Tuesday, November 09, 2010

On abs

Amber's right, I like this essay. Especially the point about how men shouldn't view looking hot as something that takes away their intellectual cred, or whatever other cred they've been cultivating. But just the general idea that straight men should do what they can, within reason, to look good, this I support. Stamp of approval. With a few caveats:

-The heart's in the right place - yes, women assess male looks, yes, this fact of life is underreported - but the answer isn't to exactly transcribe male sexuality onto women. The scenario where the woman who looks normal enough to other women walks by, and men one after the next turn their heads to get a better look at her ass (something that we've all seen happen on the street, but also, memorably, something I saw in one of my high school classes, whenever this one girl would stand up. Teachers, do not do this.) Women's heads turn when hot guys walk by, but it's not typically so anatomical. Whenever you've seen images ("I'm a Samantha!") of women doing this, of women hooting, hollering, and leering at the backsides of men, what you're witnessing is a point being made, that women can be just as visual as men. But it's about making a point - women who are being visual don't typically show it in the same way as men.

-The women are born with it, men must work out for it argument: Here, I think, too much of a distinction is being made between men and women. Faces are hugely important for both sexes, and unless all you need is the removal of a harmless but enormous mole, any attempts to make major structural changes will only make you look odd. (Or so tell me the moments I've caught of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.") Then comes the importance of male physique beyond abs or no abs - a slender, broad-shouldered man is not going to "need" to work out the same way as a heavyset, round-all-around one will. And yeah, the height thing - women who don't notice short men won't start noticing them if they start working out. The women who already do notice short men have already proven they're not noticing men on account of those men's conventional attractiveness, and are unlikely to be swayed by a bicep.

-Meanwhile, female beauty is natural? I will disabuse all of that notion with one word: weight. Women who are naturally slim - as in, who don't need to agonize or diet or work out to maintain physiques that would not in a million years be called "fat", are already few and far between. But even such women were once girls, and girls - all girls - are taught how not to become fat. It's virtually impossible to be a woman in our society who doesn't associate food with unwanted weight gain. Women's relationship to food is just fundamentally different from that of men, such that whereas some men worry about their weight for aesthetic reasons, all women do. Even women who couldn't get fat if that were the desirable build and they ate cheesecakes every night in the hopes of piling on the pounds. The big breasts-flat chests distinction the author makes is one that, assuming we're talking about What Men Want, is only being applied to women who are already thin. Thinness is assumed. Not the same thinness as one finds on the runways, but still many sizes down from what most women in America fit into.

But even if there were some class of woman aged up-to-23 (at which point we all degenerate into hags - "23" is coming, let me be clear, from the post, not from four years past-it me) who could effortlessly seduce all men by parading by in bikinis, what good are a lot of naturally beautiful coeds? For all the talk of 40-year-old men who "only" date women under 25, the fact is that there aren't a whole lot of very young women in the grown-up dating pool. Even the rare non-rich, non-famous man who finds himself a 24-year-old girlfriend will, if things go well, soon enough have a 28-year-old on his hands. Point being, the Naturally Beautiful Woman for all intents and purposes doesn't exist.

-Yes, people should take care of themselves. But is working out really the behavior that women demand? Women notice looks, but not necessarily in predictable, "the more he looks like Brad Pitt, the better," ways. Given how men's clothing works, as the poster remarks, women don't know, in a classroom, party, or workplace setting, which guys have abs, unless they really are big-time bodybuilders. Height, face, hair, general body-shape (some physical activity helps, but it doesn't need to be at the level of regular gym-going - it might help some obese men lose weight, or some sickly-looking men look more hearty, but for a man of average build?), these are the factors according to which looks-judgements are made; barring any major surprises underneath clothing, looks are no longer an issue. Frankly, I don't think heterosexual women, certainly not past junior year of high school, expect abs. Unless the guy's a professional athlete, it would, to many women, seem strange if a man took off his striped button-down and underneath were abs like the ones comically painted onto aprons. For a grown man to have "abs" is equivalent to a grown woman having no cellulite whatsoever -  it's a trait far more likely to be advantageous in a career as a model for exercise-equipment ads than a deciding factor in gaining attention from opposite-sex partners.

Those were the minor quibbles. The major one: Yes, whether she wants to be a poet or an astronaut, a woman still knows she has to put on lipstick. But there's a tradeoff: the fact that women pay attention to our physical appearances is viewed as making us less serious than men in the same fields. Oh, women can be serious (think Cuddy vs. House, women in Apatow flicks...), but we don't have the option of being too-brilliant-to-bathe. In fact, not caring adds to the appeal of some men in some fields - the rock star, poet, professor, artist, editor end of things, not, say, law, medicine, or finance. By not caring, a man might signal that he's so talented that it would lower him to the rank of mere mortals if he cleaned up nice. Or, long story short, it's assumed (incorrectly, which is another story) that men strive for career success in part for glory and in part to get women, making their drive greater than that of women, whose professional achievements if anything detract from their sex appeal. For a man who ought to be able to "get girls" from professional success alone, any obvious effort when it comes to self-presentation or even just social ease is viewed as a flaw.

