When Attractive Is Not Beautiful: A Look at Contemporary Labels of Beauty

Beauty Is In The Eye Of Beholder – Yet Many Of Our Preferences Are Influenced By Media And Cultural Values.

By Sybil Geldart & Stephanie Burgoyne

A glance at an interpersonal/dating forum, LoveShack.org, led us to an interesting conversation about how labels of beauty should be interpreted. One female forum member started a thread by posing the question:

Which is a better compliment? I get told I’m beautiful and pretty, but rarely anyone says I’m hot – and that annoys me.

Another female participant replied:

It is more respectful if my BF [boyfriend] calls me beautiful.

A third respondent, likely male, advised both:

If you’re a woman and looking to have a stable relationship, then I suggest you be happy NOT being called hot. It has a sexual connotation. Pretty is someone who is cute…and maybe unattainable for the average man.

From this particular online discussion it is clear that people not only know there are different labels for beauty in use, but they are more than willing to offer an opinion about what hot, pretty, and beautiful imply to the average person. However, from what we can tell, the topic of verbal labels for beauty has not received extensive empirical investigation. Are verbal labels of beauty truly distinct from each other? If so, how are they defined? Are some labels more common or important than others, and when do specific (sexual) connotations of attractiveness emerge during an adolescent’s development?

Our research begins to explore the semantics of English labels of beauty, e.g., attractiveness, prettiness, and hotness, and the underlying attitudes that influence their use by adolescents. With the help of our students, Laurie Sault and Catherine Bradbury, we are using focus groups and interviews to gather data. Additionally, we are analyzing common labels of beauty found in television commercials, print advertisements and websites to see whether adolescents’ opinions coincide with labels typically seen in contemporary media. We think that even if beauty (as we label it) is “in the eye of the beholder” it is certainly not immeasurable. Evaluating physical beauty within the context of language and media acknowledges that experience and culture play a role in perceptions. Until fairly recently, much of the research on beauty has focused almost exclusively on the biological basis of facial aesthetics. Let’s take a look at this earlier work with a focus on three current research themes (importance of facial attributes, importance of media, and exploring cultural labels of beauty), and then we will share some of our current research.

The Importance of Facial Attributes. Face perception studies reveal a consensus about judgments of beauty (for an overview, see the work of Langlois et al., 2000). In the typical experiment of perceptions of beauty, young adults are tasked with rating photographed faces, each shown frontal view without eyeglasses, makeup or other paraphernalia, using a Likert scale of attractiveness. Using this method, people across cultures agree that attractive females have smaller chins, higher cheekbones, and larger lips – a constellation of features representing sexual maturity. Attractive males contain bilateral symmetry of facial features and averageness, both of which cue health and reproductive success. Remarkably, women indicate preferences for masculine features that signal high testosterone (e.g., bushier eyebrows, shorter forehead, dominant jawline) when they are in the ovulation phase of their menstrual cycle and when estrogen levels are high (Penton-Voak & Perrett, 2000; Roney & Simmons, 2008). Together, these studies support evolutionary theories postulating that attractiveness enables adaptive behaviors like choosing mates and producing healthy offspring.

But biology is just one way of looking at aesthetic value. Another fruitful avenue of research that we will review next comes from applied social psychology, which emphasizes not the stimulus face but the perceiver and his/her unique knowledge, expectancies, and values.

The Importance of Media. Certain types of exposure to faces influence how people judge or ‘see’ faces, and this biased exposure is rooted in media and other sources. For one, visual exposure to a sample of attractive faces raises the bar as to what is deemed attractive to young women and lowers judgments of their own attractiveness (e.g., Cash, Cash, & Butters, 1983; Little & Mannion, 2006). Thus, an adolescent who might have thought she wasn’t bad looking compared to her friends, changes her viewpoint and sees herself as less appealing relative to the idealized images of women she is likely faced with while perusing teen magazines and television shows. By the same token, repeated exposure to fashion models in magazines (a) elevates comparison standards among female adolescents, (b) increases from preadolescence to adulthood, and (c) is pronounced in girls having low self-esteem (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002; Martin & Kennedy, 1993). Not surprisingly, body image tends to be poor among girls heavily exposed to television commercials about beauty (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003). In fact, recurrent media exposure, combined with upward social comparisons, contributes to the rise in body dissatisfaction and disordered eating both in male and female adolescents (e.g., Derenne & Beresin, 2006). These findings point to the fact that despite cross-culturally shared themes in evaluations of attractiveness, perceptions of beauty can change over time and are linked to media exposure. To gain a better understanding of the concept of beauty, the next step should be to delineate the way(s) in which culture contributes to such perceptions.

