So, I've been cooking up this post for a long time. I've been trying to find a way to articulate the differences, without sounding creepy, between someone who is beautiful (like Audrey Hepburn)someone who is sexy but not all that beautiful (e.g. Peri Gilpin), and someone who is attractive (most people). There are some people who fall into the beautiful AND sexy category (e.g. Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer), and others who are beautiful and NOT sexy at all (e.g. Faye Dunaway, Alek Wek).
Beauty, attraction, and sexiness. I think we need to define what each of these mean, how they overlap, how they attract, what their signs are, etc. Given the massively successful reproductive rates of humankind, it's obvious that most people are attractive to at least someone. Attraction can be initial, but it can also be combinatory and chronological. If you're around another person long enough, eventually there will probably be at least some thing about that person you will find attractive; this is chronological attraction. Initial attraction happens when we see someone and immediately notice that essence of something about them that draws our gaze to them. Combinatory can be a partial initial attraction that becomes more of an intellectual or emotional attraction as we get to know that person over time (chronological). The other becomes more attractive as we are drawn to how we feel in their presence, how they make us feel, etc. We overlook any imperfections in the outer facade based off our feelings for the person. This is the beginning and basis of what we call love, or combinatory attraction, which I feel is the only kind of attraction that should be allowed to truly come to fruition; without the mental/emotional bond of combinatory attraction, any move to extinguish the desire that initial attraction creates is just our using each other's bodies to masturbate ourselves.
I don't want to confuse the terminology here so I need to elaborate a bit on the relationship between beauty, sexiness, and attraction.
Speaking from the male-hetero viewpoint, I will define beauty as the attractiveness of the face, in a sublime sense. Certainly you can have a "beautiful body," but this is more like saying that someone is a "fine specimen," an example of the Platonic ideal of a certain body part. I find the usage of the adjective "beautiful" when applied to any body part other than the face to be an expression of attraction and desire, whereas the beauty of the face can be something completely removed from sexiness or attraction. A beautiful face is one that captures our attention free from the encumberance of lust. Keep in mind that attraction and beauty have many areas that overlap, but I'm talking about the attraction-free side of beauty. When I look at certain models' faces I see some sort of beauty there. Alek Wek, a Sudanese model, has a beautiful face, but when I look at her, it's to marvel at her beauty. There is zero attraction present, not a hint of sexiness, the beauty comes from a sublime point of indescribable appreciation for the fineness of her features. I have this same feeling when I look at Audrey Hepburn or Faye Dunaway. Yes, they are beautiful; no, they are not sexy at all; no, I am not attracted to them.
Sexiness is that quality that a person can have in physical appearance, personal attitude and style, or some other maddeningly-difficult-to-define essence that makes other people desire them sexually. Sexy people need not be strikingly beautiful, rather, they use what attractive parts they have (sometimes subconciously) to make others around them desire them--this need not be a willful act by the sexy person. Certainly there are some people who are oblivious to how sexy they are, and what is sexy to one person might have no effect on someone else.
Now, obviously physical attraction is in the eye of the beholder. But, there are some universal signs of beauty which I shall attempt to define. We accumulate signs as we perceive others. These signs are the markers of our attraction to the Other. Some of the more common signs include: physical fitness (like the now infamous photo of the pole vaulter), a pretty face, long hair, curly hair, tan skin, large breasts, firm buttocks, hip indentations at the waist, long legs, wide hips, eye shape, eye color, etc. But, more powerful is emotional attraction, that pull we feel from someone else's presence, personality, sense of humor, or charisma. My wife forms a perfect combination of intense physical attraction (beauty + sexiness in my mind) plus the most perfect emotional attraction I've ever experienced; it's like I married my best friend. I love her and I lust after her; I'm so lucky, and she's got me wrapped around her finger (finger).
Thankfully, most people are attractive to someone else. This allows us to have fulfillment in life and love. But, sadly, attraction sometimes becomes the slave of desire, a desire that comes from an unreal and false place: pornography. Far too often, because of the internet, men wallow in porn and begin to think that that is the ideal, that women should look and act like the porn models.
It is precisely because of this over-stressing of the accumulation of signs that men indulge in pornography and visit strip clubs. They idealize the signs and begin to look for them all in one place. The combination of extreme beauty coupled with extreme sexiness exist in precious few people in the world. If you look at the women of pornography you can see the grotesque display of signs, over-exaggerated signs, on display. The women are not beautiful, they are an accumulation of signs and airbrushing: the gigantic lips and breasts, the corseted waists, but most importantly, the willingness to display, to perform, and to not mind the gaze of the Other. That's why people use pornography. It fossilizes their sex fantasies; it allows them to gaze without the fear of being caught looking; it permits entry into a world where the male ego is unrestrained, and it is a gross and absolute lie--as Baudrillard put it, "a culture of irredeemable monstrosity."
For my previous jeremiads on the subject, see: