Monday, October 03, 2011

The art of the armpit

Continued: What does it mean for a man to be "beautiful"? As came up in the comments to my last post, there's a paradox: the more a man does with his appearance, the less appealing many women will find him. To give two examples:

-An obvious and relatively easy thing men can do with their appearances is mess with their facial and body hair. There is no consensus among women, however, that removing anything hair-wise makes a man more attractive. (Although there's probably some limited consensus regarding ponytails and very long beards.) To many women, any such alterations are worse than whatever back-hair-having state preceded them. I mean, I get that the man in the linked beauty-blog post is not looking to please women, but I suspect that many gay men, too, would find something like this a bit much: "I trim my underarm hair into shape—there’s an art to it, really." Gosh. To move to the less- rather than more-intimate end of things, there's the question of facial hair - some women like, some don't, some like some variants but not others. The "neck-beard" that so offends Britta probably reads as scruffy-intellectual-in-a-good-way to other women. And Britta's anti-unibrow stance is in fact a pro-eyebrow-shaping one, and some women find any evidence, however subtle, that a man owns tweezers kinda ick.

-A man who weighs 400 pounds will, all things equal, probably get ogled less than one at 200. And across all shapes, sizes, and gender identities, a partner who's active is generally preferable to one who finds reaching for the remote a bit too much effort. But as much as all those gym-going men would probably like to think it's a the-fitter-the-better situation, a six-pack is not something heterosexual women expect. And, as with the whole body-hair issue, finding that a man has put endless effort into his abdomen is going to be a happy surprise for some women, and off-putting to others. Why off-putting? Because it suggests male vanity, because it suggests a lack of personality/professional ambition, whatever, whether or not any of that is true in a particular case.

One way to look at this is to say that ingrained homophobia is what keeps women from wanting a man with a nicely-shaped brow, with glistening pecs, with makeup enhancing his features. That societal misogyny is behind the dichotomy between the dressed-up sorority girl and her rag-wearing frat-boy equivalent. Women are expected to do so much, men so little! Unfair! The patriarchy and all that.

Another, however, is to consider that the only beauty men are allowed in our society is natural beauty, i.e. that which cannot easily be altered, and that which, when altered, gets a man mockery, not admiration. Height? A tough one to fake. A full head of hair? Artifice can be spotted a mile away, and, unlike the hair extensions that give extra volume to so many women these days, is universally mocked. A short, bald man is usually going to be chosen over one with lifts and a wig... but not over a taller guy who goes through massive quantities of shampoo. A tall man with thick hair, broad shoulders, and even features need do nothing more than shower, shave (or keep a beard from reaching his knees), and get regular haircuts, and the ladies will swoon. A "naturally" beautiful woman still must do a great deal of primping to arrive at that same point of desirability, to reach that all-around "groomed" level that indicates femininity.

This is something that had been at the back of my mind for a while, in terms of what, exactly, I'm asking when I ask that women take male looks into account, or, rather, that women acknowledge, rather than suppress, this tendency. What am I asking that women asking of men? What am I asking, broadly speaking, of men? If male beauty is to become more important, how do we square that with there being not a whole lot the individual man can do to look good for more women than he already does?

This brings us back to the question of "natural" beauty in general - is it better for beauty to be a quality some just have, or that some just have for some, or for it to be something the individual can go out and get? On the one hand, it's awful to feel as though one must do X, Y, and Z, all of which are expensive, time-consuming, and no doubt loaded with carcinogens, in order to leave the house each morning. On the other, it's no fun to feel that one is locked into one's self-presentation, that qualities over which one has no control are the ones on which one is being judged. Consider, for example, blondness. Is it better if women feel they must bleach their hair to be thought attractive, or if the only women who are thought attractive are of Nordic extraction or look that way?

Obviously, it's better if beauty gets to be subjective, if a wide range of appearances are thought beautiful by some, and if everyone gets to be with someone with whom there is this subjective mutual attraction. It's also, of course, better if people get some control over their looks, insofar as they can present themselves as part of whichever subculture or "type" they identify with, and to use their looks to attract the sort of partners they seek. I don't know how to make that happen, and am not so terribly optimistic.


Britta said...

I think the natural beauty thing is a good point. Really, both genders have somewhat of a double edged sword when it comes to looks/appearances. I also think that there has to be a line between acceptance of one's looks (good) and resignation (not so good.) I also have difficulty with having an opinion on this, because personally I believe women should do as little as possible, but being of the thin, blonde, Swedish extraction, being against hair bleach or dieting or whatever seems a bit tone deaf at best and exclusionist at worst. Also, there are woman for whom extensive, expensive beauty routines are not optional (i.e. black women in a white show law firm), so it does seem important to critique the overall structure of beauty standards, which are generally implicitly, if not explicitly, racist, etc., and not the people engaged in the practice.

But...back to guys, I agree that there's not set opinion beyond "naturally" handsome. I'm more on the metrosexual side of things--if a guy can dress well, engages in strategic tweezing, and (I don't care so much about this) knows his way around a hair product, it's not going to be a turn-off. I was having this conversation with a friend though, and she too raised the "what's so wrong with neckbeards?" comment, so I guess not even that is a universal.

For me, and maybe because I'm not sure I have "a type," it's hard to definitely say something is hot or not, which I get can be hard for men. I'm totally agnostic on chest hair, pony tails, facial hair, and beyond a certain point height, overall build, etc. My feeling is, if it works on a guy, it works, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I know this is also true of women as well, but maybe it is even more true for men?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


It's tough whether one can criticize Beauty Procedure X, if it's not one that one would, one's self, be in the market for. (Can the young condemn facelifts?) I do think, with hair at least, that women with naturally wash-and-go-and-look-socially-acceptable hair textures need to at least be sensitive to the challenges faced by other women, and to why these other women might come to use hair irons/relaxers/formaldehyde. It's not fair or even reasonable to call a given act a waste of time or money when you consider that there are real benefits to it, real drawbacks to avoiding it. Then one must also consider that those who lack one quality society demands might go far to cultivate another - this may explain, to some extent, why there's notoriously a ton of body-image fuss among American Jewish women. If you can't control your ethnicity, you can at least boost your appeal in other areas. At the same time, it should be possible even for those not in the market for X to say that spending tens of thousands of dollars and risking your life to look arguably worse than you did before is a bad idea.

