So we had this realization…
Say you’re in a relationship. A happy relationship! A relationship where you have given a term of endearment, or compliments, maybe the same ones over and over again. But what if, after months or years of being together, you find out they don’t actually like some or even all of the names? Not compliments or nicknames as a whole, but the ones you chose as the vehicle to express your love and affection for them. This is the situation we encountered last week.
I’ve always called Ariana “beautiful”.
And when I call her “beautiful”, the same thing has always happened. She cringes, looks uncomfortable, or flat out tells me “no”. For the first two years of our relationship, I chalked this up to her characteristic shyness, or superficial discomfort with attention and affection. These qualities of hers have shaped our relationship, and I’m very used to circumventing them, or bulldozing them altogether.
However, this morning was different.
For whatever reason, I told Ariana that she was beautiful. I got the usual cringe and denial. I laughed it off, and she laughed with me. But I also stopped to think: it’s been two years. I know this girl, and I know her really well. This is different than the shyness that I still get to see from time to time, and very different than her response to other compliments. With this in mind, I asked: “Do you like it when I call you ‘beautiful’?”
“Do you like it when I call you ‘beautiful’?”
I paused, and said: “Ummm, I don’t think so.” Then I paused again because I had never thought of it before. Being called beautiful is such a universal and common compliment and in that moment, I felt like I was the only woman in the world who didn’t appreciate being called beautiful, especially from their partner. Shouldn’t I be happy that someone who loves me also thinks that I’m a beautiful person? I guess not.
This got us talking about why it is that I don’t like being called beautiful.
Hannah and I talk about everything, and we break conversations down so we can get to the bottom of it. Through our discussion, I started to think about it more, and I was able to pin-point why I didn’t like being called beautiful. So let’s break this down.
1. The word “beautiful” feels very heteronormative to me.
As a young girl growing up in a heteronormative society, I was taught that women get called beautiful from men. This lesson came from everything around me. In tv shows, boys were calling the girls they liked “beautiful”, and the same thing took place in a lot of popular movies. Ultimately, my association became locked in. “Beautiful” was a compliment that came from men. And frankly, I didn’t want anything from men!
So what does a young girl do when she hasn’t even discovered sexuality yet, and society is already telling her what she’s supposed to want? I couldn’t relate, and that turned into a negative association with the word “beautiful”. As I grew up, the association grew with me. Keep in mind, I’m 23. So it’s snowballed into a word that, at this point, I don’t feel applies to me.
2. I don’t feel “beautiful”.
Not in the sense that I don’t feel attractive, or desirable. I do! I feel cute, I feel attractive. But I don’t feel beautiful. For me, the word refers to someone that looks like Hannah. Feminine, conventionally “pretty”, and… feminine. I don’t relate to those standards, and I definitely don’t relate to being a feminine woman.
Growing up, I never felt (and still don’t feel) like I match the standards that make someone “beautiful”. I’ve tried to be feminine and pretty at other points in my life, but it never felt genuine. It always felt uncomfortable and forced – definitely not me. At the time, I didn’t know there was an alternative. But now, I’ve grown into my appearance in a way that I love. But I don’t feel like the way I look is beautiful.
Maybe it’s because I’m hyper-rational.
In my experience, people don’t generally call men beautiful. This matters because, aesthetically, I lean more towards masculinity. I love men’s clothing and jewelry, I love my androgynous body, and I love my clean, makeup-less face. Men aren’t typically referred to as “beautiful”, and because I identify more with men and masculinity, being called “beautiful” feels unnatural, like it’s not supposed to apply to me.
Despite this, I still love and identify with being a woman, and being called a woman. I’m not non-binary, or a trans man. Because I identify with being a woman, the word “handsome” feels equally awkward and uncomfortable. As usual, I lie somewhere in between with my gender expression: somewhere in between “beautiful” and “handsome”. That’s why words like “hot”, “sexy”, “attractive”, “gorgeous”, “stunning”, and other less gendered words are a lot more relatable for me.
So… where does that leave me?
After two years of drooling over my beautiful girlfriend, and expressing that verbally by calling her “beautiful”, I find out it doesn’t fit her. What’s the point of expressing a compliment when it’s not taken as something positive, or even something that makes sense to her? There’s a trope that when a girl doesn’t feel “beautiful”, that you need to make her feel beautiful (90’s rom com conditioning here). But this lesson doesn’t apply to real life, or at least not my life.
My first priority in my relationship is my partner’s happiness and comfort.
Well, along with my happiness and comfort because, you know? Self-love and all that. But when it comes to Ariana, I want to ensure that my version of being a loving and supportive girlfriend matches up with her experience of being loved and supported. Did that make sense? Basically, I want to know whether I’m actually making her feel good when I try to make her feel good. And after learning that being called “beautiful” is not something that makes her feel good, I’ve removed it from my internal list of things I do to try and make her feel good.
Some people have a hard time adjusting to their partner’s changing needs, even if it’s something as simple as what they like to be called. I’m trying to not be one of those people. Instead of “beautiful”, I’ve found other words that are more fitting for Ariana, and other ways to express how amazing I think she is. At the end of the day, the words really don’t matter much. It’s all about whether I’m communicating what I want to communicate, which is just that I love her!
Just because Hannah called me beautiful two years ago when we met, 1. It doesn’t mean I liked it. 2. If I did like it, it never meant that I would like it forever. We never really think about this sort of thing, and maybe it’s time that we start re-evaluating ourselves and what we like periodically in our relationships. We need to start asking ourselves questions such as “Do I still like being called (insert word here)?” “Have I ever really liked (insert what you like or don’t like here)?” and then make the changes accordingly.
This stands for all relationship types as well. We think that just because we learn about a person that we know them forever. Part of that is true. We know each other very well, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t have to re-learn each other as we change and grow. Relationships change and grow as we change and grow as individuals. Checking in every once in a while to make sure we’re on the same page can only make our relationship stronger.
What we got from this experience was the importance of constantly having conversations like these with your partner.
No matter how long we’re together, we never want to lose the ability to question one another, and to learn more about each other. When we first started dating, we had these conversations all the time because we were mysteries to one another, and it came very naturally. Now, we need to work more to remember that this person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with can still be a mystery, and definitely still has the capacity to change. Ultimately, we wanted to write this to remind ourselves to never stop trying to figure each other out, and to always be open to change.
Until Next Time,
Ariana & Hannah