commented on Arnold Schwarzenegger being “by far the strongest governor in the country”?)

  4. mythbri says

    I’m a straight, white cis-woman who is also near-sighted. The vast majority of negative comments I got regarding my appearance growing up referenced my glasses (yes, really). This was tempered later in life with the “positive” stereotype that people who wear glasses are bookish and smart, even though it’s slightly less acceptable for a woman to be bookish and smart than a man to be bookish and smart (at least, it’s less acceptable in Mormon culture when the woman in question is un-married with no immediate prospects. Helloooo, spinsterhood!).

    I must admit that my privilege blinded me from the reality that comments about looks over achievements is not a universal experience, and indeed varies for women of color.

    I’ve heard all kinds of comments about Michelle Obama’s appearance – comments that I have never heard about any other First Lady, and that are not explainable by “The Obamas are Communist/Socialist/Fascist/Terrorists”. Which of course is not racist.

  5. Randomfactor says

    I am a cis-white-male who voted for her, a wildly enthusiastic fan who expects great things to come from her career–and I honestly had no idea she was considered black. (Mixed-race, Wikipedia tells me.)

  6. Brandon says

    I’m a white male, so my experiences are perhaps not terribly useful for this context; I hope I’m not misplacing them by bothering to write at all. The main thing that made me stand out as a kid was academic advancement – I started undergrad part-time when I was 12 and graduated when I was 17. Not surprisingly, I heard a lot of positive comments about intelligence, potential, and similar things. I wouldn’t ever regard these as microaggressions in any way, they were always (I think) sincere and well meant, and they reinforced what I believed about myself. The only negative is, as mentioned, that this focuses on what I am am rather than what I was doing, which probably doesn’t foster the best sorts of behavior.

    A bit of contrast was that I really loved playing basketball, and got almost the opposite sort of comments. I’m pretty naturally quick, but the things that got commented on were always the things that matched the archetype of a smart kid – “hard working, plays hard”, “shooter”, “smart player, in the right spot often”, that sort of thing.

    Very few people ever commented on my appearance much one way or the other. I suspect that at least part of that is because my appearance really is pretty unremarkable.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Tangentially: imagine the public reaction(s) if Obama had ignored party lines and made the exact same comment about the conventionally pretty (but hardline Repuglican) white-woman attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi.

  8. girlofthegaps says

    My experience might not be exactly what would be most useful, as I’m white, cis(ish) female, straight-presenting, and grew up largely in Arizona.

    But I was not a pretty kid. I mean, I wasn’t hideous by any stretch of the imagination — it’s not like I scared other children away on the playground when they saw my face — but I was often mistaken for a boy, I’ve always had a very prominent jaw/chin thing going on, and I’ve generally been a bit chubby. And I loved books; my nose was always in one.

    Now, my sibs are both pretty good-looking, and I have always been the one to be complimented on how smart I am. This isn’t to say that my sibs didn’t get complimented on what they did, but the thing that always bothered me was that my “being smart” compliments always felt like consolation prizes. It was like my parents were stretching themselves to find something good to say about me, and “smart” was just better than nothing, but certainly not as good as “athletic,” or “pretty,” or “socially graced.”

    As I got older — and by “older,” I mean older than 10 or 12 — my mom constantly pressured me to lose weight, mandated time running and at the gym, banned t-shirts from my wardrobe, and urged me to spend huge amounts of time on my hair and makeup. It was very, very clear that being smart did not mean one could forgo trying one’s damnedest to be beautiful as well.

    Then again, the one “compliment” on my looks that I remember from my childhood was an older man at church telling me how I looked “so pretty, like an Amazon.” In retrospect, I think he creepily meant it in some “sexy warrior woman” kind of way, but I was 9 or so, and had just read about how Amazons were bloodthirsty mankillers who hacked off a breast so they could shoot better. I had no idea how to respond to that one, haha. Maybe I got off easy, being “the smart one.” At least I avoided the better part of awkwardly un-thought-out compliments, even though I missed out on sincere ones as well.