Re: men, no, the neck-beard-aversion is probably not universal. None of this is. Women have strong opinions re: soul patches, hair gel, etc., and the problem is that the opinions are in both directions - it's not that every woman prefers "natural," but that artifice ends up repulsing as many as it attracts.

Another complicating factor here is that guys who are especially non-Jon-Hamm-esque often intentionally cultivate an odd style of self-presentation, as a distraction, I suppose, to great success. And when such men get made over to look conventionally attractive or even just professionally competent - beard shaven, thrift-store finds replaced with Banana Republic - they often emerge looking worse, because it's then all the more salient how they compare to Mr. Hamm.

Paul Gowder said...

Lemme throw one more complication into the fire. In a certain sense, women's sexuality can be performative. There's a fairly recognized set of signals that can count as "sexy" for women, both behaviorally and visually, and, because they have this coding, actually work. A averagely attractive woman can reliably get attention by putting on a short skirt, engaging in conventionally flirtatious behavior (smile, look down shyly with a giggle, yadda yadda), etc.

Male sexuality... isn't, in the same sense. Or, at least, to the extent it is, it, like good-lookingness for men in general, is subject to much more diverse tastes from the target audience. I mean, perhaps the closest thing guys have is a bicep-hugging shirt. Much more often counts as "trying too hard," and is un-sexy. Witness, for example, the universal condemnation of using shirtless photographs on online dating websites.

Men typically don't object to women "trying too hard."

I think this is all part of the same phenomenon. Something about male sexuality and attractiveness is supposed to be effortless, inherent, just sort of something that's going on with some guys in the background somewhere. It's not just physical beauty, it's the whole package.

(Even for those who think it's really something like dominance that attracts women to men rather than looks -- and I'll say that while this is definitely not true in general, I know to a certainty that it's true for some women -- there are severe limits on how men can display the quality in question. Too much dominance, for example, becomes aggression and is unattractive, just like too much dressing nicely becomes "gay" and too much muscle becomes trying too hard.)

(Also, and I recognize that this is a particularly grievous question in the context of this discussion, what, particularly, is so hot about this Jon Hamm fellow? Whom, I'll admit, I had to google.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The skimpy-clothes dichotomy you mention comes out of another dichotomy - men are assumed to want one group of women for hook-ups (or, well, prostitution), another for girlfriend/wife material. Women, meanwhile, are assumed either to be the kind of women who offer one thing or the kind who offer the other. The not-so-hot woman in a miniskirt who "gets" a man is, if he is so-hot, likely not getting him for long. Men can't use clothing or attitude signal that they are prepared for a one-night-stand because it's assumed they are by default, even if sometimes inaccurately.

Re: Jon Hamm, he's not everyone's first choice, but he has some quality that women seem to agree on. When he appeared on "30 Rock" as Liz Lemon's love interest, it was immediately apparent from his presence that he was The Hot Guy, even if, again, you're watching it without this being especially your type.

Britta said...

I was just thinking about the sexy/slutty dichotomy this afternoon as I wore some sweater shorts (like a Norwegian wool sweater, but short shorts!) to a weekly colloquium, in which I was trying to look 1) appropriate, 2) stylish, and 3) hot. (I was mainly hoping I fell on the right divide of my shorts not being too short, I'm counting on the inherent unsexiness of a thick wool sweater to counteract the shortness.) Like, women should have a bit of sex appeal, but again, it should look "natural," and not like the woman is trying to get laid. There's the whole rule of no more than one suggestive item per outfit, or don't show much cleavage or flesh too overtly reveal curves, leave stuff up to the imagination, etc. Again, this is much easier for women who are slender and already fit into the "beautiful" mold. Women who are unattractive and dress in a revealing way might just bring to mind "breasts!" or "cleavage!" or whatever, rather than an overall picture of "hotness" or "attractiveness" or whatever.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think the key here is "subjective." What reads as a not-attractive woman in too-revealing clothes in one setting will read as a good-looking, tastefully-dressed, wife-material sort in another. This is what I mean when I say that most men and women alike fall within normal limits.

I am, however, intrigued, fashion-wise, about what "Norwegian wool shorts" would amount to. In Chicago, I'd see this as something one would pair with opaque (but not also wool) tights, oxfords, and of course a blazer, as an alternative to wearing a skirt. But I can't picture at all what sweater-material shorts would be. Sweatshirt-material, yes, but that's something else entirely, I suspect, and the word "Juicy" might well be on the back.

Britta said...


Your fashion intuition on how to wear these shorts is about where mine is. Because it was 70 degrees yesterday, I wore them bare-legged with a conservative Mary Jane heel, and then a black tank top, brown wrap-around shirt, and black cardigan. In the winter I'll wear them with (probably) black tights and a low heeled boot or oxfords, and a blazer (I'm hoping if I do that I can teach in them). Basically, the shorts look like a nordic sweater that has been turned into shorts and lined. I bought them in China, and it's highly likely they actually were made out of a sweater. It's true they could veer into "lederhosen porn" territory if I'm not careful, but I'm hoping I've stayed away from that. (I tried them on with knee-high brown leather boots, and that was basically a no, at least for wearing to the dept.) I would attach a picture of them if I could do that through the comments, because I am highly excited about them.

Anyways, you're right on the "sexy" (classy) vs. "sexy" (skanky), in that somehow women whose bodies are already considered desirable by society in a "wife material" sort of way can wear the same thing as someone who's not and still look like "wife material." (I'm reminded of my tall, thin, gorgeous WASPy roommate who basically looked like she fell from a JCrew catalogue, and every time we'd try to slut it up, she suddenly made a backless Forever 21 top look like it could be featured in Town and Country.) I think this is related to the conversation we've had here on breast size--that while women might feel self-conscious about been ironing board flat, the range of socially acceptable boob size in privileged settings doesn't get too much past C-cup, and if you are much bigger, it's actually much harder to dress "appropriately" or even in a way that doesn't read "desperate," even though most heterosexual men agree that breasts are sexy.

Britta said...

Ok, I'll have to eat some of my earlier words, because in the past several days, it seems as though the UC campus has been OVERRUN with hot guys! Probably they just showed up to prove my point wrong! :P That, or I've got a really thick pair of UC goggles.

Dan O. said...


"The skimpy-clothes dichotomy you mention comes out of another dichotomy - men are assumed to want one group of women for hook-ups (or, well, prostitution), another for girlfriend/wife material."

Really? I may be pretty out of it, but in my few years of being single out of grad school, expectations were signaled much more explicitly. Women really did say things like, "I like you, but I'm not interested in a relationship." Maybe that's just an artifact of a certain culture of publishing/media/marketing types who went to happy-hour in their white shirt grey/navy/black sweater and slacks/jeans work clothes.

That culture brings up something else relating to your paradox, because homosexual men are very present. Single heterosexual women in NYC are, obviously, concerned with homosexual signaling. It's not necessarily that they don't like the way guys look in Chelsea. It's that the way guys look may mean that they're gay.

But it's also true that heterosexual men use and modify elements of homosexual signaling to our benefit. All we have to do provide an overt counter-signal - a messenger bag instead of a leather bag, for example, to go along with tighter pants, tailored shirts, and pointy shoes.

It got to a point for a while, in the wake of Queer Eye, that women (and other men) did regard it insulting (or evidencing a lack of self-esteem, which was worse) for men to be unconcerned with their appearance. That included not having a forest on one's chest, and trimming (but not shaping) other bits of hair.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Was "Queer Eye" really that influential? I don't remember any real-life manifestations of "metrosexual" - as opposed to the existence, prior to but no more so after that show, of men who fit that description. And maybe this is different among different age groups, maybe it changes at the age at which back hair first appears, but I'm not aware of many 20-something heterosexual men creating armpit topiary or anything along those lines.

But point taken re: this: "It's not necessarily that they don't like the way guys look in Chelsea. It's that the way guys look may mean that they're gay."

So, so true. Girls/women may start out liking that look - it is, after all, a look meant to be admired, and one often enough found on guys who are able, even as teens, to have not-awkward conversations with girls/women - but come to associate it with "never gonna happen" and, just like that, the washed-out-navy-t-shirt look, paired with socks with a few too many holes, becomes the sexier style

Dan O. said...

"Was "Queer Eye" really that influential?"

I assumed so. I only watched it twice. People talked about it quite a bit, though. I learned what little style I have through osmosis, volunteering at the Housing Works/UBC cafe.

But, yeah, the guys (gay and straight) I know in my age group (I'm 35) all pretty much kept their various hair groups trim. It has come up because we've had discussions about clippers and tools. There were differences, but women friends thought trimming (not shaping) pit and other hair was only considerate. Also, looking together (dressing well) meant looking employed, and not needing a momma-figure. Plus a guy who dresses well is less likely to tolerate roaches at home.

But one thing that various signalling things gets at is the distinction between symbolic and intrinsic attractiveness, which might be a more useful distinction than natural/artificial. What you're saying about the navy shirt with holey socks (and what I said about roaches) is that women's standards maybe, sometimes, become overly symbolic?

But I think the much of the point of homosexual male style is to highlight vitality as the essence of sexual attractiveness, which is to say, it locates attractiveness intrinsically. That which signals vitality (hairless pecks, or hairy barrel-chests for men, long hard legs, or bubble butts for women) may change, but I think the basic idea is compelling. I also think lots of guys are attracted to women on that basis. It explains, for example, why so many men find pregnant women attractive. (With all that extra blood, they do look especially vital.) It also explains, why lots people never look hotter than when they've just come in from a fast walk in the freezing cold.

Another benefit for that view is it can't (and I can't) abide that drawn-out waif heroine chic look. It's ugly, because it's not vital. I'm glad men haven't been subjected to it, and I wish women weren't.

PG said...

It's also, of course, better if people get some control over their looks, insofar as they can present themselves as part of whichever subculture or "type" they identify with, and to use their looks to attract the sort of partners they seek. I don't know how to make that happen, and am not so terribly optimistic.

I think controlling your looks as a form of self-expression is generally considered an acceptable form of grooming in the sense that you're not "trying too hard." If you like your hair to be a full rainbow of colors despite that not being a particularly fashionable look (especially if your hair is curly and you're dark-skinned), then people may regard you as weird, but they don't think the effort you're putting in is a pathetic attempt to impress anyone. A lot of tattooing and piercing falls into this category as well. When you seem to be turning your body into an idiosyncratic artwork (and this can be in less permanent ways, e.g. through choice of dress and makeup), you're certainly controlling your appearance, but you've largely stepped out of the conventional debate about body image.

I was pleasantly surprised by an episode of "Glee" last season that started out with the same old "you should love yourself however you are" after-school special message, but actually had it challenged meaningfully by Quinn, the head cheerleader character. Forced to admit that she was chubby, pimpled, snub-nosed, brunette "Lucy Caboosey" before she changed high schools, she is told by a fat-yet-self-confident classmate, "You made all those changes because you hated yourself." She retorts, "No, I did it because I loved myself. I loved myself and that's why I did all those things."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm not sure I see the difference between "symbolic/intrinsic" and "artificial/natural." The only difference I gather, and I'm not sure this is what you're driving at, is that what you mean isn't merely a lack of makeup but a kind of life force, blush from being out in the cold and not from a powder, say. Count me confused.


But rainbow hair is actually so-very-now! Of course, having curly hair, being anything other than Nordic/Slavic-looking, not in this season or last.

The problem with dividing self-presentation into conventional and "art" is that it's not usually so straightforward. Some "hot" looks are retro/pin-up/ironic. Heavy eyeliner will read as "hot" to some, and as defiant of the "natural pretty" that men generally like to others. And what if the tattoos are aimed at looking hot within the subculture you move in? Does it matter that you're not getting your cues from "Allure"? Just as there's always going to be overlap between subjective beauty (what one happens to find attractive) and what's on the cover of magazines, there's no clear line between self-expression-through-self-presentation and... what you describe from "Glee." Sometimes, like that quote demonstrates, the self that's being expressed seeks not originality but popular appeal.

Freddie said...

There's an aspect of this discussion that is interesting (to me, anyway) and somewhat distorting, which is that it is socially acceptable to speak straightforwardly about undesirable men but far less so to speak straightforwardly about undesirable women. Because of the conventions of feminist discourse, there are many forums where judging a woman's physical appearance in any terms is unacceptable.

That's not true here, but I also don't think that people are being equally blunt when talking about feminine unattractiveness. It's just considered fair and appropriate to speak about men as if they are lacking in any attractive qualities. (See Britta's comment from the last post discussing "men who have NO apparent compelling attributes.") I have seen no equivalent discussion of women who are totally romantically or sexually worthless. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, but I do think that it has consequences for how this conversation proceeds.

For substance, I would just say two things. First is that the heart wants what it wants and that the attempt to rationally explain all of this is bound to run up against the inherent irrationality of human attraction.

Second, I think this discussion is in need of some behaviorism: behaviors are repeated when they are rewarded. Men adopt patterns of behavior regarding their physical appearance that have resulted in sexual or romantic success in the past. Men continue to approach women that are "out of their league" because that behavior has been rewarded in the past. You have to understand that for a non-trivial percentage of men, the rate of success in approaching women is irrelevant. Only the quantity matters. Men who constantly throw it out there regardless of the social expectations of their value may strike out 99 times out of 100, but if that one time is one more than they would have experienced were they not so forward, it's worth it, and the behavior continues. As irrational as it may appear to you from the outside, these men are repeating this behavior because it has met with some modicum of success. Once they are successful, even a few times, the behavior is sure to continue.

From the outside, it is natural to say "why on earth would anyone get with him?" I know I've felt that way myself in the past. But again, human beings are irrational. The heart wants what it wants.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Re: it being OK to say a man is ugly, but not a woman. A few things. One, I'm not so sure that's true - ever look at a "game" blog? Or, among women, why must Jezebel and the like self-police all the time re: "body snarking"? It's not just that women are - unquestionably - more severely judged on the basis of looks. Women's looks are also judged negatively, openly, lots of the time. I mean, not in an office setting, but nor are men's looks there.

Next, if we're going to assume that what you say is true, which I suppose it is insofar as it's probably easier to chuckle about how Dude gained a few pounds over the years than how the same is true of Dudette, wouldn't this be because women are more severely penalized for not looking 100%? And re: Britta's comment specifically, the relevant point is that women "with no compelling attributes" already know they're not god's gift to men, and are not hitting on Brad Pitt or whichever man at the bar comes closest to that. What Britta is saying is that unattractive/otherwise unappealing men don't acknowledge that they aren't the greatest catches ever. This can be positive - confidence! - but also negative - entitlement! obliviousness!

Re: the heart wanting what it wants, this strikes me as both true and a cop-out. Why does the female "heart" so often prefer a taller guy, the male "heart" a slimmer (but curvy) and young woman? Why do couples tend to be so well-matched professionally/culturally/socioeconomically? It's not all unknowable. What's unknowable, or closer to that, is why one woman with demographic and looks traits X, Y, and Z will look at three men who fit what she wants, and find two of the three repulsive.

Re: men hitting on everyone. Yes, some of them do that. Women tend to see that approach coming a mile away, and it's unclear that the end result is - and isn't this what it's about? - more success for the man. I guess it depends a) what's meant by "success," and b) whether we really think the hitting-on-everyone approach is even entirely about success with women. It seems that a more genuine (or convincing) approach of fewer women might lead to more time spent in the company of a woman, but with fewer women total. So if the goal is getting a woman home just the once, success probably would be in the wide-net way. But I also think much of what's going on when men go after Women is that they're asserting their masculinity, either for themselves or to impress other men. Thus catcalls. Point being, the fact that men sometimes go after Women doesn't mean that this is an especially successful method of getting a girlfriend.

Britta said...

Exactly what Phoebe said. We're talking about relative male entitlement, not coming up with a 1-10 dude scale on which to rate all the men we know as hot or not. (And...notice I merely said "no redeeming qualities" and allowed you to draw an inference, physical or otherwise, I didn't state in detail what sort of measurements would make a guy a "2" instead of a "10.") In that sense, ugly women and even not so ugly women generally are constantly bombarded with messages on how flawed they are, how they don't measure up, and how they are worthless in a way men aren't. That's not to say men can't have low self esteem or that there aren't negative messages out there for men, but in general this is an area where women receive more social pressure. Another pernicious flipside to male entitlement is the sense that women deserve very little from a relationship/hook up. The correlation of the man "deserving" a hot woman no matter what is that the woman should be happy for the attention--any attention--that she gets of a sexual manner. It's the sort of thing that drives Girls Gone Wild and reality TV show--that women should desperately want to be seen sexually and have men desire them that they aren't trained to think about what they want, or even if they're particularly attracted to the men desiring them. Also...again, what Phoebe said. Maybe "the Game" type tactics will work on some girl at some point (see above, that women are taught to find any attention flattering, rather than think about their own wants or needs), but it's not how you get a girlfriend.

