Thursday, October 22, 2009

An attempt at reviving the male-beauty and female-lust discussion, just for the heck of it

There are, I think, three kinds of beautiful. First is the subjective, the people you find physically attractive - to be clear, this is not about 'good personalities' or 'stable incomes' or what have you, but about looks. These people tend to fall within normal limits, but for all kinds of subjective and subconscious reasons, their looks strike you as exceptional. Next are those you realize would generally be recognized as beautiful - the symmetric, the chiseled, the blond-and-tanned, the George Clooneys, the Harrison Fords - who do nothing for you personally. You will nevertheless react to differently to the objectively beautiful because of the confidence this beauty inspires in them (in reality or in your imagination), but your changed behavior will not be due to any physical desire. Then, finally, are the hot-to-you-and-others. These are the people whose subjective beauty to you matches up with a beauty you recognize would be agreed-upon by all.

My sense: women and men are equally drawn to physical beauty, but men are more likely than women to fall for Category 3 beauty, whereas women tend to go for Category 1. Because women men find attractive are more likely to be those whom other women could recognize as being objectively beautiful, and because men women lust after do not share one physical trait (except, to a limited extent, height), we've come to assume that men care more than women do about the physical appearance of their partners. That men are more likely to agree with society on hotness is what allows pornography to exist for men in a way it never could for women. But what matters is not just that men agree more than women do, but that the women men tend to agree on tend to be the ones whose beauty-power extends beyond even those men in whom their looks elicit desire, and indeed beyond men - that is, they tend to be objectively beautiful.

All of this is pretty much bad news for men - a man will have much less luck getting an objectively beautiful woman to whom he's also subjectively attracted than a woman will getting a man whose beauty exists only - give or take - in her eyes. Men are thus lucky, in a sense, that society honestly recognizes their physical desire for beauty, but end up losing out, because once society recognizes that you care, your caring becomes impacted by societal beauty standards in ways that women's standards are not.

True? False? Discuss amongst yourselves while I lesson-plan.

31 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

Seems like it would be harder even from the first-person standpoint to know that what you're really finding so attractive is looks if there isn't an intersubjectively accessible set of standards. Part of how I know I'm attracted to (for a hypothetical example) smart women with high hip-waist ratios is that I have a language given by others' expressions of attraction to those things. On your idea, do women do without that?

Also, is there really so very little consensus among women about who counts as physically attractive? This is something we could in principle study with basic statistical tools (hell, it's probably already been done -- maybe I'll visit google scholar later and see).

Amber said...

Oh, Phoebe. You are so delightfully bad.

I want to prod a bit at your initial classification: how are objective beauties different from beauties hot-to-you-and-others? Presumably you-and-others recognize the objective beauties. Is it just that their beauty doesn't get us hot and bothered? I wonder if we're not talking about two entirely different qualities, beauty and attractiveness.

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder,

Societal (and subcultural) norms no doubt do seep into "subjective beauty." My sense is it does far less so for women attracted to men than vice versa. One reason for this is that I know women speak of physical attraction to men, yet the general ability to agree upon which men we should all lust after seems to be lacking (again, pornography - men are obviously capable of more agreement in this regard), even if, in the romantic-comedy realm, say, we can all agree, men and women alike, about which men are objectively attractive. As in, women watching a movie can appreciate that George Clooney's appeal is meant to be his looks, without this translating to lust for Clooney. So you ask: "is there really so very little consensus among women about who counts as physically attractive?" No. What varies is which men even a group of otherwise quite similar women are physically attracted to.

I've said that women talk about male looks. But for cultural reasons, women are less open about this than men are, certainly past a certain age. To get really honest female discussion of male beauty, you almost have to go back to the early-high-school years. Think of fictitious high school sophomore (?) Angela Chase in "My So-Called Life", referring to Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto in his prime) as something like "so beautiful it hurts." My point is that heterosexual females are just as moved by male beauty as goes the other way around. If women are less interested in porn - or even things like Maxim - than men are, this could be not so much about women caring about personality/income/'the real person inside' as about the impossibility of finding men who'd be so-beautiful-it-hurts to a large enough set of women to sell to a decent audience.

