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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Jon Stewart Are Wrong! Complimenting a Woman Is Not Sexist.    

By Peter V
4067 Views | 12 Comments | 9/13/2014 4:45:12 PM

Have we all gone insane?

On The Daily Show to promote her new book, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand discussed some of the stories from that tome grabbing national headlines. In particular, she was asked about one comment from an unidentified Southern congressman—a comment that host Jon Stewart declared “utterly reprehensible and insane,” and Senator Gillibrand dubbed  “not appropriate, outside the bounds of what should be said.”

What was the horrendous, awful, and insulting statement?

“You know, Kirsten, you're even pretty when you're fat,” her colleague said to her when she was pregnant.

As if to verify that the two truly did plan to part company with common sense and take the audience with them, she went to explain to an equally distraught Stewart how as a young lawyer she was greatly upset when a colleague told her, “Kirsten, you look good today.” The crowd let loose with applause at her faux outrage. Such are the problems of privileged white women in America. Nor is this the first time people have been taken to task for commenting on the Senator's looks. Feminists responded in a similarly harsh manner when fellow Senator Harry Reid called Gillibrand the “hottest” member of the US Senate at a fundraiser.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter as I see it: is it sexist to comment on a woman’s appearance?

Let me first take negative comments off the table. I think it is just stupid, not sexist, to comment negatively on a woman’s appearance, and men who do so are far more likely to die alone. So the behavior has its own punishment. The far more interesting and controversial question is whether the positive comment, the compliment, the praise of physical beauty qualifies as sexist. And I would say that normal human beings not in the thrall of an extremist political philosophy or trying to sell books will answer, "no."

A comment or behavior is sexist if, all other things being equal, (a) a man is making a comment he would not direct to another man or (b) the comment is such that it would be inappropriate were a woman to direct it at a man.

According to that standard, it would seem compliments on female appearance are sexist, since in all honesty men’s appearance is simply not commented on to any corresponding degree, the result of the fact that most men are slobs. But notice I have added the words “all other things being equal.”  This is important. It means we have to look at the particulars of situation before making any final decision. Generally speaking it is wrong to judge a woman by her appearance, but surely not in a beauty pageant. (I know feminists want to eliminate beauty pageants, but don’t get me started).

And the fact is all things are not equal between men and women when it comes to appearances. Unless there is a multi-billion dollar male cosmetic industry I do not know about, women take much more pains with their appearance than men. If I notice someone whose body is covered with tattoos, it makes perfect sense to comment on that fact; if I see a man who obviously is bulked up, mentioning his muscles is the most natural thing in the world. So when a woman obviously puts great effort into her appearance it is neither wrong nor sexist to comment on it, but natural and understandable.

This is not blaming the victim. Victims are children who have been abused or women who have been beaten or refugees fleeing a war zone. No one who is called hot or are told they look good is a victim--certainly not a well-paid lawyer or U.S. senator.

And no man who utters these words needs to apologize.

Copyright owned jointly by Author and CyberCupid Co., Ltd. Breach of copyright will be prosecuted.
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#2014-09-13 17:15:52 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Interesting stuff Peter. It really does seem that American women must be running out of any legitimate complaints, if they're going to start developing angst over a man saying to them "you look good today". If a woman (even a Senator) is going to get all out of joint over this compliment that hasn't any sexual bias at all, she may need to get her meds renewed. It's hard to imagine what could be less offensive than that.

I will say that the remark of the unnamed male Senator to Senator Gillibrand that “You know, Kirsten, you're even pretty when you're fat,” while she was pregnant probably doesn't rank as sexist, but it does seem to me to fall into your category of Stupid. It is dangerous territory to call a pregnant woman fat, which I suspect intelligent men have known since about the time we first settled in caves.

Perhaps the most disappointing and surprising thing you reported though, was Jon Stewart's clearly caving in to the Senator's political correctness. I would have expected him to mock the Senator hilariously over this mountain she is making out of not even a molehill. Maybe we have all gone insane.

#2014-09-14 08:23:57 by feather12 @feather12

It is a sad indictment on western society when people are so self absorbed and thin skinned as to be unable to accept a compliment, even an inept one such as that quoted, in good grace.

We can call it political correctness, insanity or stupidity but surely it is western society itself that has created the climate for this kind of reaction which is all too common.

In all of the time I have spent in China and other eastern countries, I have yet to find anyone who does not accept a compliment as it was intended.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why we are here.