But not all men are tortured geniuses, let alone in fields where posing as one would be tolerated. Even so, women who don't just wear chic clothes but think about clothes have pretty much thrown in the towel. There's an element to female concern about our own looks that isn't about pleasing the opposite sex, or even about conforming to gendered social norms. It is enjoyable for many women to dress up. If the mere facts of having long hair or wearing lipstick are viewed as suspect, any interest taken above and beyond what's necessary to attract men or look reasonable in professional settings is... you might as well start twirling your hair and greeting people with a chipper, "Like, hi!" Because an interest in fashion is mistakenly conflated with an interest in looking at one's self in the mirror and grinning smugly (see Quinn on "Daria" - Vice President of the Fashion Club), an interest in self-presentation is confused with vanity, vanity with idiocy and superficiality, and so on. Or, in less rambling terms, it's possible to dress up "for one's self" and inadvertently please the opposite sex, but because dressing up for fun is something associated with women (and, fine, gay men), the only kind of attention men are allowed to take is... abs. Where oh where are these straight women rejecting otherwise viable men on account of their abs?


Amber said...

I'm not sure that the OP is saying that the only form of attention men are permitted to take is abs. There's far too much emphasis on men's consciousness of self-presentation through embrace of particularized personae for that (so much, in fact, that FLG took pains to reject the essay on that ground). It's more that, as noted in the first couple of paragraphs, 1) traditional Western men's clothing allows for a relatively limited range of expression; 2) working out is cheap/free whereas new wardrobes cost money; and 3) improvement in physical appearance through increased musculature is compatible with whatever existing aesthetic or form of self-presentation men currently embrace.

Too, I'm not sure that "abs" necessarily means 300-style heavy contouring; more likely, it means that there is some discernible muscle not obscured by fat. These are not the choices. And even in a shirt and tie among men of average build, it's often clear which work out moderately and which do not.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

First off, it's my own damn fault for clicking on an ab-improvement link in a coffee shop.

As for the rest, points well taken. Point 3 especially - the idea that certain "types" of man aren't compatible with a hot bod is ridiculous. Or - and this is what I was getting at here - it should be ridiculous. But there's a way in which certain guys - the Great Genius Success types - take pride in slovenliness, and end up paradoxically impressing enough women with their too-brilliant-to-bathe-or-exercise attitude that there's really not much in it for such men when it comes to working out. Granted not that many men are in that category, but more think they are than are, and sometimes giving the impression is enough. If that makes sense.

Anyway, I think an alternative might be simpler - for example urging significantly overweight men to lose some weight, significantly underweight ones to gain some. This could be done in part through exercise, but such changes, difficult as they are and as much as they'd come up against the 'but I want to be me objection mentioned in the post, would be of great use for men who want to vastly expand their options. I mean, maybe it's sometimes possible to tell which averagely-built men work out and which don't. I find it hard to believe this would be a deciding factor in many straight women's assessments of them. (Or, at least, I care plenty about male appearance, as has been well established, and have dated across the workout-like-crazy to what-are-sneakers spectrum, and I can't imagine this being something I'd take into account.) Whereas I don't find it at all hard to believe women reject men for being obese or emaciated.

Amber said...

As someone formerly susceptible to the "too brilliant to ____" type, my response would be that these things tend to work themselves out, no pun intended. And the more men are pushed toward considering self-presentation, the more likely that counterexamples in the form of Geniuses with Abs will arise and snap brain-groupies from their trances. (In retrospect, it seems so obvious that any true genius could manage to read cutting-edge scholarship or think deep thoughts while exercising.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

But should the pressure come from intelligent straight men urging one another to work out? I'd think the best place for this change to begin would be with women themselves. If the schlubby geniuses stop being able to get dates, they'll get less schlubby. Realistically, I could see this happening once there are enough established female geniuses that women attracted to intelligence start seeing this as a trait one seeks in a peer, as opposed to one one must "win" with big breasts and shiny hair.

Anonymous said...

"urging significantly overweight men to lose some weight, significantly underweight ones to gain some" is hardly a new idea, is it? And men are told plenty already. I mean, I'm not exactly obese, though definitely overweight (BMI of 26), but people still keep telling me to lose weight often enough.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Rambling perfectionist,

If you're a straight man, I suspect whatever pressure there is on you to lose weight is far less than that on far slimmer women.

Since you mention BMI, I'm wondering if what you're referring to is pressure from a doctor to lose weight. There, men and women probably do confront similar levels of pressure. But in the dating world, there's no comparison.