Amber,

"Is it just that their beauty doesn't get us hot and bothered?"

Precisely. To me, George Clooney (my stand-in for a man who's officially attractive but does nothing for me personally) is sort of like a beautiful woman - I get that I'm looking at beauty, but I'm not physically attracted to this beauty. The only difference from my standpoint between Clooney and Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova is that the latter also inspires envy, but for the most part, the two strike me as one in the same - undeniably beautiful, but not for me personally.

"I wonder if we're not talking about two entirely different qualities, beauty and attractiveness."

Yes, that's a much more concise way of putting it. The only danger in "attractiveness" is that when one speaks of female desire, all kinds of other factors - again, the whole income/stability/sense-of-humor shebang - are assumed to play the all-important, decisive role. "Subjective beauty" is a way of getting at the fact that this is about looks, but that by "looks" what's meant is looks as interpreted by an individual.

PG said...

Even "physical attractiveness" is complicated; I went through a whole multi-year phase of being quite infatuated with someone emotionally, that translated into finding that person sexually desirable, yet being at the same time conscious (thanks, honest friends! as well as the fact that I didn't think he was at all good-looking when we first met) that he wasn't handsome by anyone else's standards, and later on not really finding him physically attractive at all except in a vaguely nostalgic way.

It seems somehow inaccurate to describe myself as finding this guy physically attractive. I became very fond of his body and overall appearance once I was emotionally attached to him, and I'm sure there's a hypothetical appearance he could have had that would have been too offensive for me to become attached to no matter how emotionally bonded I became (maybe if his significant overweight had translated into man-boobs instead of a double chin and gut?). But if I neither assessed him as physically attractive upon first glance, nor find him physically attractive now that the relationship is over, surely I don't really find him physically attractive.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I can't speak for womankind, but my sense is that emotional infatuation with a man you find physically so-so (as opposed to horrific) is not far off from emotional infatuation with - again, assuming heterosexuality - a woman. There's considerably more at stake abandoning one's sexual orientation than dating a guy who's not your physical ideal, so it's probably an easier jump to make to do the latter. Plus, society expects women to look beyond the physical in men, so even if your friends were pressuring you to notice his physical flaws - flaws that you also saw as flaws, because if you didn't, his being overweight would be irrelevant - society at large was sending a message to appreciate his other qualities. Again, in my entirely subjective experience, attempting to focus on the myriad 'other qualities' ultimately fails, in the same way attempting to go against one's sexual orientation might fail. You either want to be looking at this other person all the time (intimate situations, but also over morning coffee, etc.) or you don't. The only exception would be if someone is truly in a relationship only for something extraordinary - billions of dollars (assuming someone this would particularly impress), the chance to be with a famous and long-admired artist, that sort of thing. But in your typical romantic situation, subjective looks matter tremendously.

PG said...

Again, in my entirely subjective experience, attempting to focus on the myriad 'other qualities' ultimately fails, in the same way attempting to go against one's sexual orientation might fail. You either want to be looking at this other person all the time (intimate situations, but also over morning coffee, etc.) or you don't. ... But in your typical romantic situation, subjective looks matter tremendously.

This makes a sort of logical and rhetorical sense, but still doesn't seem to fit my actual experience. Maybe I'm genuinely a less visual person than you and many other women are (after all, I'm only sporadically interested in fashion and other aspects of design; I'm uninterested in dance performance; etc.).

For me, it's more like the person has to reach a certain bare minimum of not-hideous and then I can go for quite a long time (the relationship I describe above was semi-ongoing for 4 years) finding the person sexually desirable. Maybe there's a distinction to be made between "I found you attractive at first glance" and "I don't mind looking at you and now that I'm emotionally attached, greatly enjoy sleeping with you"?

Admittedly, I've had it go the other way around: I've thought someone physically attractive (and moreover someone who is probably "objectively" good-looking) and thus found him sexually desirable long before an emotional attachment formed. Although as one of my friends said when I decided to cut off a "friendly-acquaintances-with-benefits" arrangement because I was getting too attached: "You keep having sex with somebody and before you know it you actually like him."

Amber said...