Apologies if I'm wrong, but my guess is you're a male: if that's the case, how often do you have homeless women hitting on you? Women who are at least 30-40 years older than you hitting on you? I am genuinely curious to know how often this happens.

Freddie said...

First, I don't know what all this reference to "deserves" is for. "Deserve" has nothing to do with adult life.

Second, there's a lot of wiggly language here. Yes, occasionally I get approached by women. But what does "approached" mean, for men or for women? Generally, because of social convention, men are more forward in approaching women than vice versa. Part of the point of flirting is plausible deniability-- we approach people in a way that usually isn't obviously a proposition. It makes things better for most people involved. There are more and less obvious ways to approach people. And it's not even explicit in the mind of the person doing the approaching. Often, you approach someone for genuine casual conversation, and if and only if it seems like there's something there, you pursue it. At what point does it become offensive to you for an unattractive man to talk to a more attractive woman? Is small talk off the table if it can be read as flirtatious? I'm asking this genuinely.

Also, you're expressing offense at the idea that men feel like they deserve to approach women who are obviously below their level of attraction. But I'm not convinced that most men think they "deserve" that. I doubt they're thinking that they are obligated to get the sexual or romantic attention of the women they approach. I think that the idea that talking to other people is not offensive is baked into our elementary social contract. You're free to disagree with that convention, but your beef is with the assumption, not the men working under it. (And frankly, I don't want any part of a society where people don't feel that they have the right to communicate with the people around them.)

Also, I won't relent on the point that, as you acknowledge, attraction is subjective. As soon as you acknowledge that, what can your complaint mean for behavior? If there's a chance that an individual woman would be in the minority who finds a guy attractive, there's a chance that him approaching her will be worthwhile. Again, if these behaviors were not in some sense rewarded, they wouldn't be happening. Period.

Finally, it's my experience that whenever these conversations happen, women inevitably overrate the attractiveness of the women they are talking about. At least, that is, in comparison to how men would rate those women. Always. And significantly. You're going to perceive a lot more men approaching women they don't "deserve" to approach if you are consistently overrating the attractiveness of the women. I won't hazard a guess as to why this happens but trust me, it happens.

Unknown said...


"Apologies if I'm wrong, but my guess is you're a male: if that's the case, how often do you have homeless women hitting on you? Women who are at least 30-40 years older than you hitting on you? I am genuinely curious to know how often this happens."

Not directed at me, but it's happened to me a few times, once very uncomfortably in a parked car when I was 16 with a woman in her 40's (she drove, she parked, obviously). Nothing happened, but it was pretty awful. It took a half hour of negotiating, where I almost had to get out and try to find a way home (Long Island). It could have been worse - it might not have been a temp job, and she might have been my boss. But it was, and she wasn't. I've haven't been hit on so much by other older women. Rather, I've been told of their "availability". I don't believe it's all that uncommon.

Dan O. said...

Oops. The above is Dan O. I had a blogger profile linked, but I couldn't keep it going. Have to turn that friggin' thing off. Sorry.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Freddie, Britta, let me intervene here a moment. FWIW, I think both of you are right about different things, so here goes:

What's at stake here is the question of male entitlement. Namely, however much we establish that attraction is subjective, that one woman's ick-neck-beards is another's ooh-scruffy, there is a very real phenomenon, which Britta points to, of men approaching women who are by any possible measure of this vastly out of their league. These men are not (see the discussion above) offering jobs or yachts or something else tangible in exchange, nor are they mentally ill in such a way that makes them unable to sort out why a 23-year-old woman with a flawless physique and a promising career wouldn't immediately fall for a 50-year-old, out-of-shape guy with a job of no particular interest, with no obvious redeeming qualities (amazing sense of humor, gorgeous face, raw animal appeal, who knows) and otherwise nothing special to offer. They're just shlubs, basically, who figure that if they have a choice between shlubettes their own age and second-year grad students, they'd rather the former. Now, we can "subjective" till the cows come home, but the fact remains that shlubettes are not hitting on hot 23-year-old men. Not in subtle ways, not in overt ways. So, in this, Britta's correct.

Freddie, you're correct about women sometimes - sometimes! - overstating the attractiveness of women (themselves, their friends) in such situations. I'd classify this alongside women complaining about getting hit on all the time, complaining in such a way that they're obviously happy when this happens, that they obviously base their self-worth greatly on this happening, etc. (To be distinguished, needless to say, from women actually feeling threatened/nuisanced by advances.) Some women - not all, not most - derive pleasure from feeling as though there is this permanent set of men a league below themselves that they get to reject every time they leave the house. Since nearly all 16-year-old girls have that experience, and nearly no 46-year-old women do, there comes an age between the two (25? 30?) at which a small but not insignificant percentage of the female population will cling to the 'Eww, gross, these men keep hitting on me' and shout it from the rooftops, at the very point in these women's lives when not so many men are a'knockin'.

So, Freddie, you're not imagining this phenomenon, any more than Britta is imagining the male-entitlement phenomenon discussed above. The difference is in, as they say, agency. When women play the 'Ew, gross' card, rejecting men with whom they'd actually be compatible, they're only screwing themselves over, and, if they're named Lori Gottlieb, they get to write books about how they wish they'd "settled." Meanwhile, when the men Britta mentions hit on much-younger women, they get the pleasure of at least chatting with a much-younger woman they find attractive, and occasionally more.

