Beauty vs. Attractiveness: A Matter of Semantics?

Practitioners who study beauty have a responsibility to alter our younger generation's view on what it means to be attractive. To do so, we have to keep physical beauty from being equated with the experience of attractiveness.
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Since Elizabeth Taylor's death last week, much has been said about her illustrious career and colorful personal life. And while tributes highlighted her many movies and marriages, it's probably fair to say that a lot of us will remember her for her exquisite beauty: those violet eyes, her creamy skin and thick, black hair.

With Taylor's iconic image in mind, I was interested in reading Robert Tornambe's article, "What Is Beauty? A Plastic Surgeon's Perspective." The piece intrigued me not only because of my own research on this topic, but because I was interested in how his point of view (as a male and a surgeon) might differ from mine (a female and a psychologist). My work focuses more on raising questions about our beauty culture (e.g., "Under the Knife and Under Scrutiny," and "Cosmetic Drugs Gone Too Far"), but I was pleasantly surprised that we both shared a similar perspective: that a woman's attractiveness is based more on perception than the sum of her biological parts. I particularly resonated with these words: "We must stop sending the wrong, unhealthy superficial message to our daughters and granddaughters about the definition of beauty."

Unlike others reacting to Dr. Tornambe's post, I didn't take issue with it being authored by a plastic surgeon. Clearly, there are many doctors whose moral compasses guide their practice, as appears to be the case with Dr. Tornambe. There are cosmetic surgeons who truly want to understand women and do right by them. They hesitate to perform repeated cosmetic surgeries on their female patients, and they turn away young girls who come for Botox, even if their parents approve. Some make concerted efforts to talk to their patients about the difference between fantasy and reality -- how much pain is involved, the cost of procedures (and their upkeep) and the long-term expectations, including the possible need for further surgery. I know, because some of these doctors have asked for my help in understanding the psychological ramifications of their work (see "The Psychological Factors Surrounding Plastic Surgery").

It wasn't even Dr. Tornambe's gender that bothered me. I realize that it's hard to find female plastic surgeons (around 98 percent are men), let alone one who is willing to write about her work. The rarity of women in this field likely reflects the years of demanding training required, making family life difficult, but ambivalence over performing cosmetic procedures (mostly on other women) may also play a role. In fact, I applaud Dr. Tornambe's thoughtful article on a topic few plastic surgeons write for the general public. No, it was neither his being a plastic surgeon nor his being male that made me uneasy; rather, it is that word "beauty." It is how easily practitioners use it to mean so many different things, and how easily it is misinterpreted.

Dr. Tornambe started his piece by correctly stating, "Beauty is the most overused, misunderstood, poorly defined word in the English language," but he goes on to use the word throughout his piece, applying it to his description of the "Beauty Quotient." While I agree that personal appearance, physical and psychological health contribute to a woman's sense of well-being, I take issue with his identifying these as "the three categories that define a woman's beauty." Perhaps I'm making a big deal over the use of a word -- a matter of semantics, some might say -- but if we recognize that we live in a culture that leaves women, as Dr. Tornambe himself writes, "unduly influenced into negative opinions about themselves and forced to chase an illusion," we professionals need to do all that we can to shift that experience.

Take a look at Webster's definition of beauty: "A pleasing physical quality. An assemblage of properties pleasing to the five senses." In today's culture, its meaning has been narrowed mostly to the visual sense, and further still, applied often to youthful looks. Synonyms include prettiness, cuteness, loveliness, exquisiteness and splendor. Webster's definition of attractiveness, on the other hand, is, "The quality that arouses interest and pleasure. The power to attract." Synonyms include appealing, captivating, charismatic, charming and engaging. Notice anything in the latter that is directly attributed to physical features or youth?

Clearly, most of us know that beauty and attractiveness are not one and the same. Women who have graced the covers of magazines tell us that they do not necessarily feel attractive. And there are women who are attractive that would never be cover girls. I know this to be true, not only from the models, dancers and screen actors that I work with in psychotherapy, but from the women I interviewed for my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change" (Hay House, 2011).

You see, there is a beauty paradox that many men -- and even some women -- find hard to fully comprehend. "Perfect" physical features -- the ones some are willing to go under the knife to achieve -- may be viewed as beautiful, but those who have them do not necessarily experience themselves as beautiful. In fact, when the goal of looking attractive is confused with achieving "beauty," it often creates the very opposite: women who feel inadequate and frustrated as they fall short of an unattainable standard.

Beauty is a rigid, static physical image. Attractiveness is a fluid, variable psychological experience, one that moves from the inside, out and back again. Beauty can be inherited, Photoshopped or surgically attained. Attractiveness develops, evolves over time and can be ageless. One can be attractive to others or simply feel that way about oneself. Beauty leads women toward the pursuit of the physical features associated with the word. Attractiveness is an attainable goal for those who take care of their bodies, enjoy their lives, maintain sensuality and engage with others.

My suggestion? Whether you are a surgeon, psychologist, life coach or stylist, talk about attractiveness instead of beauty and you will foster more positive experiences in the women you advise. As parents, raise your daughters and granddaughters to truly understand the difference. Beauty is, and will always be, a word associated with icons throughout history -- from Cleopatra to the actress who so famously portrayed her. It works well as a goal for those competing in pageants, whose professions are on screen and in magazines, whose lives revolve around being admired and scrutinized primarily for their physical beings. As Dr. Tornambe suggests, "We must educate our children to recognize that physical characteristics alone do not make a woman beautiful."

We need only look at another Huffington Post piece that appeared on the same day as Tornambe's, entitled, "Mother Claims To Inject 8-year-old With Botox." I thought, "Therein lies the problem": A "licensed beautician" was using the very tools of Dr. Tornambe's trade on her daughter, so that she could make her a "beauty." According to that piece, mother Kerry was obsessed with daughter Britney becoming a future Hollywood "star" and was giving her all the advantages early on to reach that goal. This story comes from a questionable journal source (The Sun), but when considered alongside a more reliable one (from The New York Times) discussing a similar topic, teen "toxing", we recognize that our girls -- and their mothers -- are confused and in trouble.

Practitioners who study beauty, like Dr. Tornambe and I do, have a responsibility and opportunity to alter our younger generation's view on what it means to be attractive. To do so, we have to keep physical beauty from being equated with the experience of attractiveness. We need to leave the former to those whose genetics naturally endow them the physical qualities associated with what society deems the "Holy Grail" -- perfect, baby-faced features; blue eyes; thick hair; straight, white teeth; small nose; thin body; long legs -- and let them devote themselves to maintaining their youthful looks as they age. The rest of us need to feel free to be attractive in our own unique ways and maintain that enjoyable experience at any age.

How would you describe the difference between beauty and attractiveness?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, visit her websites at and Friend her on Facebook at, or continue the conversation on Twitter.

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