PG, it's amazing what your brain can convince your body to go along with, at least for a while. Once you're in that limerent stage, regardless of whether the instigation was emotional or physical, things get weird.

On terms: "Pleasing to the eye" versus "lust inducing"? It's like art. Some of it is striking, provocative, and draws you in, but do you want it on your wall? No, you do not.

However: There's a woman I know who I find utterly gorgeous (but this is not universally accepted among my friends) who tics all the fascinating boxes except the carnal. Does this just make me a Kinsey 0? Or is there some fourth category of persons hot-to-you-but-not-sexually? There's a fundamental difference between abstract aesthetic appreciation and being emotionally moved and drawn by someone's beauty (even if in both cases sex with the person seems inconceivable).

Phoebe said...

PG,

Not to get too personal, but it seems relevant whether this relationship's ultimate demise had anything to do with your realizing you were not sufficiently attracted to this person physically.

Amber,

"it's amazing what your brain can convince your body to go along with, at least for a while."

I think the "at least for a while" bit is key. Once something goes wrong in a relationship, the immediate realization that you were never attracted to the person in the first place is an awfully good catalyst for it to end.

"Or is there some fourth category of persons hot-to-you-but-not-sexually?"

There might be, but I don't know if this category is as fundamental as the others. We've all been intrigued by men and women who, if they propositioned us when we were single, we'd reject without a second thought. And there are certainly cases of women being seen as beautiful by other women but not as especially hot by men. Perhaps this category could be a parallel one to the objectively-hot-but-not-to-us, as in, it matters, but does not overwhelm our day-to-day lives.

PG said...

Phoebe,

No, the relationship's demise was a combination of my realizing that he had weak character and my choosing a law school far from him that was no better than the one near him. I didn't directly say "I'm breaking up with you"; but it was the conclusion he sensibly drew from my choice.

I still found him sexually desirable for a short time after I broke up with him, but then didn't see him for two years, at which point there was just the vague nostalgia. But I do think that if the relationship had worked out on the emotional level, the physical wouldn't have presented as a problem. I knew he was overweight because, well, I have eyes and his doctor thought so too, but I never thought "Ew, your belly!" or "Yeesh, what must people think?" Still, he's not someone I would have slept with in a friendly-acquaintances-with-benefits way because I didn't find him sexually desirable until I got to know him.

Amber,

Isn't what you're describing with relationship to women usually called a "girl crush"? My reaction to that article was as follows:

When I started reading the article, I assumed it was describing a feeling that I've had when watching a woman who is "So Cool, So Smart, So Beautiful": a combination of envy and admiration. Even if I don't necessarily want her straight hair or ability to look good in unusual clothes or skill at story-telling, I admire her for having them.

But the article seems to emphasize a romantic sentiment that I don't think I've felt, a non-sexual desire to be around this person and a tendency to stammer in her presence. I've felt nervous around people whom I admire, but it's not so much in an "I love you" way as a sort of Wayne's Worldian "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!" way, a slightly disabling sense that I am not nearly as interesting or fun or attractive as this person.

It's definitely different from romantic infatuation, where the awkwardness kicks in because of a desire to be at one's best in order to gain the other person's romantic interest, even if I'm not concerned that this person is somehow superior to me. Another difference is that I don't feel compelled to try to make a connection with a female object of my admiration. Unlike the women quoted in the article, I don't seek her out and try to become her friend, but am content to observe her and wish to be more like her without finding out anything that would break the illusion of her perfect enviability. In a real crush, I'll make stumbling attempts to get his attention in hopes of starting a romantic relationship.

Amber said...

I usually think of girl crushes as more about the smart and cool parts, and appearance as the sort of perfect encapsulation of the package. "AND she's gorgeous!" as opposed to the kind of moony fixation on specific physical qualities that you usually see in romantic infatuation. (Does anyone get a girl crush based just on looks?) But maybe I'm making this too complicated.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"[...] because I didn't find him sexually desirable until I got to know him."

