Speaking as a resident of northeastern America, I can say with confidence that beauty is overemphasized in women in this culture. One of my students talked to me today about her problems with self-esteem--though clearly she IS attractive, by any objective standard, she has low self-esteem about her appearance.

Her boyfriend has told her repeatedly and sincerely that she is beautiful. But here's the problem--and this applies to all praise, really--the more he tells her she's beautiful, the more he sends the message that beauty is important. Admittedly, he's ALSO sending the message that she's doing well in that department, so it seems okay. But it seems to be the case that, so long as attention is paid to this aspect of her life, anything less than perceived perfection will seem to her like a failure, and she will always perceive herself to be less than perfect.

So, my advice to the men out there is to be clear, not so much in words, but in deeds, that attractiveness is like wallpaper rather than lighting--nice, but not critical to the mission of the room. I also recommend dating women who value appearances less than most--they are often wonderful people, who deserve a chance to impress you. You can still tell her she has pretty eyes, though--that's the sort of thing she has no control over, and so it involves no pressure. You tell a woman she's got a nice body, now she thinks it's important to you, and she needs to work to keep her body better-looking than the body of anyone else you might consider dating.

The same principle applies to all praise--if you congratulate a child whenever s/he succeeds, rather than whenever the strategy employed was a creative one, you suggest that creativity is less important than results.

Later update: this node is an overstatement, but it helps to accentuate the message--if you have a problem with the literal meanings herein, I'm okay with that. I don't avoid telling people they're beautiful, really--in fact, whenever it occurs to me to appreciate a positive aspect of someone, I try to let them know. It's sort of the converse of, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all,"--when I have the opportunity to give a sincere compliment, I like to take it. But I override this desire in any case where my actions haven't made it fairly clear what my priorities are, in order that I avoid sending the wrong message. It helps that I have had a number of amicably-ended relationships with women of whom I still think and speak highly who are relatively unconcerned with and do not try to conform to conventional standards of beauty.

In particular response to Katyana, I can't deny that the world values appearances. I dislike that facet of reality, and so I try to live in a way which expresses that opinion and models a way I would prefer for the world to be. Whether this actually changes the way things are or not isn't terribly relevant to me--I can't think of a better way to deal with the behavior patterns of people that I oppose than simply to avoid embodying them.