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Seeking approval desperately: women and the politics of praise

World Compliment Day falls on 1 March. But is it really “the most positive day of the year”? We investigate the politics behind the praise.

da Aurelie | 27 February 2022
A painting shows a person sitting at a table
Pierre Boncompain

We all love compliments. We love giving them, we love receiving them. But what may seem like a series of harmless well-intentioned comments might actually be more detrimental than it appears, especially when gender comes into the picture.

Praise is something we all crave.

Reason #1: Hormones.

Regardless of our gender or social standing, every single one of us is conditioned to seek approval. Beyond our individual dynamics and personality traits, this is all about hormones. Research has shown how compliments trigger the release of dopamine, the same “happy hormone” that gives us that special feeling when we fall in love or meditate. 

That special feeling wears off rather quickly however, and so we are bound to be left wanting for more. Much like we get to become addicted to love, so we can become addicted to praise

Reason #2: Social behaviour.

Defined as the tendency to seek positive responses from others, approval motivation is at the core of a number of social interactions, perhaps never more so than at the age of all-social-media-everything. This means seeking admiration from others, paying a great deal of attention to outside opinion and fearing judgement. As a result, we are more likely to conform to authority and observe cultural norms. The less we stand out, the more likely we are to be accepted.

Praise is something women respond to more than men. 

While we all seek approval, women find themselves looking for validation to a much greater extent.

When faced with the realisation she had been seeking some form of (male) validation since age 5, Australian artist and feminist Elizabeth Gower ended up writing a seemingly harmless phrase, “he loves me, he loves me not” 21,319 times on massive sheets of paper.

Elizabeth Gower, “he loves me, he loves me not”, 2016, RMIT Gallery. (Credit: Tobias Titz)

In Gower’s own words, “the ‘he’ referred to in the phrase ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ is representative of male presence in the form of the father, the brother, the boyfriend, the lover, the husband and the son, as well as the various concepts of a male deity.”

What makes women that much more likely to seek validation from male figures?

Women and self-objectification.

There is no doubt that, for a number of reasons, women are much more objectified than men in their daily lives. Objectification refers to the experience of being treated as a body; a person’s value is measured by how useful their body is perceived to be by others. This objectification in turn generates self-objectification, which involves perceiving oneself from an external perspective. Self-objectification can easily lead to body image issues and appearance anxiety.

Viewing ourselves through outside eyes makes us that much more aware of how we are perceived and thus much more dependent upon external validation. Studies have confirmed how major self-objectifiers spend considerably more time and emotional resources considering others’ opinions.

Considering how self-objectification is mostly observed in women, it makes a world of sense that women tend to build their self-worth based on outside sources; what family, friends and even strangers think becomes more important than personal beliefs and ideas.

Women and the minority mindset.

In environments where a majority of leaders are male, women might very easily display a minority mindset as a result of their underrepresentation. Because of the power structures in place, the minority looks to the majority for validation, with varying degrees of awareness. While feeding on approval offers more short-term security, it eventually serves to maintain the status quo.

Receiving validation comes at a price. While we are busy performing to given standards established by the majority (call it the patriarchy), we are missing out on the chance to reclaim power and use it in fairer, more inclusive ways.

Friend or foe? How praise affects women.

Appearance compliments are detrimental.

While there are different types of compliments, women are primarily concerned by appearance compliments, as a result of the sheer value society (Western societies especially) place on their looks and attractiveness. The more desirable their bodies, the more opportunity they are presented with, whether in terms of relationships or career. Appearance compliments become part of their daily lives; men, on the other, typically receive compliments on their skills and competence.

Appearance compliments reinforce these stereotypes by driving women to behave according to set gender roles. Such compliments also have direct negative consequences in terms of cognitive performance, as demonstrated by a 2018 study. The kind of “benevolent sexism” displayed through appearance compliments have women let their guard down enough to perpetuate a number of patriarchal dynamics and reinforce their role as sex objects.

Rethinking how we pay compliments.

It will take more than updating the way we use language to disrupt inequitable power dynamics, but being aware of how we express positive feedback can help us refine our perception and become a drive for change.

Let us not completely lose sight of how compliments can serve positive purposes and express some level of empathy. A study on compliments as a social strategy show how they can also “creat[e] or reinforc[e] solidarity between the speaker and the addressee.” With that in mind, we can continue practicing them with a greater level of awareness of the extent to which wording makes a difference.

Just like the standard “you look beautiful” might become “you look radiant”, we might express our admiration for someone on their weight loss journey with a “your willpower is inspiring” rather than a more problematic “you look so skinny”. As self-love advocates, we might even suggest practicing conscious compliments on ourselves...

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