This is the script women are expected to have in romantic relationships, and thus the reason men, once rejected by a woman, will often continue to pursue her (either aggressively or by being 'intriguing'), thinking they still have a chance. And sometimes they do. Whereas a woman, once rejected by a man, is sufficiently convinced that what she has to offer physically doesn't do it for him that she stops the pursuit and perhaps even reads into it a universal statement about her physical appearance. My own sense is that no amount of intriguing personality, intelligence, and so on could make a physically unappealing man a desirable romantic partner, any more than it could make a woman one. I don't feel qualified to judge your experience, but I would say that there's sufficient societal pressure on women to 'look beyond looks' that a woman might do so to the detriment of her own pleasure.

Amber and PG, re: girl-crushes,

I vaguely remember once having thoughts on the matter, when the trend story first appeared, but not much recently. I don't see how a girl-crush is different from any other fascination with another person, male or female, living or dead, fictional or otherwise, that is not about wanting to sleep with that person. In my experience, being struck with a woman's beauty is always a bittersweet thing - beauty is in itself pleasing, but in a woman elicits jealousy. In this, I've always envied bisexual and lesbian women, who no doubt also experience the envy, but it's at least tempered by a greater appreciation of beauty in females.

PG said...

This is the script women are expected to have in romantic relationships

I don't think that's the only script women are expected to have in romantic relationships -- if it were, "love at first sight" for a woman would be deemed impossible. And I've certainly met lots of men whom I found physically attractive as soon as I saw them (and some I found physically attractive when I got a better sense of what their bodies were like ... social conventions of clothing do unfairly bias toward those with good faces over those with good bodies).

But one shouldn't assume that an experience that fits with a particular social script must have occurred because of that script. We don't assume that women only find babies cute because of the social pressure to do so (or do we assume that?), and that a woman who declares that she finds a given baby cute should be suspected of being a victim of that social pressure. There's a danger zone of equality feminism in which the mandate that one be equal to men assumes that how men experience something ought to be the way that women experience it as well.

The ability to find someone sexually desirable after getting to know them -- to become attached to the not-gorgeous-at-first-sight exterior housing the attractive soul -- may not be experienced by all women or any men, but I think it exists for a' that.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I don't, actually, think there is a script for "love at first sight" as experienced by women - by teenage girls, yes, but not by women. Grown women being struck by male beauty fall into, unfortunately, the "cougar" camp of female-desire-as-ridiculousness. A woman immediately struck by a man is expected to know something about who this man is in the world, etc., and not just that he has a pretty face/nice build.

"There's a danger zone of equality feminism in which the mandate that one be equal to men assumes that how men experience something ought to be the way that women experience it as well."

True. But ideally, men would also be more open to looking for subjective beauty than is currently the case, and in doing so would emulate the way women currently operate. But, more to the point, there is clearly a difference between what everyone wants in a romantic partner and what everyone wants in a friend, enough so that the majority of us eliminate an entire gender from the field of contestants. It's not that looks need be the first thing noticed, or the most important trait in a partner, or that the person we find best-looking need be the person we want most as a partner. But looks tend to be the most crucial dividing line between friendship and 'more.' What I want is some acknowledgment that this is not only how men operate with respect to women, but how women operate as well. Basically, I don't think women are wired not to care about male looks; the fact that teen girls care plenty and openly suggests this is something we're all socialized out of expressing.

Finally, my sense of stories like yours I should probably add a bit of nuance to - yes, you were perhaps influenced by a script that told you to 'look beyond looks' - but at the same time, as a woman, you were freer than a man would have been to decide which physical traits put you off, which you could stand, and which you found appealing, without having to worry about people thinking you'd really lost it for choosing someone not conventionally good-looking. As in, while after relationships things always look different, while you were involved with this guy, he struck you as physically attractive, even if you 'knew' he was not. Whereas a man physically attracted to an overweight and unattractive woman is under far more pressure to deny this attraction - a woman can, at least, claim the attraction is about something other than looks, because this is what female attraction's assumed to be in the first place.

Any of that make sense?

Andrew Stevens said...

Basically, I don't think women are wired not to care about male looks; the fact that teen girls care plenty and openly suggests this is something we're all socialized out of expressing.