Maybe, by way of compromise, we should look at this not as, how tragic that men feel entitled to approach women who are out of their league, but rather, how unfortunate that women don't feel entitled to do the same? Because these things are to some extent subjective, one does see couples in which the man is, most would say, the better-looking partner. Let the shlubettes have their day!


It happens. But there's no use arguing that it happens anywhere as close to as often as women (and girls - mostly girls, really) get hit on by much-older men. It's worst for girls at maybe 14, and it's incessant.

Flavia said...

I'm not sure whether I'm agreeing or disagreeing with your larger claims in making this comment--perhaps you can tell me!

For me, male attractiveness (in which I likewise have a strong interest) has a huge amount to do with the effort the guy puts into his appearance. I'd describe my preference as being for male style over male beauty (whatever the two might mean to any individual person); I've always been much more compelled by men who are WORKING whatever their particular look is--be it banker, biker, gym rat, or alterna-emo dude--than by men with Jon Hamm (or equivalent) features and unremarkable self-presentation within their genre.

So, contrary to your theory, I do value men who are, I guess, metrosexual at least in their knowledge of/ability to parse fine distinctions in clothing styles, haircuts, etc. (Not that the actual look need be "metrosexual," but I admire men who are fully conscious of the details of their self-presentation, and who take some obvious pleasure in their appearance.)

But this obviously isn't a major overturning of gender norms, or anything, insofar as I agree with you that men who make some effort can more easily make up for lack of height or hair, or weak or asymmetrical features, or whatever else we deem less-desirable, than women with the equivalent liabilities in the attractiveness sweepstakes can do. So, women are still stuck needing to make MORE effort, and being MORE dependent on what God gave 'em, than men are.

Dan O. said...


An obvious note about 'approach' - flirtation, conversation, and otherwise. Conversation and flirtation, and especially flirtation, depend on eye-contact. I imagine what Britta and Phoebe are talking about include eye drift, chest-talk, and back-leaning butt-checks. No?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Jon Hamm may not be the best example of "natural" beauty (my fault, as I named him!), because he is, after all, known for looking sharp in a well-fitting suit. But I agree, now that I'm thinking about it, that self-presentation enters into it. The generic American male casual-wear look that screams 'I'm wearing this so that you know I'm not gay' - i.e. the look that makes it immediately possible, in Paris, say, to spot the American male college students, but not always the female ones - is almost designed not to attract anyone, to blend in, and is thus off-putting not only, perhaps, to gay men (although some will be intrigued), but to many women. For many women, any look - like the ones you list - is preferable to no look at all.

The issue, though, is that these men are embracing some kind of look, but not necessarily trying hard to look good. They're not necessarily tweezing their eyebrows, pruning their armpits, etc. Their looks, moreover, at least seem to come out of some kind of activity that they're dressed for - be it athletic, professional, artistic. These are just variations of the "men in uniform" thing, which is, of course, known to appeal to women. Meanwhile, to look good, a woman generally does not dress up in that manner. (Except, like, a nurse's costume, or something, which is another story.) So it's not necessarily that women are spending more effort cultivating their looks, but rather that the only direction the effort will go is towards Pretty or Hot, not cultivating a persona.

Freddie said...

I haven't been very constructive with my comments. Let me try to make my last one more constructive.

I assume that the point of all this is that we want to eventually make changes in people's behavior and men's behavior in particular. Building norms is important, and I definitely want to build stronger social disapproval of things like street harassment. I actually would be willing to sign off on the general idea that men shouldn't approach women they don't know unless they have a specific and valid reason. (Usually a professional reason.)

But as soon as the norm we're trying to reach involves things like not hitting on someone who's out of your league, I don't think we're in the realm of the pragmatically possible. And I say this only because I simply don't think the average person is that self-aware. I know it often sounds crazy to say that men don't know they are approaching someone out of their league, but trust me. Most men I know have only the vaguest idea of how attractive they are. What's more, they are operating in a culture that tells them incessantly that confidence is sexy, that they should fake it until they make it, that being bold and forward is the key to getting women. That's not just the Game style talk, either, but just relationship boilerplate that men hear throughout their lives.

Finally, part of the issue is that the men who are the biggest problem are the least susceptible to social disapproval. I understand what you're saying about homeless men or men 50 years older or whatever approaching women, but these men are unreachable. They act like that exactly because they don't care about embarrassment or social disapproval. And trying to legally discourage this behavior while preserving free speech rights is tricky.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I strongly disagree with this: " I actually would be willing to sign off on the general idea that men shouldn't approach women they don't know unless they have a specific and valid reason. (Usually a professional reason.)" Men and women alike should be able to approach people they don't know, or else there wouldn't be... romance, or a next generation. Or there'd only be incest and/or intra-office relationships. Not good. I owe my existence to my father approaching my mother, a stranger to him at the time, at a museum. My husband and I met at a party, and since we study very different topics, I don't think we spoke for professional reasons. Sometimes people really do pick one another up. Not everything constitutes harassment.

All of this gets to why I suggested, in my previous comment, that we make it if anything so that more of the population - that is, the female half - also feels comfortable making the approach. You're right that it's impossible to stop men from approaching women. But maybe it could be more straightforward for women to approach men.

As for men not knowing their "league," to repeat what I responded to Paul Gowder upthread, a) no one knows their Official Attractiveness Level, not women either, because the vast majority of us are within normal limits, within those limits beauty is subjective, and thus no such thing exists, and b) the men who are well below normal limits are either genuinely troubled or they know. And yes, if they're hitting on hotties regardless, they're unreachable on this issue.

Paul Gowder said...

