So what do we mean when we say someone is “beautiful”? How does a “beautiful” person differ from a “pretty” or “attractive” or “handsome” or “good-looking” or “cute” or “striking” person? Let’s start with some discussion questions.
1. What percentage of people are “beautiful”? 5%? 10%? 20%? In other words, what percentile rank, on the scale of attractiveness, qualifies someone as beautiful? In a group of 30 people (a college class?) how many, if any, are likely to be beautiful? I do mean this to be a semantic question – how much is rarity tied up with our conception of beauty? – rather than one of demographics. (It occurs to me that the standard 1-10 scale of attractiveness must follow a bell curve; in other words, there are far more 5’s than there are 10’s, or 1’s for that matter.)
2. Are women more likely to call other women “beautiful” than men are likely to call women beautiful, or is it the other way around? In other words, is the cut-off point between classifying a woman as beautiful versus merely attractive at a different percentage (say, 20% versus 10%) depending on what gender is doing the perceiving, or is it about the same? 2b. That’s looking at it from a heteronormative perspective; how does the meaning of “beautiful” change, if it changes, when gay men describe other men or gay women describe other women? The standards of beauty must be different, not being normative and reinforced/exaggerated in the media on the same constant basis, but does the word itself have different applications? What is its use value in LGBT culture?
3. Similarly, is the cut-off at a different point for men versus women when they are on the receiving end of the judgment? Do men need to be in the top 5 percentile to be judged as “beautiful” versus “handsome” or “attractive,” whereas women need only be in the 20th percentile to be called “beautiful”? (I suspect something like this is the case; “beautiful” is gendered enough that we’re more reluctant to use it in reference to men.)
4. Are the standards for who gets called beautiful different depending on the group we consider them part of? For example, might a Hollywood actress appear beautiful in a room full of regular people, but not beautiful by Hollywood actress standards? Or is “beautiful” absolute?
5. Does “beautiful” imply objectivity? Studies indicate that people generally agree who is attractive and who isn’t. (“Eye of the beholder” is a phrase used for outliers; consensus is the general rule.) Do we use the word “beautiful” to acknowledge mass agreement? I.e., “She is beautiful” usually means “She is beautiful, obviously,” not “I find her beautiful; isn’t that interesting?” (A friend commented: “‘Attractive’ is transitive; ‘beautiful’ is intransitive.”)
6. Is “attractive” literal? I’m also interested in the semantics of the word “attractive,” which seems oddly functional, almost like “serviceable,” but without the implied insult. In beauty set theory, “attractive” seems the most all-encompassing term, entirely gender-neutral and otherwise inclusive (perhaps even encompassing qualities that are not physical). But what exactly does it mean to describe someone as attractive? Does it imply that you are in fact attracted to them, even if you don't plan to act on that attraction? Or just that you could be, under the right circumstances? Would it be contradictory to say, “He’s attractive, but I’m not attracted to him”?
7. How synonymous are “hot” and “beautiful”? (Do you still describe people as “hot”? I can only use this cheesy term with at least a little irony.) Are “beautiful” people always by definition “hot,” or is “hotness” a separate quality, something more like sexiness? 7b. Is “gorgeous” closer to “hot” or “beautiful”? (To me, “gorgeous” is a subset of “beautiful,” i.e. you can’t get to gorgeous without being beautiful first.)
8. What about “striking”? Continuing with the set theory idea, I’d be interested to see how people map adjectives like “striking” against these other terms – is “striking” a subset of “beautiful,” or do people mainly use it to mean “unconventionally attractive but not quite beautiful”? In my mind, striking people are also beautiful, but I wonder if most people use it as more of a euphemism.