This does not follow. Why would we look to teens for natural behavior and not to adults? (If you were talking about infants, then I might agree.) Are teens not socialized as well? When I look at magazines for teen girls, they are constantly talking about how "hot" whatever the latest boy band is. Is it not possible that it is teen girls who have been socialized into caring about looks and it is adult women who have reverted to more natural behavior?

Another possible theory is that both are natural behaviors. It might be natural to care about looks when one is a walking bundle of hormones and natural to stop when one isn't. If this theory is correct, it is adult men who are being socialized to care about looks (probably for status reasons) more than they naturally would. (The status explanation would also account for why men prefer Category 3 or even Category 2 to Category 1. Men are more likely to want a woman who is attractive to other men than to himself personally, because such a mate confers more status on him.)

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm actually prone to the latter explanation. But, considering how much easier it is to socialize teens than adults, it seems very strange to me to say that a behavior found in teens must be natural and the adult behavior must be the socialized one.

Phoebe said...

Andrew Stevens,

I figured someone might object that teen girls are socialized, too, and it's a fair point. I would, however, say that the bundle-of-hormones argument holds more ground than the contents of Seventeen Magazine, since in my experience teen girls do not need to be prompted by society to form often highly embarrassing crushes on all the wrong people. A crush on the captain of the football team might owe something to The Culture; one on the kid who just happens to be in the next seat in Pre-Calculus probably does not.

While I think your theory helps to explain men's interest in Category 3 ladies, I still think something happens when teen girls become women that socializes them a way from a recognition that looks matter. Using the framework you yourself provide for men, status matters, and so women are pushed to look for men on the basis of things that count as status for men - i.e., income and profession - and to undervalue looks. (By 'undervalue' I mean value less than even adult female hormones would demand.)

PG said...

A woman immediately struck by a man is expected to know something about who this man is in the world, etc., and not just that he has a pretty face/nice build.

I don't think that's true -- there are still movies, TV shows, books, etc., where a woman sees a man and is struck by how he looks. It might be a little more complicated than his pretty face and nice build -- it might be his style, his aura of danger, his insouciant walk, his general James Bond/ Jay-Z/ whatever-floats-ya quality, but there is plenty of media that depicts the moment the woman sees a man about whom she knows nothing more than what she sees at that moment, and she is interested.

But, more to the point, there is clearly a difference between what everyone wants in a romantic partner and what everyone wants in a friend, enough so that the majority of us eliminate an entire gender from the field of contestants.

Not to gross you out, but some people's sexual orientation is based on wanting certain physical aspects to the person that are possessed simply by being a biological "he." Aside from the desire for the obvious bits, they are attracted to physical masculinity or femininity (or androgyny, for some folks) that is possessed in some measure even by people who are not physically attractive on first glance. The combination of the correct general sort of face and body with an appealing personality can endow the face and body with an attraction they didn't have on first glance, due to their associations with various pleasurable events (and again, not just the obvious ones).

I do totally agree with your points about how men are under more pressure than women to be attracted only to those whom other men find attractive; I just don't agree with your argument that the social scripts for women are telling them to ignore the physical.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I just don't agree with your argument that the social scripts for women are telling them to ignore the physical."

Am I really the only one who's found this to be the case? Amber? Anybody?

Andrew Stevens said...

I believe that I feel social pressure to care about a woman's looks. When I was a teenager, I cared a great deal what a woman looked like. Now, I couldn't care less. However, in thought experiments where I consider the type of woman I would date were I not already happily married, I do feel a certain social pressure to be seen only with women who would be considered attractive, lest someone think that I couldn't attract a better looking woman. I believe, were I to be thrust into the dating market due to widowhood or something, that I would be able to successfully resist such pressures, but the pressure for a good-looking woman is entirely external. All I would care about internally is that she isn't actually repulsive. However, I could certainly be fundamentally unusual and I don't believe for a moment that this is serious evidence for my thesis.

PG said...

Phoebe,

Maybe you've just lived most of your life in a milieu where intellectualism is a big deal and so women are expected not to be concerned about a man's appearance? That's at least one respect in which I think our formative experiences in this regard were probably different. Even at college, where one might expect more "life of the mind," at Virginia it was OK for a woman to date a guy who was hot but perhaps not terribly bright. I imagine that the emphases were reversed at Chicago (and similar schools with more alumni winning Nobel Prizes than going to the NFL and NBA).

