Monday, January 24, 2011

Hair, heir, get it?

In the past, only women were perceived to have a marital sell-by date. But thanks to a convergence of social and economic trends, some men feel the same pressures.
“The clock ticks for both men and women,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, said one contributing factor is the increasing economic independence of women. Mr. Kimmel, a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, cited a 1930s study by Willard Waller that evaluated how women and men assessed each other’s sexual marketability based on criteria including physical appearance, social skills and financial stability. A woman of that era valued a man’s earning capacity above good looks and other traits.

But now, Mr. Kimmel said, “women are able to provide for a family, so they are more able to focus as well on physical features.”
Of course, the woman-looks-nice, man-makes-a-living set-up does not describe the entirety of Then. Less-well-off women also worked, wealthier men also didn't need to. Marriages were arranged. There were dowries. And before it was expected or even acceptable for marriages to be based on love, presumably male and female appearance alike were not so important for picking a spouse - a lover, sure, but not a spouse. Female fertility has always mattered, female Gisele Bundchenness not so. But it's interesting to consider that in the recent past, for structural reasons, women cared less than they do today, not about male appearance (heterosexual women with eyesight are by definition looking at men), but about finding good-looking boyfriends or husbands.

And it would have been great if we could hear about this without a ridiculous hook, one that will prevent many from actually reading the rest of this article. The hook? Prince William is balding! Maybe that's why he finally proposed to Waity Katie, speculates Tatiana Boncompagni, in what might have otherwise been a setting-the-bar-higher Style section piece.

Ugh. The same was speculated when the engagement was announced. The same was the basis for an episode of "Seinfeld" - Elaine's dating a guy who's shaved his head for swimming or something, sees a photo of him with hair, asks for the hair back, he tried to grow it back and learns he's balding, and so rather prematurely proposes to Elaine. So it's been done, but also, Prince William is just about the worst example to use for which qualities a woman looks for in a man. It doesn't matter how he looks, if he bathes, what he behaves like, perhaps not even that he's so rich. He's going to be king of England! Not something very many men have going for them.

Mostly, though, the problem with the hook is that, while it's progress if women now have the confidence to date and marry men they're physically attracted to, the way to celebrate that isn't to say, yippie, now women can reject the bald, the short, the objectively non-Brad-Pittish, the men their girlfriends find insufficiently hott. This is certainly part of how men behave - choosing women whose good looks mean status, as opposed to the ones they are attracted to physically. But it's dumb when men do that, and nothing for women to emulate. Whereas it's far from dumb to choose romantic partners in part on the basis of which people you look at and think, that person looks like someone I'd like to romantically partner with.

To address the counterargument from last time I brought this up: yes, objective and subjective good looks overlap. George Costanza's unlikely to beat George Clooney in the categories of what women think they should like or what women genuinely want. And the more liberated women feel to pick on the basis of looks, the less we'll be hearing about how "distinguished" older men hold up better than their female equivalents. But subjective means choosing on the basis of which "shallow" factors actually matter to you. Care about abs but not height? Benjamin Millepied's for you. (Well, except that he's taken.) And so on.

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