As I guy who generally has something to offer to women, I find it surprisingly hard to believe that women are plagued with an endless parade of total, utter, losers hitting on them all the time.

My mental model for the man with no attractive qualities at all is found in a local 24-hour donut shop. In the late evening, you'll see these 50-year old guys sitting there playing world of warcraft or something all night, ill-shaven, disheveled, clearly with nothing going on in their lives except this video game.

And it's hard to believe that it's these guys who are hitting on 23-year old women... if only because I doubt any of these guys have the confidence to do so. These are men who have totally checked out of life (it's incredibly depressing to see them, I can't even go into that donut shop anymore).

Instead, it's guys who think they have *something* to offer -- they think, for example, that they're really good in bed, or really kind and giving, or really interesting, or SOMETHING. (Or they think (erroneously!) that attraction/love is something that happens ex nihilio, without regard to people's concrete qualities. But these are still not the video game guys; they've given up.) It just so happens that the hit-upon have different desires.

I dunno, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe when the video-game guys aren't playing their computer games in the donut shop, they're, I dunno, lurking outside of yoga classes or something. Or hitting on 14-year olds (is this really worst when 14? Are these guys not only aiming for women out of their league, but women whose reciprocation would also land them in prison? I mean, is this entitlement or To Catch a Predator?) Or at conferences (but I've never seen one -- I've seen a lot of old, and possibly sometimes creepy, professors at conference -- but professors are excluded from this per the above).

I don't mean to dismiss the experience, but I really have to wonder about its prevalence. As a guy, of course I wouldn't experience it myself, but just passing through the world I'd expect to notice the conditions of its possibility -- at least notice these men with nothing at all to offer even interacting with women.

(Also, I think it's important to distinguish street harassment that isn't a genuine attempt to hit-on, i.e., by construction workers and possibly by some of the homeless, from actual attempts to attract... I know the former is common...)

Britta said...

Paul Gowder (and Freddie),

You're right that no guy thinks: "I'm a total loser with now appealing qualities, but I'm going to hit on this supermodel nobel prize winning physicist over here." And, I do agree with Phoebe that people of all genders should feel free to hit on people (within reason, of course) without worrying about some sort of "league." But...what might seem charming to the man hitting on the woman might feel creepy or scary or even just an annoying invasion of privacy to a woman. Obviously, people can't predict how someone will react to being hit on, and maybe the creepy annoying guys are beyond any sort of social approbation.

On the prevalence of this, I have no idea. I'm no supermodel, but my experience is that being very blonde attracts a lot of attention from men. While this might be a complaint along the lines of "my hair is too shiny," I've found that many of the men who hit on me have some rather disturbing racial ideas/complexes and/or blonde fetishes, which they feel a good idea to share with me as kind of an icebreaker. While I'm not in the minds of these men, I find it hard to believe that, if they really thought about it, they would think expressing socially repugnant views to a woman they were trying to impress is really a winning strategy. This isn't an everyday event or certainly most of the men who've hit on me, but it's common enough that it's definitely more of a pattern than a few isolated incidents. I don't know if men have this experience as well, but I'd have a hard time picturing a woman hitting on a man in this way.

Paul Gowder said...

Britta, that all rings true -- I just want to make sure we have clear the difference between hitting on badly/creepily/offensively, which is behavioral (e.g. the offensive comments), or relational in some pretty clearly defined fashions (abuses of power by bosses/professors/doctors/etc.), and which is clearly wrong; and hitting on ... let's just say ambitiously? Which is not, and it smacks of a sense of entitlement on the opposite side to think "so-and-so is so far below my league, how dare s/he hit on me?"

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"it smacks of a sense of entitlement on the opposite side to think "so-and-so is so far below my league, how dare s/he hit on me?""

I'm going to try to conclude this thread with some overarching message on this, which is:

1) Unappealing, older men hit on appealing, younger women (especially very young, that is, not yet legally "women," and, I'll take Britta's word for it, especially blonde), because (assuming jobs/mental instability are not the issue) they have *male entitlement* (not actual real-life power in the form of jobs or anything else, not delusional voices in their heads) telling them that this is their due.

2) Blah blah blah everything's subjective. Yet strange, is it not, that unappealing, older women so rarely hit on/flirt with hot young guys.*

3) If you're a 20-year-old woman on the receiving end of this kind of attention (assuming it really is attention, not on the one hand serious harassment or on the other, innocuous small talk), what's off-putting, fundamentally, is that dude thinks being male makes him your equal, that it doesn't matter that you're 20, at a top college, and work out, that he's 50 and has a mediocre job and is not so intriguing in any respect. What's off-putting is that he's operating under this male-entitlement, man-shortage assumption that simply being male makes him appealing. What's off-putting is that, while he's after you for your looks, it's not assumed that you'd have any agency in terms of selecting men on the basis of theirs. You're presumed prepared to be convinced that any man is a viable romantic partner.

4) But because there's no hard-and-fast rule of League, because these things are subjective, and because sometimes the 23-year-old woman and the 45-year-old man really hit it off, the goal shouldn't be telling the men not to hit on the women. It should be about removing obstacles that prevent women from seeing out men on the basis of their looks. Once women did this as well, there'd be more 23-year-old women going after 23-year-old men, and less of a sense among the 45-60 set that 23-year-old women are theirs for the choosing.

*Except for this one teacher I had in high school. She wasn't bad-looking, just late-middle-age, older than the "older woman" a high school boy might want, and gosh did she flirt with the guy in the class (this was, at least, 12th grade) who had a side job as a professional male model. And except for whichever other exceptions prove the rule.

Paul Gowder said...

