The other day, one of my friends came to me seeking advice. She was distraught over the fact that a guy she was interested in had called her "cute,” so she wanted some outside perspective on what he really meant.
In many people’s minds, especially adult men and women, cute can come across as a demeaning thing to be called. This explains why you might be left wondering, “What does it mean when a guy calls you cute? Does he think I’m more than that, too?”
When some think of the term cute, they picture a small infant swaddled up like a cocoon or a fuzzy kitten playing with string — not something to be taken seriously — but that thinking is taking it far too literally.” Cute has two entirely different meanings: A cute woman or man is completely different from a cute child.
Yet, a lot of people get caught up in overthinking the terms that others use to describe them when it comes to attraction — namely cute, beautiful, and sexy — because it can be difficult to discern the meaning behind them. And while these archetypes have historically been portrayed as very gendered, they can be used to describe anyone by anyone, regardless of gender or identity. It’s also important to remember that at a base level, all of these words are subjective but meant to be flattering, as dating and relationship expert Cora Boyd explains to Elite Daily.
“Ideally, it’s great to receive any of these compliments,” Boyd says. “So it’s great to look at where we're not open to receiving a compliment, or where we're kind of internalizing a compliment to be an insult.” While it’s OK to prefer some compliments over others, it’s also important to recognize your partner’s intention, which is to make you feel good.
If you’re still confused about these terms, clarifying what it means when a guy calls you cute or a girl says you’re sexy in a more in-depth way might help you process them more productively. So, here’s what the experts have to say about the differences between cute, sexy, and beautiful.
What They Mean By “Cute”
The word cute definitely doesn’t ooze sex appeal on its own, but it’s also not usually intended to. Just because it's a word also used to describe puppies and children doesn’t mean that it is debasing to call a woman or man cute. In this sense of the term, cute is attractive and alluring in its own way. Overall, it’s a positive word.
“I like the word cute, because we use it for everyone. We're like, ‘Oh, he's so cute. She's so cute. They're so cute. They're so cute together,’” says Boyd. “Something that's heartwarming is cute. There's something about the word that evokes this feeling of heartwarming and adorable.”
For the most part, cuteness refers to someone’s temperament — charming, appealing, and amusing. A cute person might be too shy to steal everyone's attention at a bar, but they flourish in smaller, more intimate settings. At the same time, a cute man or woman is typically pretty approachable and friendly. “Cute has more innocence to it. Cute is often referring not just to someone's looks, but their behavior,” explains Boyd. “It doesn't have a sexual tone to it and it's often based on behaviors, like when someone does something that's a little bit innocent or weird, we're like, ‘You're so cute!’”
It’s not solely all about how somebody acts, though. “We definitely call people cute based on their image, too, but the word cute itself isn't necessarily image-based,” says Boyd. People can definitely be physically cute. Usually a cute appearance describes someone who is soft-featured, youthful, and maybe extra smiley — but the options are endless. After all, the term truly is subjective.
The thought that the word cute is just used as a lesser, pandering compliment for people who don't qualify as pretty or beautiful is definitely not true. Cute is just another flattering compliment used to describe someone’s allure and charm. If anything, people might be more inclined to use the word cute because it’s fun and carries less emotional weight, according to Boyd.
“It's also kind of a lower stakes word to use with someone, because it's a little bit more benign and more in the realm of friendly,” says Boyd. “For anyone selecting what words they want to use, cute is a good starter because it doesn't have to have a sexual tone, so there's a little bit less pressure to call someone cute if you're nervous.”
What They Mean By “Sexy”
For the most part, sexy people will know they’re sexy. They’re usually the main attraction in any given room. They have presence. While a lot of their presence may have to do with some type of physical characteristic, the majority of it has to do with their confidence, which we all know is one of the sexiest traits someone can possess. At the word’s essence, it comes down to this person exuding sexual energy, Boyd eplains.
“Sexy just straight up has a sexual tone — it strikes a sexual chord,” she says. “If you call someone sexy, you're getting sex on the radar right away and you're also signaling to them that you're a sexual person and that you're sexually attracted.”
