For several months I have dated a wonderful man who actively (successfully!) seeks to make me happy. Why I write: he does not have conventional movie-star good looks. When we started dating I considered whether looks were important to me, but since I am definitely attracted to him I focused on the fact that he is wonderful and makes me happy.
While he has always been self-conscious about his appearance I have been fortunate to have never worried too much about my looks, which makes for a weird power dynamic in this area: I even wondered recently if strangers wonder why we are together.
We have physical attraction, which is important. However, a friend once asked if my new beau was hot and I didn't know what to say: "Not according to society"? How important is it for your significant other to be found attractive by others? I love him and would like to compliment him on his appearance but don't want to be insincere.
-More than Skin Deep
Dear Skin Deep,
You are not alone in being self-conscious of the disparity of attractiveness levels. It is a common joke in our culture to wonder how a nerdy guy "scored" a hot woman, or what a handsome man sees in a homely-looking lady. While this makes for a funny sitcom plot, it is a terribly shallow way to see a relationship.
Yes, it is nice to date an attractive man or woman. Beautiful people are nice to look at. And if you were buying a piece of artwork, looks would factor most heavily into the decision. But you are not buying art, or arm-candy. You are dating to find a potential spouse. Character, goals, religion, and the like all are important factors to consider. Beauty will eventually fade, but character, humor, and a shared set of values will not.
This is not to say that attraction is not important. Attraction is very important, but (as you have found) is not necessarily based on looks. Something wonderful happens as we get to know a person—our familiarity with and appreciation for their good qualities can produce a powerful attraction.
Looks are not important when dating a person. As to how to answer a well-meaning, but misguided friend who asks if your boyfriend is a "hottie," you can take one of two approaches—super honest or super sweet. "Nope!" said with a big smile and a laugh, or "He is to me!" are both good responses. (Guess which one is which!) Both must have confidence behind the answer, and an unspoken "Don't push this!" to make them work.
For your last question, you can compliment him in whatever way you find honest. Do you enjoy his smile? His eyes? His biceps? One thing to remember is that something does not have to be objectively true (regarding looks) for it to be true for you. If he dresses in a tux and you love how it looks, tell him how handsome he looks. Or squeeze his bicep after he lifts something heavy and say how sexy he is when demonstrating his strength. Stop being concerned about society's standards, and I think you'll find you have plenty to compliment him on.