Where did the "handsome" women go?

Cristen Conger

Katharine Hepburn, textbook handsome woman.
Katharine Hepburn, textbook handsome woman.
© Reuters/CORBIS

In 1855, PT Barnum organized America's first modern beauty pageant, which sought to crown "the handsomest ladies" of the time. Actually, an unmarried winner would receive a dowry in exchange for her lovely looks, and married gals would get the diamond tiara (to wear around the house?). The language Barnum used stuck out to me because it's such a contrast to how we might, say, describe the newly minted Miss USA; Erin Brady is certainly a lot of things, but "handsome" doesn't come to mind. In Barnum's days, though,that "handsomest" descriptor had developed a striking specificity.

In an excellent etymological exploration of "handsome" at The Beheld, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano reveals how:

"As with so many words we use to describe women, as early as 1783 writers were eager to parse out what exactly makes a woman handsome. "By a handsome woman, we understand one that is tall, graceful, and well-shaped, with a regular disposition of features; by a pretty, we mean one that is delicately made, and whole features are so formed as to please; by a beautiful, a union of both," writes John Trusler in 1783's The Distinction Between Words Esteemed Synonymous in the English Language. "A beautiful woman is an object of curiosity; a handsome woman, of admiration; and a pretty one, of love."

Handsome women, in that case, weren't just implied to be pretty; they were head-to-toe knockouts. Not in the sense of curvaceous bombshells, mind you -- for more on that word, head back to The Beheld. Handsome women seem to have not only striking, as opposed to more conventional, beauty, but also a particular and likely intimidating comportment: think Audrey Hepburn versus Katharine Hepburn. It's no wonder then that there can be a limit to a handsome woman's appeal, as Ellen Zetzel Lambert points out in "The Face of Love: Feminism and the Beauty Question," which Whitefield-Madrano also cites: "The 'handsome' woman is one of fine form or figure (usually in conjunction with full size or stateliness); but 'handsome' women can also suggest "too much of a muchness."

These days, it's rare to hear a woman seriously complimented as handsome, especially not a young woman. Whitefield-Madrano traces that shift to "handsome" being largely associated with attractive older women to the mid-20th century, and it doesn't appear to have changed since, as demonstrated by the following More magazine intro to 7 Handsome Women Who Are Aging Gorgeously:

"They probably weren't the cutest in kindergarten-or the prom queen in senior year. Their jaws were too strong, their builds too slim and boyish. But the girls Jane Austen would have deemed handsome may have the last laugh: Though at 15 they missed the "pretty" mark, at midlife they're aging gorgeously."

So where did the handsome women go? Nowhere. They just grew up.

But men aging into being "distinguished," while women gray their way toward "handsome" leaves me wanting. A couple hundred years ago, the adjective was so rich with meaning and specificity, and handsome women were feminine forces to be contended with. Today, it's mostly been boiled down to a punchline and host of Google Image results featuring girls sporting fake mustaches. On the up side, since I'm neither a bombshell, nor a knockout, I guess I can still cross my fingers and hope to become a handsome woman someday.