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What Makes Some Guys ‘Handsome,’ Some Guys ‘Cute’ and Some Guys ‘Sexy’?

And what about 'sexy-ugly,' 'good-looking' and 'beautiful'? Here's an analysis of all the terms we use to talk about male beauty

Recently a male colleague mentioned that he’d like to know what women mean when they break down male attractiveness by different markers: handsome, beautiful, cute, sexy, fine, good-looking, etc. I happily accepted the challenge to explain this, but later that day, talking with some lady friends in a group chat, I mentioned that I didn’t really get what there was to “get.” Isn’t it obvious? Aren’t these the same terms men use to talk about women?

I tried to Google it — how women define male attractiveness — and I started to understand why my colleague would want to know. The wiki on physical attractiveness says that “Women, on average, tend to be more attracted to men who have a relatively narrow waist, a V-shaped torso, and broad shoulders.” I brake for upside-down triangles as eagerly as the next gal, but I’m more than just hungry loins, okay? Where was the breakdown of finer distinctions about male attractiveness overall, especially up top in the face? (And down below, in the dick or butt region?)

I found a study about male and female perceptions of physical attractiveness, but it’s actually talking about female attractiveness only — how men and women together feel about whether women’s boobs are good. (Verdict: They’re good.) Another result was about the 11 features men can’t resist in women (high voice, smile, boobs). Finally, there were some results about what makes men attractive to women. But instead of a list of boobs, it was stuff about men being confident and passionate.

So yeah — surprisingly little info out there about the nuances of male physical attractiveness. It’s a shame! You deserve the little ego boost to learn that a lot of male hotness isn’t conventional in, say, the Zac Efron mold. Or that the “Chrises” — yes, even Pratt — look boring. (Fight me.)

It’s not that there isn’t plenty of evidence that women do find men attractive. Enough studies finally exist nowadays to reveal that high-status, older, slightly bearded, somewhat muscular beef slabs like George Clooney are indeed hot. Google the “hottest guys in the world,” though, and it’s a list that includes Blake Shelton and too-thick-wedding-band-wearer Adam Levine, two men who, to me, could not be further apart on the hot spectrum.

So where’s the specific criteria? I guess we just haven’t had the time to devote enough clickbait to counting the highly specific ways we find men attractive. So let me count them.

Handsome: The Classic Look

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A handsome man is a man with a face that could be chiseled on a statue representing Timeless Handsome Man Across All Handsomeness of All-Time Handsomeness. This is a judgment of balance and proportion. This means his eyes are spaced apart correctly, he has a forehead (not a threehead or a fivehead) and he has a prominent chin. Cary Grant is handsome. George Clooney is handsome. Idris Elba. Jon Hamm. Johnny Depp. Ryan Gosling.

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They have what you’d call “classic” good looks: They exist in every era due to basic facial symmetry, and when you think of being with them, you feel strongly that you would be dressed in evening wear first with the appropriate clutch.

Beautiful: The Dreamy, Inaccessible Look

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Handsome men are often beautiful, but beautiful men are not always handsome. Beautiful men have an almost feminine prettiness to their appeal. It evokes, whether real or imagined, a kind of introverted (often unearned) depth, a longing, a dreamy quality. Johnny Depp is both beautiful and handsome, particularly when he was younger and less of an asshole. Zayn Malik and Harry Styles are perfect examples of both, too — they have the same symmetry (or “golden ratio”) of the handsome men, so they could also be considered handsome, but they have a youthful prettiness that also constitutes an overarching beauty. They all also have fairly luscious lips. Compare this to Ryan Gosling, who does not. It’s not that they can’t inspire lust, it’s that they more inspire awe and admiration, a remoteness that is pretty to look at but somewhat inaccessible.

Cute: The Happy, Accessible Look

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Stuffed animals, or “stuffies” as children call them, are cute. They are soft and adorable, and as far as I can tell, they would never hit on you. Though cute can be used by any woman as a casual way of saying a man is generally attractive, a cute man is a nonthreateningly attractive man who doesn’t quite look overtly masculine in an aggressively sexual or potent way. He smiles a lot and is accessible, and it’s hard to imagine him making a move. Although I realize someone somewhere has had sex with him, Justin Bieber is the epitome of cute. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cute. They just don’t have that throw-you-down or lift-you-up-onto-the-nearest-surface-to-fuck vibe that you get in handsome or beautiful men. Cute men never seem to age, which is great for cuteness but terrible for adult hotness.

Good-Looking: The Unremarkable Look

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This is a catch-all term, like “attractive” or “hot” or sometimes “cute,” used to simply say a man is a looker in the looks department. But more specifically, it’s a way of describing a perfectly attractive man for whom you have no other specific markers. Good-looking men are all around us all the time and they are perfectly good-looking, but they may not inspire much more than this simple observation. In my view, all of the Chrises are good-looking but otherwise unremarkable.

Sexy: The Unconventional but Masculine Look

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Daniel Craig is sexy. I use Daniel Craig as an example because he has a brute masculinity that is extremely commanding without looking conventionally handsome, cute, beautiful or good looking. Sex appeal in men can exist nearly apart from their looks, but let’s not kid ourselves: While sexy men can be unusual-looking, it’s not as if they can be wholly unredeemable if you took away the sexy vibe. Daniel Craig is still a fit, attractive man even if he never smoldered, but it’s the smoldering that makes him sexy. See also: Clive Owen.

Sexy-Ugly: The Buscemi Look

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Finally, sexy-ugly, a designation never used for women, is a critical distinction to be made about men. First appearing in an indie flick from director Jennifer Westfeldt in 2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein (with a minor appearance from Jon Hamm, her then-boyfriend), the term is meant to explain a man who is not conventionally good-looking but still pulls off sexy. In the film, Harvey Keitel is used as the standard-bearer, and from talking to many women over the years, Steve Buscemi makes the cut as well. While the term never fully caught on and perhaps signifies an unnecessary crassness, I’ve yet to find a better term to convey this sort of appeal.

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In conclusion, I’ve never understood why men always invoke being “more visual” as a major way we’re different sexually, as if women can only determine hotness by Braille. We’re told over and over again that we simply don’t put a premium on it because it simply doesn’t matter as much.

Not true. If we’re less inclined to demand hotness as stringently as men seem to in women, and will gladly accept other traits in its place, that’s not evidence of poor eyesight, it’s evidence of a deeply ingrained system that has made women far more dependent on men historically for money and protection. When you need to eat and not die, you’re probably not going to sweat whether a guy’s jawline is up to snuff so much.

Women spend their lives destined to be cute when they want to be beautiful, sexy when they want to be pretty, hot when they’d rather be gorgeous, and so on. That hasn’t changed in the slightest. What has changed is that if nothing else, greater economic independence for women has granted us the same shallowness men have long held a monopoly on admitting. That’s a good thing for us. For you? I guess it depends on where you fall on this list.