Phoebe said...

PG,

This is one I don't think can be chalked up to my youth amongst the salons of early 18th century Berlin. (Point being, I was not actually surrounded by intellectuals nearly so much as you imagine, but I'll go with this for the purpose of argument.) If intellectuals care less about looks, or admit to it less, and I have lived amongst the intellectuals, why do I think female looks matter but not male in our society? Wouldn't it make more sense that men, too, would be thought less intellectual if they cared about female looks, and so would attempt to play down this aspect of their attractions? It strikes me as consistent across the intellectual/not barrier that female looks are understood to matter more than male, whether we're looking at the aging but distinguished professor and the hot young acolyte or the banker who hasn't read anything since his English teacher assigned 'The Catcher and the Rye', who's marrying a particularly lovely kindergarten teacher. In both cases, the man offers status, the woman looks. I'm intentionally using clichés because this is where these ideas are most visible.

PG said...

:-) I don't think one needs to have grown up in 18th c. Berlin salons to have had a more intellectualized background than I did. My high school classmates used to tease me about referring to the New York Times, which I began reading when it first came online and was accessible to people in markets where the paper version wasn't sold, because most of them had only heard of it from Rush Limbaugh. I'm betting some of your classmates now write for the NYT (or The Atlantic or New Republic or Commentary or Harper's or...).

To the extent that male/masculine looks are dependent on physical strength, a milieu that fosters intellectual pursuits in preference to athletic ones (e.g., attending a debate is considered no worse an expenditure of one's time than playing pick-up basketball) and doesn't judge men negatively for not developing physical strength, that environment will have fewer "good looking" men than one in which expectations of athleticism and physical strength are higher.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Some of my former classmates are high-powered intellectuals, but I feel underachieving enough about this already, no need to remind me! :) But some are also, I'm sure of it, still living at home, waking up at 4pm and having the same pot-for-breakfast they did throughout high school and perhaps middle school as well. Still more are now honest-to-goodness socialites - perhaps reported about in the NYT but I wouldn't say reading it. Either way, agreed that quarterbacks and cheerleaders had little role in my upbringing.

In terms of physical strength... I don't think this is necessarily what male beauty means in all contexts. Beauty is subjective and objective, but it's also subculture-specific. A slightly androgynous, shaggy-haired man in a blazer with elbow patches and some distinctive eyeglasses could be a heartthrob on the basis of looks alone in intellectual circles. A man with Abercrombie good looks would not get an especially enthusiastic reception among women lusting after Mr. Blazer, and might even seem cheesy-looking rather than hot. Along the same lines, a busty-blonde girl-next-door would not be a huge hit among the Mr. Blazer crowd. This is, I think, the main flaw in the concept of the TV show 'The Big Bang Theory', where a group of physicists continually drool over a woman of this type. In my experience, that's not how the world works.

Amber said...

"I just don't agree with your argument that the social scripts for women are telling them to ignore the physical."

Sorry for the drop-out. In my experience, social scripts for women tell them to value things other than the physical, i.e. success, ambitiousness, attitude, intelligence. But only to a point. The slightly schlubby guy with a hot wife is unremarkable; it's assumed that he's funny, well-employed, or bears other marks of a good provider.

But at a certain point (much uglier than for women, since female beauty is so highly valued), the ugliness of the man is such that even inward-focused women are expected to be repelled. The man with a fat and plain wife and the woman with a hideous husband are probably under similar social "what were you thinking?" pressure.

The social script for women that I have encountered tells us to look at the physical, albeit to a much lesser extent than other factors. Perhaps an interesting question is whether this script allots some scope for female sexual attraction and pleasure, or if it is cloaked in some desire to not have "fat children with snub noses" a la The Invention of Lying.

Phoebe said...

Amber,

I think this gets at what Andrew Stevens commented in my latest post on this - very ugly men do, no doubt, have it rough, if not nearly as much so as do very ugly women.

"Perhaps an interesting question is whether this script allots some scope for female sexual attraction and pleasure, or if it is cloaked in some desire to not have "fat children with snub noses" a la The Invention of Lying."