Exploring Cultural Labels of Beauty. While true that media can provide rich visual images to help people judge (and react to) beauty, little is known about the role of one’s culture, i.e., customs, values and beliefs on perceptions. Language and verbal labels are germane to our existence but have been overlooked as having any impact on aesthetic judgments. Anecdotal evidence suggests that pretty is a gendered term used in reference to females but inappropriate when evaluating the desirability of boys or men. Another label, hotness, is relatively new in North American pop culture and may have special meaning to today’s youth. Initial experimental work by Geldart (2010) explored cultural labels of beauty in female university students. In that study, females’ looking times were recorded (unbeknownst to participants at the time of testing) as they viewed and judged other young female faces on the basis of attractiveness, prettiness, or cuteness. Looking times were greatest when judging faces on the basis of attractiveness compared to prettiness or beauty; looking times were of shortest duration when judging the same faces in cuteness. One conclusion from this study is that cuteness is a label that matters very little to women, possibly because the label characterizes infants better than adult physiognomy. On the contrary, attractiveness was a relevant label and captured the visual attention of these raters. A posthoc explanation is that attractiveness implies sex appeal, and women examine other women longer and more carefully because they see themselves as rivals when competing for long-term mates. An alternative conclusion is that verbal labels of beauty are not synonymous. A natural next step would be to determine what certain labels actually signify (i.e., acquiring verbal responses to words like attractive, beautiful, cute, pretty, etc.), and see whether the labels generated are similar for young people prior to and after sexual maturity.

Current Research. To learn more about what beauty labels denote, we have been asking adolescents to: (i) list and elaborate upon popular labels of beauty, and (ii) indicate what feelings and emotions different beauty labels evoke (e.g., pleasure, arousal, likeability) in reference to potential sexual partners and peers. Separately, we are using content analysis to explore the common discourse of beauty currently circulating in online media, television and teen magazines, and we are in the process of determining the extent to which these codes of beauty parallel adolescents’ opinions of different beauty labels. Our methodological approach – being unique from traditional perception research – is motivated by the necessity to uncover aspects of beauty beyond what can be gleaned from biology. Our analysis of the media has been moving quickly over the last year, and at this point we can say that labels like attractive, pretty, and hot are actually quite rare in print media aimed for teenage girls. Instead, words like flawless, perfect, and picture perfect appear frequently in teen magazines (see Figure) and are less common in magazines targeting adult women and older adults. Our next step will be to see if adolescents’ definitions of beauty correlate with media content. By collecting public opinion on the subject, at a minimum our work shall inform the advertising industry regarding what marketing terms are more or less helpful for selling products to consumer groups representing adolescents and young adults.

Conclusions. In summary, our new research attempts to systematically explore verbal labels of beauty that appear in the media and are used by adolescents. However, perhaps we should not discount the usefulness of online relationship forums and other social media as methods to acquire information on the topic; as you recall from the excerpt at the top, there were very strong and varied opinions about the meaning of a woman’s hotness versus physical beauty. Indeed, via our work as a point of departure, we think it is desirable to call attention to gender roles, ethnicity and other sociocultural factors if and when they are important— only then can we teach young citizens that perceptions of beauty are impacted not merely by physical attributes but by the subculture to which they are frequently exposed.


Sybil Geldart is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University – Brantford campus. She is currently serving as Associate Editor of European Review of Applied Psychology. Her research interests include the development of the perception of facial attractiveness and the role of visual experience and culture.  Sybil teaches courses in child and adolescent development, and created what has turned out to be a popular seminar course, Physical Beauty in Contemporary Society – exploring how the attractiveness stereotype impacts young people in venues like school, professional sports, work, and even the criminal justice system.  Please send her an email with your comments or questions at [email protected].

Stephanie Burgoyne is an Assistant Professor of Youth and Child Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University – Brantford. Her teaching and research focus is mathematics education. Stephanie enjoys directing choirs and performing organ recitals, and is the accompanist for the university campus (Laurier Brantford) choir. Stephanie can be reached at [email protected].

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