In this sense, the term sexy is pretty straightforward: It comes from a place of lust. Having said that, sexy doesn't just apply to their body or the bedroom. People use the word to describe both looks and behavior. “Attraction to another person is clearly physical in nature,” Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, previously told Elite Daily, “but sexy and hot can be very evolved experiences that are driven by subtleties about the person, their nature, and how they move through the world.”
And long gone are the days of saying sexy and smart are mutually exclusive. In fact, a 2017 study from the University of Western Australia concluded that a certain high IQ score is ideal to have in order to be maximally sexually attractive. A driven, intellectual man or woman can be equally as sexy as the one with the skin-tight shirt at the bar (or they might even be the one wearing that skin-tight shirt… because they can totally be both). “There are commonalities of behaviors we all tend to find sexy, which is really someone being in their passion, being in their power, and exemplifying some high integrity,” Boyd says.
Though there are overarching sexy attributes, everyone finds different specific things sexy. It could be anything from standing up for a stranger to speaking passionately about something they’re into. It could even be something extremely niche, as Boyd says, like, “Wow, it's really sexy when you talk about Bitcoin.”
A sexy person is sexy because they’re sexy, not because some article of clothing they’re wearing is sexy — although it can help (calling out Harry Styles at the 2021 Grammys here). Naturally, when a woman or man has all of the physical assets that someone is looking for, that's sexy in a more explicit sense. But a lot of what defines sexiness is beneath the surface.
What They Mean By “Beautiful”
If the sexy person is the one at the bar whom you want to take home for the night, the beautiful one is the one you want to stare at for hours and just take in for all their glory. It’s a really lovely compliment.
“It's kind of a deep thing to call someone, evoking or demonstrating a deeper appreciation,” says Boyd. “When you call someone beautiful, there’s something gentle in it, too. What you're saying to someone when you're telling them they're beautiful or gorgeous is that they're radiant.”
When someone calls a man or woman beautiful, they’re talking about something more than sexual attraction. Beauty, of course, can be physical — everyone finds certain traits beautiful — but it also says something about the person’s soul, as Boyd explains.
“It's a little bit more of a romantic, appreciative thing to say to someone, because it encompasses their whole being,” she says. “It’s appreciating more of the subtleties — versus, say, calling someone hot or sexy is a little bit more in the realm of carnal pleasures.” Somebody who is beautiful will radiate beauty regardless of what they’re wearing or what they’re doing. It’s all about their aura and how they come across to you, the eye of the beholder.
What To Do If You Don’t Like Being Called Cute, Sexy, Or Beautiful
The purpose of compliments is to make the receiver feel good. As Amy Hartle, a couples travel and relationship writer at Two Drifters, told Bustle, "The key here is giving a compliment to your partner that lets them know how much you are attracted to them."
So, if you are uncomfortable with any of these three words, there are two main things you should do. The first is to simply tell the person saying it that you’re not a fan of the word or you’d prefer to be called something else. But you also might want to take a closer look at why one of these compliments ruffles you the wrong way, according to Boyd.
“When there's a trigger, there's always an invitation to be like, ‘Oh, OK, everyone's just calling me cute even though I'm feeling that I would like to be acknowledged for my sexiness,’” Boyd says. “[That] is great information to take in if you want to express a different side of yourself more. So, there's always an invitation for introspection, too.”
When it comes down to it, no one person is only cute or sexy or beautiful. They all relate and intertwine, and every woman and man has the duality to be more than one. If you feel like you’d rather be called sexy than cute, or vice versa, then you have the power to embrace what you want within yourself. And if someone is really that into you, they’ll likely see all three of these attributes in you anyway.
Gignac, G.E., Darbyshire, J., Ooi., M. (2018). Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality. Intelligence, 66, 98–111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2017.11.009
Cora Boyd, dating and relationship expert
Amy Hartle, a couples travel and relationship writer at Two Drifters
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