Monday, August 26, 2013

Semantics of the Word “Beautiful”

I’m interested in the semantics of the word “beautiful,” specifically with regard to physical, human beauty, so let’s set aside for now the matter of aesthetic judgments of music, art, horses, the sky and other objects we sometimes call “beautiful.” Let’s also, for the purposes of this discussion, set aside New Age–y, Christina Aguilera–ish notions about “inner beauty,” where “beauty” is conflated with some kind of essential value or moral goodness. In other words, let’s not say “Everyone is beautiful” when what we mean is “Everyone has intrinsic value,” if that is in fact what we mean. (Even if everyone potentially has moral goodness, some people, in practice, are Hitler.)

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.

Discuss.


18 comments:

  1. In my idiolect, "hot" means "sexy" and neither is used entirely seriously. "Pretty" and "cute" I think both imply "appealing-at-a-personal-level"/"looks-like-someone-I-would-like-to-know"; perhaps they also imply ordinariness to some extent? "Beautiful" is a word that one probably uses more often to describe objects, ideas, work, etc. and I think it implies a degree of unusualness, or at least classical grace/statuesqueness -- in this sense it overlaps with striking -- and both describe responses that have only partial overlap with "sexy." "Gorgeous" I have always thought of as a somewhat camp word, but to me it implies a degree of _richness_/plenitude that doesn't overlap that well with my sense of the beautiful. (There are women on the spare end of beautiful/striking -- the female equiv. of a Beckett play, perhaps? -- that are clearly not gorgeous. And the opposite is easy to imagine as well.)

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    1. DATA!

      To me "gorgeous" suggests a Victoria's Secret model type -- tall with lots of hair, the kind of person you almost never see in real life.

      It feels like "cute" has become almost synonymous with "attractive" -- not bad, decently appealing, he/she will do. "Pretty" is a little more specialized.

      Re "beautiful" implying usualness -- see this article by Ruth Graham where beautiful faces are determined to be the most average, "face-like faces"

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    2. P.S. Being able to use the word "sexy" with a straight face (but not the word "hot" anymore) feels like a sign of maturity.

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    3. (I've always been somewhat skeptical of the average-beautiful business -- perhaps unjustly -- because it seems so v. much the sort of thing one would read in a Steven Pinker book.)

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    4. Oh no, kiss of science death!

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    5. I wonder if the awful shadow of the word "sublime" is hanging over this nomenclature to some extent. To use "sublime" in this context would of course be immensely campy, but the traditional sublime/beautiful distinction maps rather awkwardly onto this topic. I think the role played by "sublime" in other contexts is spread awkwardly among striking, gorgeous, handsome, even beautiful sometimes, whereas words like pretty encroach on the traditional province of the "beautiful."

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    6. "The awful shadow of the word 'sublime'" = instant poetry line.

      Burke was speaking only of beauty in art and the natural world, right? Beautiful is a messy word in that it gets used to mean "very good" in so many different contexts.

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  2. Hey, I have really enjoyed thinking about all the questions you’ve posed in regards to such a nebulous word as “beauty”. First off, I totally agree about how new age-y beauty becomes when it's construed as this pluralist, inclusive essence that imbues everyone (rather than an intrinsic one). That being said, to look at it from a more or less Buddhist stand point, beauty is effortlessness and visa-versa. So I guess everyone can appear to me as beautiful when they appear to be the least occupied with maintaining an outward appearance. Buddhist art, or at least Zen Buddhist art, seems to consist of two parts-- to be made effortlessly, that is with no end in mind, and to give the appearance of being made as such (which a Buddhist priest wouldn’t probably think in terms of, but as for me, I feel that the minimalist elements of Zen Buddhist art represent at least a subconscious desire to present work as appearing as having been as little contrived or pre-meditated as possible even if this isn’t truly the case). So I differentiate beauty from “hot” or “pretty” or “striking” along these terms, which could be problematic because I understand that almost nobody at this point puts absolutely no thought or effort into their outward appearance and I’m necessarily abstracting and objectifying a person when I look at them. Anyways, in short, beauty to me represents a kind of effortlessness. Like, someone who is beautiful might appear, through their gait or diet or fashion sense, to be only minimally occupied with appearance. They trust their appearance and allow it to regulate itself, almost like it exists as an external object or system from them. To give concrete examples: someone who has blue under their eyes from sleep deprivation, or who eats a greasy piece of pizza in front of me, or doesn’t appear to shave regularly-- all signs of preoccupation with other more interesting entities (to me) than physical appearance/the obsession with health at the price of a rich inner life that marks our middle class culture right now. Now this may be facile, in so far as I have no fucking clue what someone’s life style ultimately consists of and how much time they dedicate for upkeep and what their own self image is, and I’m just projecting my own standards/preferences onto them, but those are the terms I work through when I look at someone. Someone hot, appears to be more preoccupied with their image, and then I suppose easier to objectify as a sexual object in the dark chasms of the (ok, my) undomesticated mind. When I use the word beautiful, it’s hard for me to think of the person being referred simultaneously in a sexual light. It’s a dichotomy of sorts where I perceive certain people as beautiful but completely sexless in so far as I have no sexual interest in them because their effortless appearance precludes it (which I understand is problematic but that’s being brutally honest and I feel that many people think in these solipsistic terms-- we are all the sex drive assigning/denying suns of the universe). So to answer one other bullet point, I don’t think that beauty is objective, though maybe “hotness” (and by extension “attractiveness”) is determined by mass consensus and thus the true intransitive entity, in so far as this seems to me to be a more homogenous, easily corruptible classifier, or at least a less subjective one than beauty is.

