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5 simple rules for commenting on a woman’s appearance in public

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Men, if Playboy can learn a thing or two, so can you.

Last week, Playboy surprised everyone by releasing a flowchart that helps men understand whether or not they should catcall a woman. “Do you know her, and have you both consensually agreed to shout sexually suggestive comments to each other in public?” Then and only then does the flowchart give you permission to catcall. This is sound advice, no matter the source.

Is it ever possible for a man to comment on a woman’s appearance in public without making her feel uncomfortable? If you’re Doree Lewak of The New York Post, you might think that the answer is an unequivocal yes. “Hey, Ladies! Catcalls are Flattering! Deal With It!” her now-infamous headline declared last month. The feminist Internet spent the rest of August responding to Lewak’s piece with justifiable anger. Jezebel produced a beautiful parody of the article, and The Frisky told Lewak in no uncertain terms that catcalling is “disgusting.” Even Christine Sisto of the conservative National Review chimed in to condemn catcalling: “The feminists have it right this time: catcalling needs to end.”

I’m in whole-hearted agreement that catcalling should become a thing of the past, at least as we presently understand it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a catcall as “a whistle, cry, or suggestive comment intended to express sexual attraction or admiration (but usually regarded as an annoyance), typically made by a man to a female-passer-by” and, indeed, by this measure catcalling is a sexist practice that continually reminds women that their bodies are nothing but public ornaments for sexually frustrated men.

So it’s with a great deal of trepidation that I share some advice for the man who absolutely cannot help but comment on a woman’s appearance in public. There are certain, extremely limited conditions under which a man can comment on a woman’s appearance without being the absolute worst, so limited that I have only ever met one man who has fulfilled them all simultaneously.

Let me be clear, then: This is not a how-to manual. This is not a guide for “getting away” with catcalling. If you are not the kind of man who comments on women’s bodies in public, carry on. You’re doing it right. What follows is nothing more than a failsafe for men who absolutely feel they must make comments in public. If this describes you, keep these five rules in mind:

1) Your comment cannot pertain to a sexualized part of a woman’s body.

Breasts, butts, and even legs are all off limits. These are bedroom parts, boys, and you can only talk about them using your inside voices. Why? Let’s go back in time to find the answer! In 1968, feminists famously protested the Miss America Pageant (and no, they did not burn their bras). Two women at the protest chose to participate by holding up a popular advertisement in which a naked woman’s body had been sectioned off into various cuts of meat as if she were a cow. “Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction,” an accompanying sign read.

Don’t worry. I’m not telling you that you have to hate Beauty Pageants—plenty of feminists like them—but the basic point from 1968 still stands: sectioning women off into their individual body parts and then salivating over those parts is dehumanizing and degrading for everyone involved.  If you absolutely have to issue a compliment, you must deflect your attention away from the usual suspects and find something else to focus on. 

2) The best thing to comment on instead is an article of clothing.

“That’s a great dress!”

“Those shoes are amazing.”

“I love your necklace.”

Do these phrases sound familiar? If so, you’ve probably overheard women complimenting other women. These little comments are the lifeblood of female homosociality. They’re a great way to break the ice when you first meet someone and they make everyone feel good. The fact that they come out of another woman’s mouth makes them especially meaningful because no one appreciates how much effort women put into their appearance more than, well, women.

The problem with men is that they’re usually more focused on what’s underneath a woman’s clothing than the clothing itself. No, men, you can’t say “Your butt looks great in that dress!” because, at the end of the day, you’re still talking about a woman’s butt in public.

But I can already hear the male rebuttal now: “But I hear women tell each other that their butts look great all the time! That’s a double standard!” True. Why just the other day, a close female friend of mine lovingly cradled my butt in public because it looked so “perky,” she said, in my stupendously comfortable Jessica Simpson jeggings.

Women get to do this with each other because we’re all stuck in the patriarchal meat market of reality together which means that we receive the consolation prize of being able to safely appreciate each other’s bodies on our own terms without worrying about creeps who think they can shout their way into our pants. You, male reader, are on the other side of that divide and you have to behave yourself accordingly.

3) You cannot use sexualized adjectives.

The problem we have with catcalls is that they usually carry with them the insinuation that you would like to have sex with us. Public space shouldn’t be some magical place where you get to say whatever you want, but it is—so it’s up to you to restrain yourself from suggesting sex at every moment. Spider-Man was right: With great power comes great responsibility and it’s your responsibility to not imply that you want to have sex with every woman who walks by.

Even if you’re following all of the above rules, certain words still have a certain “I want to have sex with you” vibe to them. There’s “sexy,” which is pretty obvious because it has the word “sex” right in there. There’s “banging,” which refers to sex in the most infantile way possible. And there’s “hot,” which honestly just makes you seem like a slobbering dog. There are plenty of other adjectives that are off-limits. If you want a good litmus test, ask yourself if you would use the adjective you have in mind to describe your mother. Does that make you feel weird? If so, you should probably remove it from your public vocabulary.

So, if your mouth opens when a woman walks by and you are physically unable to close it without complimenting her, stick to safe adjectives and remember that you can only apply them to non-sexualized parts of a woman’s body or her clothing:

“Your hair looks gorgeous!”

“That bag is beautiful and it goes great with your eyes!”

4) You cannot expect any interaction beyond the initial compliment.

Only one man has ever commented on my appearance in public without making me feel uncomfortable. I was waiting for an elevator when I saw his mouth start to open. My face tensed up in an anticipatory wince. Here it comes, I thought.

“You look like a million bucks in that leather jacket,” he said.

That was it. He didn’t try to keep talking to me. He clearly did not harbor any fantasies of our future together in his bedroom. He just told me I looked like a million bucks, moved on with his day, and let me do the same.

Would I have preferred to have avoided that interaction altogether? Probably. But did it make me want to crawl out of my skin? No. It was just a nice thing for him to say with no expectation of my attention in return.

Most men catcall because they crave some sort of reaction. They honk their horns at us because they want to feel that fleeting flash of power when we turn our heads. They continue to yell at us when we ignore them because they want to reassure themselves that they can command a woman’s attention, even if they have to resort to inappropriate means to do so. A catcall is not “just a compliment” as they so often say in their defense, it’s a sexualized power trip.

So, men, if you truly want to compliment a woman’s appearance, you have to do just that: pay a compliment, nothing more. A gift isn’t a gift unless it’s given with no expectation of return. Remember, too, that women don’t need your verbal gifts so if you absolutely have to dole them out, make sure they are actually gifts and not attempts to initiate conversation.

5) The fact that you didn’t expect any interaction beyond the initial compliment should not make you feel entitled to an interaction.

I have to make this really clear because men are all too eager to believe that they deserve a cookie just for being good. I wasn’t kidding about rule number 4. There is no loophole. If you expect any sort of interaction beyond a single, non-sexualized compliment about a non-sexualized part of a woman’s body or her clothing, you instantly ruin the whole thing.

And even if you manage to make it through all three seconds of your compliment without ever once hoping for an ensuing conversation, that doesn’t mean you have somehow earned that conversation. Say your piece and go away. That’s all you can do.

Photo via darkday/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about sex, sexuality, and gender. She's a senior reporter at the Daily Beast, but she's also contributed to Paste, Hello Giggles, Salon, the Advocate, Mic, and others. Allen holds a doctorate in women's, gender, and sexuality studies from Emory University, and her piece "Why Bisexual Men Are Still Fighting to Convince Us They Exist" won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism Article in 2018.