#2014-09-14 14:43:50 by Jenniferliang @Jenniferliang

thank your sharing......:)

#2014-09-16 22:11:14 by paulfox1 @paulfox1

Political correctness has gone mad in the western world. It's been going on for ages now
You cannot call a black person 'black' but he can call you 'white' - You cannot say 'darling' to a woman you don't know (Thanks Darling) without her getting all offended - It's just crazy
Do we have to spend our lives walking on eggshells in case we say the wrong thing to the wrong person?
I recently came back from a quick trip to China and the first thing I did when I walked out of Perth airport was to light a cigarette (OK, so I have ONE bad habit lol)
"Can't smoke there mate - put it out and walk over there" said the "smoking police' pointing to a land in the far distance
Having just returned from a COMMUNIST COUNTRY where smoking is allowed in cafes, bars and restaurants (whether you like it or not) - I am accused of polluting the atmosphere in the WRONG PLACE!
It's almost like having a 'piss-corner' in a swimming pool - "Oh, you need to pee? - go to that far corner of the swimming pool and pee !" - It's a joke!
Just like the rest of our 'political correctness'

#2014-09-17 14:34:40 by aussieghump @aussieghump

In China, I find the whole 'she's a beauty' thing a bit strange... as if that is the only talent/skill/knowledge the person in question has! I'd much rather be introduced to someone as 'Here is Miss Chen, she is one of our best salespeople and has the loveliest smile on all the Sales team!'

While it may not necessarily be meant to be rude, the original quote goes to strengthen the 'pretty sex' stereotype that is common in China (and other countries) and I personally don't like to see it covered...

If you are a humanist, I'd question about whether it is wise to comment on someone's appearance at all! Do we say 'He has a cute wheelchair'? or 'Bro's mo is just spectacular and he looks might fine in a pair of Speedos?'
Do the comments equal a 'double standard' and should we be supporting this.

And the other issue is, if the receiver of the 'supposed compliment' does not appreciate it, can't we respect this, apologise and not do it again?

#2014-09-17 22:24:17 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@Aussieghump As I said, rude comments are off the table, and are not the issue anyway.

A humaninst celebrates all aspects of the human condition, including physical beauty. If I were to say that men could compliment women but not the other way around, that would be a double standard. But during the last World Cup there was discussion about the comments by female commentators and fans about the hot guys on the field. I say, that's great.No reason female fans shouldn't comment on the appearance of the male athletes.

If the person does not want or appreciate the compliment, it goes into the same category of the rude or offensive comment. A socially aware person who wants to maintain good relationships with others does not say or do things to offend the person. But I would not as in America outlaw such comments at the workplace. It is a slippery slope that I sadly see my country going down.

Garreth, you and I have not experienced this, but beautiful people get all sorts of advantages as a result of their appearance. Studies show they disproportionately have higher education opportunities income levels, employment status. They can bear the random compliment from time to time.

#2014-09-18 19:11:24 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Haha! I definitely haven't experience any advantage from my beauty! Although in China and other Asian Countries, foreigners in general have an advantage over natives because few policemen want the 'paperwork' of dealing with foreigners and few people might challenge their behaviour.

I'm not sure where you get your figures from but I suspect that beautiful women have the disadvantage of being hit upon by idiots, ohgled by voyeurs, wolf whistled by cretins, hugged by creepy bosses and being though of as sex objects rather than talented people!

I can tell you from my China experience, being called 'fat' by every third person is pretty grating and can become debilitating! Maybe over-complimented people have the same issue.

#2014-09-19 00:43:17 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

The gold standard study for showing that having physical characteristics a society deems desirable results in more income are the studies demonstrating taller people earn more than shorter people
The same rationale that is generally understood to explain this phenomenon--those with the desired trait are praised early, gain self-esteem and confidence, have an easier time making social connections--would seem to apply to physical beauty. For evidence of this application of this thesis to beauty see

Again, I don't doubt there are corresponding inconveniences to being beautiful. But I don't want to ban compliments in workplace, because next you are banning them in public. It's a slope I don't want to start down.

Regarding the annoyance factor, there are plenty of beautiful women on this site; I would like to have them weigh in. (John, maybe we can start a forum thread in Chinese on this).

#2014-09-19 00:52:29 by Belle77 @Belle77


As a non smoker, i really hate those people smoke in public.
In summer time, cafes, bars and restaurants are mostly close their doors and windows because of air conditioner, I have encountered many times people sat near me smoked freely. Even now many tea houses put labels on the wall saying Please Don't smoke here, but those smokers just don't care about the feeling of non smokers, I really hope we have laws here to deal with these smokers.

#2014-09-19 01:05:20 by Belle77 @Belle77

I like compliments from men or women, which will make me smile and happy
and I like to compliment other people too

Isn't good to be pretty? to pursue beautiful things are the nature of human being
i think something just go to extreme, we are human being, not a machine
Even I like people to compliment me more on my other character than appearance, I know all the compliments are from good will, and why not feel thankful to good will?

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