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 ...

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