"You look beautiful tonight."
This could be a compliment, or it could be condescension.
Does a woman appreciate this compliment when she just spent an hour on her appearance for a date? Of course. But what about when she just gave a speech? Sang a song? Performed in a play? Taught a class? Created an art piece? Solved an equation? Invented a life-saving mechanism? Won a court case?
How disparaging is that comment now? How belittling? When I hear a man (because 9 times out of 10 it is a man) saying this, I cringe.
Why is it that appearance trumps accomplishment? Beauty fades. It's gone in an instant. There's nothing a person does to be beautiful. You're born that way, or you're not. Money spent on lotions, pills, dyes, serums, and surgeries is wasted. They give limited success and only serve to make you feel even worse about yourself because they highlight things you can never have or ever get back.
Why congratulate someone on their beauty when they just accomplished something wonderful? Wouldn't the commenter's words be better suited to give specific compliments about the accomplishment rather than belittling the woman by referring to something she has little control over (despite what make-up PR campaigns would have you believe)?
When I do something big, be it publish my tenth book, win an Oscar, or receive a Fulbright, don't tell me that I look pretty no matter how fantastic I look. In that moment, I'm not beautiful. I'm accomplished. Congratulate me on that.