Beautiful? Elegant? Sexy? Graceful?
Aesthetically pleasing objects and performances from different domains and of different kinds are often labelled as “beautiful”. The extremely broad applicability of the term has its downside: though the attribute “beautiful” doubtlessly implies an accolade, it is difficult to determine what exactly in all of these cases makes up the shared quality of “beauty”.
To lend the notion of beauty more precise contours, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics compared it with three other aesthetically evaluative categories which in everyday language are used not as antitheses to, but rather as specific varieties of the beautiful: “elegant”, “graceful”, and “sexy”. All three terms are lexicalized in myriad languages the world over, with the terms for elegance and sexiness in most cases being based on the same Latin word stems. Aiming to compare the four categories, the research group around Winfried Menninghaus asked participants to fill in a number of questionnaires which included free associations and rating tasks.
Elegance/ grace and sexiness represent antipodes within the realm of the beautiful
Grace and elegance on one side, sexiness on the other turned out to form the opposite ends of the spectrum of beauty. Sexiness is seen as more extroverted, arousingandcolorful, as well as hotterthan elegance and grace; furthermore, it is not always considered tasteful. Grace and elegance, on the other hand, are marked by fluency, lightnessand harmony, as well as by a certain reserve, finesse, and a hint of exquisiteness, which is paired with simplicity. Elegance and grace differ only in nuances: elegance is considered to be somewhat more sober, strict, tasteful, culturally superior, and expensivethan grace.
Individuals appear elegant only from age 30 onwards
The factor age is of great significance when it comes to attributions of beauty, elegance, and sexiness to individuals. Yet again, elegance and sexiness turned out to represent antipodes. Attributions of sexiness reach their peak for an age of 16 to 30 years and drop considerably afterwards. Attributions of elegance, however, only begin to increase significantly after the age of 30, reach their peak for the fourth and fifth decades of life and even remain compatible with very old age. The age curve for attributions of beauty falls in between the curves for sexiness and elegance.
Across all of these differences, elegance and grace on the one side and sexiness on the other show approximately the same amount of overlap with beauty for many dimensions.
For an aesthetics of subtle distinctions
The results of this study suggest that for the future, a specific research focus on discrete varieties of the beautiful rather than on “beauty” in general is called for. The category of elegance in particular deserves attention. It dates back to Latin antiquity and has known a long tradition in medieval times, the modern age and modernity (for instance in Bauhaus aesthetics). If computer sciences today speak of “elegant solutions” to complex programming issues, then this is a direct addition to the long tradition of praising cognitive elegance, which manifests itself in surprisingly simple solutions to difficult cognitive tasks. The notion of “elegance” is also a staple of contemporary fashion and design contexts. It is all the more surprising that to date, no scientific study has been published on the subject. The present study, among its other objectives, therefore also breaches the path for the search of a so-far nonexistent theory of elegance.
Winfried Menninghaus, Valentin Wagner, Vanessa Kegel, Christine A. Knoop, Wolff Schlotz (2019): Beauty, elegance, grace, and sexiness compared, PLos ONE 14(6): e0218728. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218728