Thursday, September 29, 2011

"Incredibly unattractive men"

In a comment below, Britta raises two important questions, important, that is, to anyone concerned with the pressing issue of male beauty.*

1) When I say that looks matter in partner-selection, and that women should not be afraid to admit this when selecting, pursuing, and rejecting potential dates, what I mean is that it's important to be with someone who's appealing to you. Not that a "7" must be with a "7," a "3" with a "3," or some such nonsense - again, these things are subjective. But if we're speaking of beauty as subjective, do we have any leeway in terms of observing that, in whichever setting (or in society at large), there are many couples in which the woman is far better-looking than the man? Are we able to comment on this at all, or must we assume that because looks are subjective, the Gisele clone dating a not-cleaned-up-for-TV version of Newman on "Seinfeld" could well be evenly matched in this regard? This is a tough one that I'll throw out to my readers, of whom 90% at this point appear to be a spambot trying to sell pharmaceuticals via my archives.

2) Is it insulting, as a woman, to be hit on by "incredibly unattractive men"? Without re-asking the subjectivity question above (maybe some women would find Mr. Ogre hot), the question then becomes, insulting how? Is it an insult to one's vanity - does this "2" think I'm a "2"? Or - and this is where I'm leaning - is it insulting insofar as it's sexist, insofar as it's about male entitlement? Dude can't be bothered to sort out his facial hair, to put on clothes his mother didn't buy him when he was in 10th grade (and he's now 38 and no longer 120 lbs), yet he expects the woman he's with to have whichever mix of natural beauty and put-together-ness? Or, to take this further, the woman's thought process here will be, "What does dude think is so great about him - and thus so unimpressive about me - that makes up for the obvious asymmetry in our appearances?" Assuming the answer is not something obvious - aka he has yacht-loads of money - it's always going to be an "ahem" moment. Does he think he's smarter/funnier? Does he think it's really that much more impressive to have gone to Swarthmore than Skidmore? Does he think that the fact that he's 15 years older makes him superior, and will this translate into some kind of super-obnoxious relationship based on condescension, in which the female role is conflated with a child-role, and all kinds of blah ensues?

Maybe a common thread to both of these is that while attraction is subjective, it tends to be so within far broader and not fixed levels, dare I say, of appearance. So not the dreaded 1-10 scale, but maybe three categories: within-normal-limits, which would include the vast majority of us; near-universally-thought-unfortunate-looking, which would include very few; and again very few at the Jon Hamm, no-dissenters level. Or maybe the answer is that there's on the one hand looks-as-subjective, on the other an awareness of a parallel "objective" scale, a scale women are aware men care about not because Bar Refaeli is everyone's ideal, but because a woman who looks like that confers status onto the man. Something I attempted to figure out before, here. The existence of Bar Refaeli-Newman-type couples, the way a Bar Refaeli feels if a Newman asks her out... these are, I assure you, major questions of our age.

*Britta also asks about UChicago specifically: "While there are definitely some unattractive women, I'd say on the whole women are better looking than the men here, and I see plenty of relationships where the woman is (IMO) 'settling' in the looks dept. Of course, she might have different ideas of beauty than I do, but it gets really demoralizing after awhile." I don't remember anything like that at Chicago - if anything, it was so socially unacceptable (for those not in sororities, of which there were few) to primp and shop that the undergrad norm elsewhere of guys looking like slobs, women looking super-put-together, didn't hold. There was this one subset of undergrads who'd come from NYC private schools and attempted to out-cool everyone else in front of Cobb, but even though they were wealthy, the women dressed very Olsen-twin-in-rag-phase. Everyone looked scruffy, because if you didn't, that was evidence you spent time not being an intellectual. But on the bright side, it was very socially acceptable to pick partners based on what you, subjectively, preferred, meaning that there was a lot of fun to be had even by men and women who would not have so enjoyed themselves at many other colleges. So - maybe the grad school experience is different?

21 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

Here's a new refinement for you: most men have no damn idea whether or not they're attractive, and to whom. Tastes vary so much not only between but even within women (as in, I've repeatedly seem the same woman describe diametrically opposite types as attractive) that barring obvious deformities (or shortness), what can the men do except take a shot?

Britta said...

