A few weeks ago I saw on Instagram a picture of my friend with a celebrity. It wasn’t a backstage concert photo, or a selfie from a chance run-in at Starbucks. Instead, she was working with this nationally recognized figure as a part of her job. I was excited for her because she had earned the opportunity. She is great at what she does, and she looked great doing it: the cute dress she was wearing caught my eye.

I typed out a comment to let her know, but I hesitated. “She is a professional woman,” I thought. “This is a significant accomplishment in her career. Does it really matter what she’s wearing?" Click, click, click. I began to delete the comment. Then, I paused again. “But she does look beautiful. I should tell her. It would make me feel good if someone said that to me.”

I typed the comment back in and hoped I wouldn’t be the only one to praise her for something so superficial. I wasn’t. Soon after, other female friends echoed their praises of her adorable blue dress. A few comments about her work were peppered in between.

This is what women do. It’s the grown-up version of telling boys they’re smart and girls they’re pretty. Even on the heels of a professional accomplishment, a major milestone like an engagement or a birth, or a stirring teaching message from the stage, we are quick to point out appearance. We mean it as a compliment, but lately I’ve been asking myself: Is it right? Should women rush to praise one another’s looks?

Honestly, I don’t think there’s a clear answer. On the one hand, appearance should never trump substance. In a culture like ours that is preoccupied with how we look, praise of the superficial can unintentionally affirm some deep-seated idols. On the other hand, Christianity is not an anti-material faith. God created earth and flesh, and he called them good. He wrote beauty into creation. Whenever that beauty stirs some part of our souls, it is an echo of Heaven to sing its praise. Our compliments may be marred by the Fall, but there is still something deeply good about appreciating the beauty, or the beautiful self-expression, of another.

That’s why we should feel free to compliment each other, but out of thoughtful, genuine appreciation… not simply because it’s easy. For women, compliments are icebreakers. You meet a new person; you compliment her shoes. It’s a go-to topic of conversation to make our social interactions run smoothly.

But we have to remember why compliments have become such an easy default. Our culture lifts up youth, beauty, and a pleasing exterior as the highest goods. Appearance is our most valuable currency, so that is what we exchange. We affirm the things that our culture tells us to affirm, and it’s so ingrained that we do it without thinking.

Appearance is our most valuable currency, so that is what we exchange

However our culture is not like our God. God affirms both the outward and the inward. He created our whole beings—our bodies and our souls—and he does not rank them. We know this because he became human so as to redeem the spirit and the flesh. Throughout history, civilizations, and philosophies have prioritized the soul over the body, or the body over the soul, but not our God. He loves and values it all.

If we want to bear witness to God’s holistic love, we will value the things that our culture devalues. Rather than merely celebrating another woman’s appearance, we must also celebrate her heart, her soul, and her mind. We must call good all that God calls good. Not in the order of our culture’s priorities, but in the order of God’s.

All of that to say, if you think your friend looks pretty, feel free to tell her. God probably thinks she does too. But consider your words carefully, and what they communicate. What values are you cementing, or subverting? Are you feeding into culture’s priorities, or reflecting the priorities of God?

As I look at my own habits, what I compliment and why, I have to wonder if my praise of other women is a reflection of my own heart. Perhaps I praise in others what I desire to be praised in me. Perhaps my vision—what I see as beautiful—is skewed by a broken lens. If that is the case, then the solution to superficial flattery runs deeper than merely reordering my compliments. Even if I don’t verbalize the praise, I will affirm in other women the priorities I have for myself.

Whether it is out loud or in my mind, my heart’s allegiance will cry out, “Oh she looks so cute!” or, more commonly, “I wish I looked like her.” That’s why it’s not enough to mechanically rearrange my compliments; some major heart work is also in order. As Jesus reminds us, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).

If my Instagram gushing is any indication, I might have some work to do.