Despite the positive connotations and other complementary uses of the word "butter," the term "butterface" is not a compliment but a put-down. It is most commonly used to describe a woman who is hot or sexy and totally desirable-but only from the neck down, due to facial features perceived as unattractive.
In other words, everything is hot "but-her-face," hence the term, "butterface."
Many women perceive "butterface" as a sexist comment as it focuses on the negative aspects of appearance and adds to the insecurity many women already have about their physical qualities.
Although butterface and buttaface are often used interchangeably when describing a woman with a sexy body and an unappealing face, the latter may be more gender neutral. "Buttaface" often appears in online forums, blog posts and comments (from both women and men) to describe hard bodied, physically attractive men with ugly faces. (Mike Sorrentino, aka "The Situation" on the now-defunct MTV reality show Jersey Shore, is often cited as a male example of a butterface)
The term has been used colloquially throughout the twentieth century and has grown more popular in the past two decades, resurfacing among teenagers and young adults in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 2000 the word appeared in both print and contemporary music: in the coming-of-age novel The Better Angels set in 1943, and in the album Butterface by the group Ghettobillies. According to music reviewer Zac Johnson, the three-member band from Ann Arbor, Michigan, writes songs which combine "a whirlwind of pop culture references and sneak peeks at the seamy underbelly of society."
In 2002, butterface once again appeared in a musical context when the Maryland-based modern pop punk/rock band Gold Mind Squad released a song by that name on their 2002 album One Last Chance To Fail. The tune's protagonist recalls being "scarred" by an encounter with a girl on a porch in College Park, MD:
When I saw her
I thought she was hot
But it was dark
Now I know she's not
She kisses him but he doesn't kiss back, realizing up close that "Her face is busted Man that's f****** disgusting."
On July 13, 2009, UrbanDictionary.com featured "butterface" as its word of the day, prompting The Frisky's Jessica Wakeman to debate whether or not the term is sexist. She quotes an IM exchange with a male friend who says, "Simmer down, that's not sexist! 'Butterface' just means the same thing as calling a man 'ugly.'"
A year after The Frisky article, the term had become familiar enough to the general public for AOL's women's content site Lemondrop to use it as the headline of the September 2010 article "Butterfaces, Rejoice!":
Good news if you're looking for a date but are a little busted about the grille -- men judge women for short-term relationships by their bodies.
The article cites a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, which claims that men looking for a date judged a woman on her body more whereas men interested in a long-term relationship placed more emphasis on a woman's face.
Interestingly, both the Gold Mind Squad song and the Lemondrop article use the slang term "busted" to describe the offending facial features.
Butterface seems to be more well-known among millennials than baby boomers and more familiar to men than women. Older adults who know the term frequently cite radio shock jock Howard Stern as having introduced them to the concept through his show.