It seems though, there's a difference between the ugly/beautiful scale and the "type" scale. I mean, there can be attractive men of different "types," and a woman might have more than one type. Also, guys of opposite types can be attractive to a woman, and it's not really about difference in hotness. (Think, Brad Pitt vs. George Cloony vs. Don Cheadle--who's "hottest"? Women can disagree but agree all are hot.) The issue isn't that women have men who they don't personally find attractive but whom would be considered to be reasonably attractive by society at large hitting on them, but that men who are objectively unattractive hit on women objectively more attractive, with little/no indication it's welcome. (If the woman is flirting with the guy, it's different.) Also, it's not purely about looks, but the complete package. Like, a not super attractive guy can work on the way he dresses, his social skills, his personality, and be a better catch. Part of the issue is many men assume that OF COURSE the hottest girl in the room is interested in them, even though they're 20 lbs overweight, and haven't brushed their teeth in 3 days, and have a neck beard. The reverse of course, a woman like that hitting on a really hot guy, would be considered ridiculous and humiliating for all involved, but somehow that's never true of ugly men hitting on hot women. It seems that unattractive women work to make themselves more attractive through dress and grooming, but men rarely seem to be bothered with that.

Phoebe: I think it might be that grad school is different (more desirable men in grad school are off the market), but also UC is trying to get more "normal" undergrads, which as of now is reflected in better looking/dressed women than men.

Britta said...

Oh! P.S. I figured out who the grad students are from Chicago at Princeton.

Phoebe said...

Paul,

Women don't know either. But the real issue here is gender-neutral - the vast majority of us fall within normal limits, and are indeed hot to some, not to others, and so don't arrive at a self-conception in either camp. I think what Britta was getting at was the idea that a man outside the bounds or at the edge of normal-limits (my example being a not-cleaned-up-for-TV version of Seinfeld's Newman, although even that suggests someone within normal limits, b/c there aren't really "celebrity" examples of this) might hit on a woman on the opposite end of that spectrum.

Also, these things are not so unknowable. There are some more concrete factors - if the woman is 23, fit, has long, shiny hair, etc., and the man is 50 and the opposite, and it's clear enough that the man would not date a female version of himself, there's an asymmetry. And it's not necessarily a looks asymmetry in terms of who's inherently or whatever most alluring. It could be that, within his milieu, or among women closer to his age, the man is actually considered not unattractive, and among fit 23-year-old men with shiny hair, the woman's thought OK but nothing special.

Britta,

Sounds like a "neck-beard" epidemic in your parts! Meanwhile I'm not 100% sure I know what that is, but I can imagine.

This comment, though, really clarified the essence of the problem. It's that, when Mr. Ogre hits on Ms. Pretty-Young-Thing, we're expected to think about beauty as subjective, but if Ms. Ogre did the equivalent, we'd immediately see the problem. Or, in any of these cases, just imagine the genders reversed. What we really mean, when we say that Mr. Ogre's case is a beauty-is-subjective situation, is that maybe Ms. PYT will appreciate Mr. O when she gets to know him, when she finds out how smart/successful he is, etc. As in, we mean that Ms. PYT can be persuaded to find romantically adequate someone she does not find physically attractive.

The relevant fact here is that we never, never, never, never (and Paul, I'll keep repeating if necessary), never expect this of men. Whether it's framed in crude terms - that a man can't, physically, enjoy full intimacy with a woman who doesn't do it for him, physically, whereas a woman, as the existence of rape proves, can - or in other terms (the whole 'men are visual creatures' nonsense, nonsense insofar as women are, too), it's always a given that a man will only get involved with a woman he finds hot.

Whereas we expect women to be more easily persuaded. It's a bit like the assumption that any (hetero) women could up and enter a lesbian relationship, although that's more complicated. The point here is that we-as-a-society assume that women don't have that select-hottest-person-in-room experience and don't mind, because basically anyone, looks-wise, would do.

Dan O. said...

Britta,

"Part of the issue is many men assume that OF COURSE the hottest girl in the room is interested in them, even though they're 20 lbs overweight, and haven't brushed their teeth in 3 days, and have a neck beard. The reverse of course, a woman like that hitting on a really hot guy, would be considered ridiculous and humiliating for all involved, but somehow that's never true of ugly men hitting on hot women."

It is humiliating, but what you're describing is a lack of male self-awareness. But that doesn't mean that other men are oblivious to a guy making a fool of himself, and won't do something about it. Back in grad school, our crew (being numerous) would form human walls between such a guy and the woman they were making uncomfortable. It happened pretty often - once every 2-3 weeks. And, no, we didn't publicly humiliate the guy, because we didn't want to start a fight. But we wanted to make sure the woman had an out. It was embarrassing and humiliating, and even if the guy didn't notice, everyone else did. Most of the time, the dude was drunk, which was especially embarrassing, but also made him very easy to deal with. (Buy him another drink, let him pass out on the bar.)