Here's the problem here:

what's off-putting, fundamentally, is that dude thinks being male makes him your equal, that it doesn't matter that you're 20, at a top college, and work out, that he's 50 and has a mediocre job and is not so intriguing in any respect

Is he supposed to think he's your inferior? Really? Because that's what the implication seems to be, and that's why I think it's vicious and smacks of a reciprocal sense of entitlement, or, well, something nasty. One simply doesn't walk around experiencing off-puttedness at the fact that someone thinks s/he's one's equal, for whatever reason. There's a huge, huge, huge gap between not being interested in dating someone and thinking that one is being offered insult by the other's temerity in thinking the other is one's equal.

(I agree completely with you on the solution to all of it though.)

Dan O. said...

"I don't know if men have this experience as well, but I'd have a hard time picturing a woman hitting on a man in this way."

This came up recently in connection to Jewish men's supposed Asian fetish:

Ugh. Ick.

Anyway. I'm with Glaucon on this one. When it comes to amorous inspiration, one loves all or none at all - from the (upturned-nose) "piquant" to the (hook-nosed) "aristocratic", from the (pale-skinned) "fair" to the (dark-skinned) "honey hued", from the (strong-willed) "spirited", to the (submissive) "placid'".

Okay, okay. Glaucon didn't say that last bit.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If you've put a lot of effort into being in shape and into your professional/academic achievements, and if you're aware that society values youth (especially in women) and that biology offers everyone youth for a limited period of time, why is it so outrageous that if you're a 21-year-old Harvard senior and swim team member or whatever, that you'd consider yourself the superior of Random 50-something Dude is not so outrageous. Not "superior" in some universal, moral sense, but on the dating market.

As for why this is insulting... I really do think this is all up-thread, that Britta explained it, that I attempted to rephrase that explanation, etc. It's insulting because of the male entitlement it implies. To spell this out further, it's insulting because, if it happens enough, it starts to give the woman in that situation the impression that she has no right to demand her male equivalents as romantic partners. It may, in individual instances, have zilch to do with full-of-it women being snooty, and everything to do with women being sick and tired of a society in which women are expected to be only the recipients of advances, and to be so malleable as to be prepared to say yes (to sex, marriage, whatever) to any man, whatever he looks like, because of some sense that there's a man shortage, or that it's not feminine/mature to hold out for a man one finds attractive.

Oh, and if you're 22 (which I'm not, of course, but which I remember reasonably well), there's something irritating about being sought after for a quality that's a) not at all specific to you personally, and b) fleeting.

I mean, look at it like this: in a world in which meh women were approaching out-of-their-league men, for the fun of it and for the possibility of success, however remote, it would not be insulting to hot women to be approached by below-their-league men. But because we do not live in such a world, sometimes it is.


I'm afraid this is one of maybe 30% of your comments I can't figure out. The post you link to is indeed ugh, and evidence that its author does not know the meaning of the word "satire."

Paul Gowder said...

Trying to not keep continuing this thread, but, sadly, not succeeding -- I think that the male entitlement thing is a bit overstated. Because: there are at least two attitudes that the men who are doing the hitting-on could have.

Attitude 1: "I think I'm a cool guy, maybe she won't, but hey, can't hurt to try."

Attitude 2: "These stuck-up bitches should be into me, there's something wrong with them if they don't."

I submit that the second of these attitudes is entitlement, but the first is not, regardless of the difference in dating market price (note I say price rather than value -- an important distinction in all markets, including this one) between the two parties.

Of course, those two attitudes are opposite poles, and there's plenty of space in between. But the point -- that hitting on someone who is out of your league in some third-party sense need not reflect some kind of sense of entitlement -- remains.

(Of course, once again, the Phoebe Solution of making women free to do the hitting-upon would deal with the disjunct between first and third-person perceptions of entitlement nicely ... now if only we could figure out how to implement it. Should I become dictator, I'll happily impose it...)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Of course it "need not" reflect entitlement. The point is merely a) that it often does, and b) that women are responding to repeated instances of this, not each case individually.

And, that in the world as it currently exists, even Attitude 1 men might be expressing entitlement, because if the features they see as redeeming in themselves ("coolness" or a sense of humor or whatever) would not be sufficient for them to be attracted to a woman, but if they think they deserve cool, funny women who are also really good-looking, then "worth a shot" can be evidence of entitlement.

Paul Gowder said...

Bah, not given common knowledge of diverse preferences.

Unknown said...


I was comparing Britta's observation about male fetishes about certain features, e.g. blonde hair (or Asian "submissiveness"), with Glaucon's observations about erotic beauty in the Republic. What was supposed to be funny about it, was that while Glaucon eschewed specific fetishes such as delighting in little upturned noses, he fetishized barely pubescent gymnasts in their whole glory. Oh, the irony. Ha ha ha.

Obscure, and barely amusing, I know. Sorry.

PG said...

even Attitude 1 men might be expressing entitlement, because if the features they see as redeeming in themselves ("coolness" or a sense of humor or whatever) would not be sufficient for them to be attracted to a woman, but if they think they deserve cool, funny women who are also really good-looking, then "worth a shot" can be evidence of entitlement.


Also, once you become identified as the kind of guy who seems to be hitting on practically everyone, you actually lose out on what otherwise might have been real opportunities, especially with women who were well within your "league." I have a young male friend who is dear to me but who torpedoed some of his chances in a particular environment when he became identified as the guy who hits on every girl, even in a reasonably flirtatious, non-chest-talking way. Unless you are truly exceptional in your charisma, charm that is observed being dispersed everywhere loses some of its charm.

At least for having a relationships rather than just a random hookup, a lot of women like to feel a little... special. They like to feel that there's something about them that not every woman with clear skin and all her teeth also possesses. Men can feel this way as well; it may be a common human desire to think that one is not indistinguishable from the mob. The fulfillment of this desire to feel special is often called romance, and I hear it goes over well with The Laydeez.