    (Sorry for the essay; this one got away from me a bit)

  9. proxer says


    I have to admit, I feel both very enlightened by this post (thanks for the additional exposure to intersectionality), and a little confused.

    Is there a good rule of thumb for judging negative impact when intersectionality is concerned? I could very easily see arguing that the comment was sexist without the full context, then reversing position with context. I’m familiar with that sort of ‘jumping to conclusions’, and I tend to avoid it most of the time by asking for context.

    However, I never would have known about how Color, or as one other commenter suggested, weight would play in to the impact of the statement. And, as I think someone else asked, what is the implication of the idea that the comment could be affirming for WoC, but still slightly sexist for women in other groups?

  10. says

    Is there a good rule of thumb for judging negative impact when intersectionality is concerned?

    In the absence of a specific proposed remedy for a given event, my usual approach is to simply be aware that there are multiple things going on. And, where it’s pragmatic, raise any neglected intersecting factors when discussing the event. Aside from that, I’m not aware of a metric to judge specific harm. To be sure, I doubt that any real harm was done in this case – it was just an unfortunate and high-profile revelation of an attitude that many found problematic.

  11. theobromine says

    Really? Is it ever appropriate to comment on someone’s personal appearance in a business or government or commercial setting? (Which is a different question from asking if any harm was done.)

  12. says

    Is it ever appropriate to comment on someone’s personal appearance in a business or government or commercial setting?

    I mean… I would say ‘no’, but that’s just me.

  13. Ysidro says

    I did hear of the President referencing men as “the good looking guy over there” and such. Doesn’t make it right or not, but it does add an interesting layer to things, IMO.

  14. says

    Is it ever appropriate to comment on someone’s personal appearance in a business or government or commercial setting?

    For people who feel compelled to ask this question, the answer is always “No, it is never appropriate.”

  15. says

    While I definitely have thoughts on if/when/how you compliment women, I’d also like to ask if anyone else has any childhood experiences with compliments to share. (From teachers, parents, other family members, whatever)

    I’m still checking in periodically to see what new comments say.

  16. theobromine says

    @SallyStrange: Because this is the internet, I feel compelled to clarify that I do know the answer, and I was not asking the question for myself. As a 50-something female electrical engineer, I’ve certainly had my share of having my professional qualifications called into question because of my personal appearance.

    As for childhood (or at least young adult) experiences, a few years ago I was very sad to hear my elderly great-aunt say that it was too bad that her granddaughter was doing graduate work in engineering because “she’s such a pretty girl”!

  17. says

    Because this is the internet, I feel compelled to clarify that I do know the answer, and I was not asking the question for myself.

    It’s cool. I wasn’t reading too much into it, because that really is, in my opinion, a useful rule of thumb. Just like a dude who evinces confusion about how to discern consent should absolutely not attempt sex with anybody at all (except his hand) for the foreseeable future, anyone who is sincerely confused about when compliments on personal appearance are appropriate should just not attempt them, period. It saves everybody a lot of time and grief, especially the potential recipients of said compliments.

    I was thinking about the compliments I got growing up. As a child I certainly got “what a pretty dress!” and “what a pretty girl!” a lot, but I also got “She’s so smart!” and “She’s so talented!” because I read books and played a lot of music. When I was in high school comments on my appearance usually focused on my breasts, which are rather large. These days, it’s all about how much younger I look than I really am–as if it’s some sort of special accomplishment to have round cheeks and few wrinkles around my eyes. I mean, what is a 35-year-old SUPPOSED to look like? People say I look 25, but I disagree. I think it’s just because I don’t have kids to cart around and don’t dress like a frump.

  18. says

    Oh yeah, and, when I shaved my head for a while, people would routinely tell me what a nicely shaped head I have. Which struck me as sort of odd–it’s entirely genetics and nothing to do with me.

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