We weren't the only guys who did this, but we were usually the most subtle. And, yeah, it was a kind of aggressive male competitiveness. But you said it never happens, and it seems to me that it did. (Being merely short dark and handsome, I was also very aware that I wasn't any gift to womankind. How? A moment's appraisal of the evidence. I didn't benefit.)

Phoebe said...

Dan,

You're describing a bar-type situation. I think Britta means things like, you're at a conference or a talk, and some much-older, not-in-a-Clooney-sense guy sidles up. This does happen all the time, and to all women who meet the minimum standard of attractiveness to such men, namely being under 30 and weighing under 300 lbs. It's not something only experienced by supermodels, and it's not happening at ostensibly pickup-type events.

Dan O. said...

Phoebe,

Oh, I know the academic power play: jobs are scarce, and these dudes are on search committees. It's especially bad in my old field, philosophy. If that's what Britta meant, I get it.

BTW, Jason Alexander was a pretty good looking guy back in the day - that being the day of 'The Burning'. Kind of a hunk, actually. A short, smirking, hunk.

Phoebe said...

Dan,

It's not about jobs, not most of the time at least. There are just older dudes - from the neighborhood, often, in a place like NY or Chicago - or older profs with no particular professional overlap with the young woman, who linger at these events, maybe showing up for the talk, maybe just for the free food/wine/access to young women. They're in libraries as well. They think that a quiet, maybe mousy, intellectual, but no doubt ravishing behind those glasses young woman will not have the confidence to resist and/or will be so involved in the Life of the Mind that she'll find his amazing book collection sufficient reason to go back to his place (and yes, that's one I've heard.)

Jason Alexander is a television star who represents, within the TV universe, "plain." He is thus without a doubt of at least average attractiveness.

Britta said...

Dan O,

Certainly there are academic power plays, but the dynamic of "old and ugly prof hits on young hot grad student" isn't what I'm talking about. While many might find that gross and creepy, it makes sense, in the power vs. beauty claim ev. psychologists make. What I'm talking about is when men who have NO apparent compelling attributes or are in no way much better than a woman AND are lacking in the looks dept hit on women at conferences, coffee shops, etc. When a 60 year old chaired prof hits on a young grad student, there's at least some sort of expectation of mutual benefit. When a 60 year old grad school drop out who still hangs around HP and attends conferences hits on a grad student, it's hard not to read that as an overweening sense of entitlement. What is he offering her? A chance to stroke his potbelly while he tells her about his latest crackpot theory? It's kind of the much less extreme version of being hit on by a homeless man.

Britta said...

Oh! Ha. Exactly what Phoebe said.

Paul Gowder said...

Phoebe, I don't know what social group your "never, never, never, never" comes from (I sometimes suspect, based on previous comments, that it mostly come from tv archetypes). But I don't think it's accurate. Three data-points: 1) many men will report the experience of being criticized for being shallow. (I myself have been so criticized, even though, quite frankly, I'm probably in the 20th percentile of shallowness among men.). 2) Depending on the gender balance in an area, the opposite phenomenon can cash out in actual relationships. Come to silicon valley: you'll see (as I see on a routine basis) women who are "objectively" unattractive with men who are average all the time. Or men who are "objectively" attractive with women who are average (I think... less confident about this one because I still haven't figured out what, other than defined muscles and height, makes a guy notably attractive -- see previous comment). Or, and this is a particularly common one around here, average men with average women where the average man in question happens to be a startup millionaire and could probably score a model in NYC on those grounds alone. 3) I myself have been hit on by women I don't find attractive (hey, spending time in the gym evidently does work) -- and, incidentally, did not find it offensive.

Phoebe said...

Yup, in agreement. And typically the older profs with actual power in actual grad students' lives won't be creepy, because a) they tend to be competent people living in a society that frowns on that, and b) they want to hold onto their jobs, and tenure does not trump DSK-ish behavior. If it were the 1970s or a Philip Roth novel or something, things might go differently, but the creep factor comes 99% of the time from random hangers-on, not anyone with something (however unethical) to offer.

It really does all come down to male entitlement. To men thinking it's so unfair or superficial for anyone to judge them on their attributes, but of course the only women whose judgements they're thinking about are women young, thin, and pretty enough to avoid invisibility in their eyes.

Phoebe said...

That was for Britta. Now, Paul:

I promise this comes from anecdata, not television. The references to TV actors are to have a common reference point. It would be cruel, not to mention inefficient because no one would know them, if I were to direct readers via Google or Facebook or whatever to acquaintances of mine who form my body of evidence.