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    1. Really interesting! Reminds me of my hot-cold scale for poetics, where some schools prefer poetry that seems effortless and shun poetry that seems to "try too hard."

      The beautiful/sexy dichotomy sounds kind of like the Madonna/whore complex.

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  3. Yeah, I don't buy poets' efforts to construe their poetry (or rather poetic process) as effortless... seems disingenuous and I fully realize that most literature, or anything that moves me at that, comes from grueling compositional labor. That being said, I wonder if it's possible to write well without overtly desiring to be a writer.
    On reflection, I do think my argument reads like the Madonna/whore complex, though that obviously wasn't my intention... I dug myself into a hole by dichotomizing beauty and sexuality, though I wonder if from a different angle, perhaps with gender lines more blurred, the argument could be made.

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    1. No worries, I'm not judging you over it :)

      I do think the word "beautiful" conveys some measure of respect -- like you might call your mother or sister beautiful, but not "hot." HOWEVER, this means that men sometimes use the word "beautiful" to fake respect, and that's smarmy.

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    2. Is there a way of writing that's easy for you, that feels almost as natural as talking and enables you to be prolific? That might be the way for you to go.

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  4. What do people call you, Elisa? Beautiful, hot, cute, attractive, or striking? Smuk? красивый?

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    1. Most women get called all these things at some point, right? Whether it's sincere appreciation, manipulation, or your mother? I think people who like me (friends, family, suitors, etc.) are more likely to call me "beautiful" than your average Man on the Street. I don't know that I fit the profile for "cute," especially as I get older. Probably "pretty" or "attractive" is most common. I'd like to be striking, but I've only had someone call me striking to my face once that I can recall. And he was trying to get in my pants.

      Interesting that you chose Dutch and Russian words since I've had strangers tell me I look both Dutch and Russian.

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  5. Yes, you do. I'll dub you...Swaantje Ivazova!

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  6. I hesitate to be another male commentator, but...

    Concerning question 8: This morning I came across a passage in James Salter's new novel, All That Is, that might be relevant. It seems his use of "striking" (or "struck"--close enough, right?) coincides with yours, to indicate a certain type of beauty. Actually, not just a subset of beauty, but a superlative form of it, which is how I feel about the word as well. In this scene there are two women. One of them

    "was blond with a bare, shining forehead and wide-set eyes, instantly compelling, even in some way coarse. He was so struck by her face that it was difficult to look at her, she stood out so--on the other hand he could not keep himself from doing it. He was almost fearful of looking." (The use of "coarse" is interesting there.)

    On the next page:

    "He could not keep his eyes from her. Her face was as if, somehow, it was not completely finished, with smouldering features, a mouth not eager to smile, a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life. In profile she was even more beautiful."

    Not that you can necessarily tell from these excerpts, but it's basically love at first sight for this guy.

    I know the feeling of seeing someone so beautiful that I'm "almost fearful of looking." I really feel struck when that happens. Like getting punched in the stomach and being filled with an ache so heavy I feel like crying.

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    1. Male commenters are better than no commenters ... BARELY. JK. I like this, thank you. I also think of striking as a kind of superlative form of beauty. If the claim in Ruth's article (not her theory, but some scientists') that beautiful faces are average, "face-like" is true, then striking faces are recognizably beautiful without seeming average or like a face you've seen before, perhaps?

      How is the book? I've only read Light Years but have always meant to read more Salter.

      Incidentally the shining forehead reminded me instantly of the "Queenie" character in Updike's A&P.

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    2. I'm not very far into it yet, but it's a New York book, so I'm predisposed to like it. It has a quietness I like.

      I haven't read Light Years, but I loved A Sport and a Pastime. I even gave away my copy as a gift (and later replaced it).

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