I think many men and women are on some level thinking about what children from a given pairing might look like, even if no actual children are desired. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if women feel the need to articulate this angle more than men do, and, similarly, if men are less inclined to admit this than to feel it.

PG said...

I don't think a man has to be hideous for people to look at him with a hot woman and wonder at the woman, "What were you thinking?"

Exhibit A: Mr. & Mrs. Dennis Kucinich. He's not ugly, he's just short and kinda elfish looking. She's tall and gorgeous. The general assumption seems to be that either she's deranged, or he's crazy good in bed.

Phoebe said...

PG,

1) Their looks-disparity is huge, and 2) I'm thinking there's a significant age disparity as well. And 3) people kind of expect politicians to get women who'd otherwise be out of their league, and are thus surprised when they end up having affairs with women who look perfectly average.

Amber said...

Well, for Mr. and Mrs. Kucinich, there are a lot of other reasons people might boggle at a gorgeous young woman's choosing him. He is short, elfin, middle-aged, on the downswing status-wise, and slightly crazy. Whereas I would not be surprised if his Mrs, who is by accounts educated as well as lovely, could have snagged a man who was superior on all of the above grounds. It's like watching someone light money on fire.

This gets to another aspect of the conversation, which is mutability of traits. Hot man with plain, fat woman --> maybe she used to be thin and attractive, but let herself go (after having svelte children with elegant noses). Hot woman with ugly man --> ??? Because men do less to maintain their appearance, the stay more or less at the same level over time, and there's fewer hypothetical scenarios where the pairing makes sense. Added to the fact that height is a huge and immutable part of male attractiveness ... whether they're trying to be Mr. Blazer or Mr. Quarterback, undesirable men are pretty much doomed forever. (None of this applies to marginal men who would be doomed were they female and of similar physical beauty level, of course.)

PG said...

The Kuciniches are a counter-example to this point:

The slightly schlubby guy with a hot wife is unremarkable; it's assumed that he's funny, well-employed, or bears other marks of a good provider.

Despite Kucinich's being no worse physically than "slightly schlubby" (I think he's sort of cute in a completely asexual, "pat the hippie on the head" way), the news of his hot wife definitely was remarked upon. I remember blogging about it at the time.

If you look beyond the physical, of course, Dennis and Elizabeth are a good match: Vegan peacenik seeking same for futile attempts to change the world. One woman's "slightly crazy" is a leftier woman's "romantic revolutionary."

But because people do expect a woman to care about physical attractiveness, there was widespread shock that Rep. Kucinich -- who has a job with status and a $170k salary that he's unlikely to lose before he dies, yet that allows him to be a hippie instead of a corporate lawyer or similar -- could marry someone beautiful (and tall). They have equal levels of education (MAs from non-elite universities) and were in the same general field (politics and policy). There's a big age gap, but I don't think people knew just how much of one, since Rep. Kucinich looked much younger than his age.

The disparity people were noticing was entirely of physical attractiveness, even though Kucinich's looks aren't repellent. When he was using his 2004 run to look for a wife, I don't remember anyone's saying "He's too ugly to find someone" -- which would have been silly, since Kucinich had been married twice already.

Amber said...

I think the tone of the remarks would have been completely different had she married a candidate who looked exactly like Kucinich but was viable for higher office. Of course, there's a whole other male-beauty debate centered around the fact that the USA would NEVER elect someone who looked like Kucinich to the presidency.

KaTrine said...

Hello, interesting topic.

"My sense: women and men are equally drawn to physical beauty, but men are more likely than women to fall for Category 3 beauty, whereas women tend to go for Category 1."

Actually, this has been demonstrably shown to be inaugurate. Studies have shown that there is greater level of agreement on male beauty and which men among many is most good looking.

Men otoh, show a much greater variation in which women they find attractive.

This kind be explained in terms of basic biology. Men have a (subconscious) desire to reproduce with as many fertile (and not TOO unattractive I guess and even then...) female as possible. Women have a biological incentive to reproduce with the fittest, sexiest man.

Quality for females vs quantity for males iow.