Anyway, no doubt if there are 3 women to 97 men, the women, however plain, do just fine. Attractiveness always depends on whether or not anyone else is around - to use the idiot scale, a "3" in one place is a "10" in another. If dude doesn't want to go to NYC, it's as irrelevant which women he could get there as which women and children he could get on a sex tour of Asia. It's all changing the topic. The question is whether anyone ever seriously expects a man to be romantically involved with a woman he doesn't find attractive. This is something that's obviously, across milieus, different for men than women.

A man might be called shallow if the only women he claims to find attractive look like supermodels, or more like supermodels than is plausible for him to get. And since attraction is subjective, it's likely that he's interested then in status and not merely his own attraction level when alone with this woman. But a man who notices an offbeat-looking (but still young, thin) woman, a little quirky, maybe red hair, maybe glasses, for her looks, is not likely to be called shallow. Whereas anything a woman expresses re: a man's looks that indicates that she does indeed possess the capacity for sight is viewed as ridiculous - the land of teeny-boppers, cougars, Chippendale hollering. A man is doing the noble thing rejecting the implant-full blonde in favor of the lithe brunette he finds at least as attractive.

And once again, you don't know which men are thought hot, because, gender-neutrally, no one knows this about anyone, assuming within-normal-limits-ness.

Paul Gowder said...

But wait: if attractiveness is so very contextual then in a world full of unattractive men (uchicago, evidently), they're not batting out of their league by chasing attractive women, since is not relevant what the women could get somewhere else. So is Brittany wrong to be demoralized just as are, apparently, men in silicon valley?

Paul Gowder said...

Uh, "Britta." stupid iOS autocorrect

Dan O. said...

Britta,

"it's hard not to read that as an overweening sense of entitlement"

"It's kind of the much less extreme version of being hit on by a homeless man."

There's a tension here. The guys you mention are a breakdown or loss of adjunct position away from being both insane and homeless. That seems pretty extreme to me. (Although ordinary, still.)

It feels to me like we're getting at ways in which mental illnesses are perceived differently between genders. Because the person being described seems mentally ill and predatory. Like Seymour from 'Ghost World' without the record collection.

There's an extreme social bias against stigmatizing such men as mentally ill, probably because the illness is an extreme case of male aggressiveness and self-obliviousness combined with violent, hidden self-loathing. Maybe most men sympathize with that on some level or other, and protect these people in order to assuage their own fear of rejection. (Which explains Seymour as a kind-of-but-not-really sympathetic character.) But I'm still not sure that male entitlement with regard to differences in attractiveness explains this except in the sense that such entitlement is actually part of a pathology and is a face to mask fear.

"What is he offering her? A chance to stroke his potbelly while he tells her about his latest crackpot theory?"

He doesn't offer her anything. His pathology requires him see her as nothing who deserves nothing. Which is exactly what he can give.

Phoebe's example of the ravishing sexual being hiding meekly behind horned-rim glasses is exactly the image of feminine vulnerability combined with a purely sexual essence that's the predator's motive. And, yeah, that's a bad image, particularly for librarians, who deserve full time security guards at their f'ing branches. Yeah, NYPL, I mean you.

I guess what I'm saying is that it seems that we're talking about danger and threats instead of insults.

Phoebe said...

Paul,

Point taken, kind of, re: if UChicago really is that chock-full of hot women, blah men. The "kind of" is because, as Britta points out, and as Lisa Belkin's article about how it goes at frat parties also notes, there are situations in which the looks asymmetry comes from the fact that women are putting far more effort into their looks than men are. In SIlicon Valley, maybe the women put in less effort, because there are fewer of them, but it's not a 50-50 situation in which the women decided en masse to get rid of their lipstick and push-up bras. Meanwhile, from what it sounds like at Chicago as Britta's experiencing it, there are if anything more men than women, but the men have let themselves go.

So yes, contextual, but there are factors other than demographics. If men, all things equal, can eschew effort and get dates, while women can't, that also matters.

Dan,

I think you're reading too much into this. The men Britta and I are talking about (and I have no doubt that we're talking about the same phenomenon) are not mentally ill, or no more so than the rest of the population. They're just older men who fancy themselves intellectuals, and whose preferred pretty-young-things are thus college or (more plausibly) grad students, not sorority-to-marketing-job types.

Paul Gowder said...

I wonder, incidentally, the extent to which there are different returns to effort for men and women in attractiveness. It seems like for men it's relatively easy to get into normal range (shave the neckbeard), almost impossible to get into the very attractive range (one's height is inborn, washboard abs require a truly insane amount of work or happening to be talented enough to be an athlete and hence have the right incentives to be putting in that work anyway).

