Gabi Bouvier explores how gendered words associated with attractiveness can be, and discusses our desperation to stick to these binaries when we describe someone who fits the social standard of 'beauty.'
When is it appropriate to use “beautiful”? How about “handsome”? How is it that words so often used for complimenting one population be perceived as a possible insult for another?
A quick google search reveals, unsurprisingly, that the term “beauty” most often references the physical. A combination of physical qualities especially pleasing to see. Attractive features of something or someone. From there, “beauty” is most commonly associated with women. As a noun or adjective, it brings to mind a woman’s physical appearance, or beauty products. As common as it is for a woman, it is equally taboo to use for those of the male gender, unless the aim is to suggest a “feminine” quality.
For men, we have an entirely different word: “handsome.” Just as we avoid describing a man as “beautiful,” to call a woman “handsome” could be perceived as an insult. Yet, although “beautiful” and “handsome” are not perfect synonyms, they both indicate the aesthetically pleasing features of a person. In fact, some dictionaries go so far to define “handsome” as good-looking, in reference to men specifically.
Here is another interesting occurrence: we use “beautiful” to describe women... and things. “Handsome” is rarely used to describe that which is not alive, or male. Think of the few times you would use “handsome” to describe a thing. There is still a certain masculine quality given to that object; the counter-part that does not exist for a beautiful thing. How disheartening, and rather insulting it is, to realize that a compliment so commonly used for women, is readily attributed to things. It isn’t something you might necessarily notice, or even care about, until you compare the use of “beautiful” and “handsome” for people and things. Are the physical features of women so easily interchangeable with the features of a “beautiful house?” A “beautiful car?” Or a “beautiful sunset?” Most likely not. Physical properties are not shared amongst these examples. However, the sense of appreciation our perception of them apparently warrants the same word.
What about every other point on the gender spectrum? Or those who are transgender? Or gender nonconforming? The english language certainly gives us plenty of words with which to compliment, but it seems unfair that regardless of one’s gender identity, the two most commonly used words for complimenting physical appearance prescribe the person in question to one of two gender categories.
Is it thus necessary to reduce our use of “beautiful” and “handsome?” Or important that we strive to use them interchangeably? Both of these seem extreme, and I certainly do not have the answer. At best, I can acknowledge the probem I have noticed, and hope that there is a solution that does not exclude any population from using certain words.