For women it almost seems like there isn't really a normal range. There's unattractive, and then there's very attractive, perhaps because there's such a narrow range of what men conventionally find attractive? But many more women can hit "very attractive" than men can, just because there are such things as lipstick and push-up bras. The attractiveness range of an individual woman, just from day to day, is vastly broader than that of an average man.

(I'm assuming away weight for both genders here, if we included it I'd say it requires a ton of work for some people of both genders to get into the normal range, but some lucky people seem to achieve it naturally.)

(Also, curious about how this stuff all plays out in gay relationships. Do gay men display the same sense of entitlement that you accuse straight men of? Do gay women feel an obligation to primp and pose for other gay women? My impression, though this is perhaps skewed by being in the bay area, is that the answer is "not consistently either way" to both questions. Not sure what that implies though, other than "the patriarchy sucks," which, duh.)

Phoebe said...

Paul,

So many questions, where to begin?

First off, height, fine, individual woman can express preferences otherwise, but it is what it is, it's not unlike how men are re: women's weight. But I think you vastly overestimate the importance of spectacular abs to male beauty as understood by heterosexual women. (Margaret Cho had a routine about this, something along the lines of, only gay men are physically capable of having such abs, but phrased in a far more obscene manner.) It's just... not something any woman, certainly any girl or woman beyond the age at which men often do sports (that is, past high school, past college maybe) would think to expect. There are like three men out there with that quality, and they're spending far too much time maintaining it, unless, as you say, this is just what happens when one is on the Italian national soccer team. Britta's "potbelly" remark, unless Britta has special access to the men of said team, refers, I suspect, to something beyond pudge, which, again, I think most grown-up straight women know is one possibility, all-around scrawniness being the other. Women who expect abs are like men who expect to never see cellulite - not actually interested in being in the dating pool to begin with.

Meanwhile, longwinded story short, the men who for whatever reason win the "objective" looks contest tend to have some quality unrelated to abs that just does it for many women. George Clooney apparently has this (I don't see it), as does Jon Hamm (I'm not blind). I, for one, have no idea what either of these men look like shirtless, and suspect most women aware of their existences don't, either.

Next, there is absolutely a "normal" range for women, and, as with men, it makes up most of the population. But you're right that women can do more. And, worse than that, much of what men can do ends up veering them into "The Situation" territory (sorry, TV reference, but again, not giving anecdotal examples).

Re: gay relationships, yup, once "patriarchy" is out of the equation, things would have to go differently. The not entirely unfounded stereotypes about gay men being more conventionally attractive (in terms of put-together-ness, non-letting-one's-self-go-ness) than their straight equivalents, gay women the reverse, would suggest that boys, regardless of what sexual orientation they end up having, are socialized to expect the right to demand a good-looking partner, and that girls are not, and that this ends up backfiring on the men who like men, who then find themselves having to keep up their looks in order to pursue attractive partners. Or, there's the pathetic "men are just visual creatures" notion. I really, really suspect it's the former.

Britta said...

Paul,

Yes, you make interesting points. You and Phoebe are right that there is more women can do to alter their appearance (heels, makeup, spanx, hair dye) than men can, because a man who looks like he's used any of those to increase his attractiveness conversely becomes extremely unattractive.

There's a bit more men can do than shave their neckbeards (but it's a good start! Tell the UChicago men!). A flattering haircut, well-fitting, reasonably stylish clothes, strategic unibrow plucking all go along way. Plus, some reasonable level fitness (no, not washboard abs necessarily) also helps. I do also think that with people of both genders, personality contributes to physical appearance, but I think it's easier for a strongly charismatic man to be thought of as highly attractive than the reverse for a woman.

You're right, unfortunately, on skewed dating markets. Frumpy, unattractive men who get dates have no incentive to change, and women like me (apparently pickier than women around me) either have to sit around and whine (like I do on Phoebe's blog) or expand the dating pool area.

Julie said...

"Here's a new refinement for you: most men have no damn idea whether or not they're attractive, and to whom. Tastes vary so much not only between but even within women (as in, I've repeatedly seem the same woman describe diametrically opposite types as attractive) that barring obvious deformities (or shortness), what can the men do except take a shot?"


That's such a cop-out. Most men -baring some kind of mental impairment knows when they are unattractive physically, and yet they are deliberately hitting on much more attractive girls who give every signal in the book that they are not interested in the least.

Most of the time, it's not even about trying to "score" it's just about harassing. Period. These guys basically want the girl that can never be attracted to them do to their unfortunate birth to be as miserable as they are themselves. Sad thing is that even THAT doesn't work :/

Then again, it makes the occasional good looking, genuinely human decent guy flirting all the more nice ^_^