Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Surf, turf

Hadley Freeman brings our attention to a lip gloss named "Underage." Should we protest? Perhaps, but in the U.S. (where, it sounds like, this product is mainly being sold), underage can refer to a 20-year-old, too young to go to a bar legally but otherwise an adult. It's not necessarily Roman Polanski territory, but it's also not necessarily not that.

I'm thinking the name, though, is less about helping grown women (if, indeed, that's who buys lip gloss) resemble the 15-year-olds that pop-evo-psych-type men claim are the only "women" worth looking at (search WWPD for "Derbyshire" to see what I mean), and more about tapping into a less directly sexual fantasy: that one will be carded. And the threshold for that is probably more like 25 or 30 - anyone who could plausibly be under 21. As such, "Underage" is evil only insofar as the entire beauty industry is guilty of tapping into/inventing the desire to be a young-but-adult woman forever.

While denouncing lip-gloss labeling is one strategy, a more effective approach to dealing with the obsession with female youth-and-beauty might be to acknowledge that youth is associated with beauty in men as well. Or, at least, not to perpetuate the myth - as Stella Grey does - that women are somehow nobly immune to appreciating the beauty of beautiful younger men:

There seems to be a gender imbalance, vis-a-vis the packaging thing. All the women I know are tolerant of middle age showing itself in a chap. We quite like a late flowering, in fact: the silvering, the smile lines, the coming of bodily sturdiness. We read these as signs that life has been lived and enjoyed. We read them as indicators of substance, of being substantial. In general, men don’t seem to grant us the same courtesy, at least not the men I meet online. They are highly focused on the packaging. It’s disheartening.
Later in the piece, Grey (a pseudonym) specifically refutes the idea that she'd check out 25-year-old men. (25, not underage, even by car-rental standards.) These men, she recalls telling someone, "'have mothers of my age, so it’d be like randily pursuing the children of your friends.'" And, I mean, I'll take her word for this - I'm sure there exist, in the world, heterosexual women who could see a pack of surfer guys walk by in the outfit they wear here, consisting of a half-unzipped wetsuit, tight pants on the bottom, chiseled shirtless torso on top, and not notice.

In all seriousness, I think it's more a case of, women are socialized to deny noticing the surfers (or the London-or-wherever equivalent), while men are socialized not only to admit to noticing, but to pursue equivalent women, regardless of their own age (or surfing ability).

A better situation might be to accept the noticing for the gender-neutral near-universal that it is, while urging friends of both sexes to be realistic about who will date them, and whom they'll have anything in common with. And the way to get there would be to stop with the (pardon my jargon) patriarchy-affirming insistence that women are actually more inclined to ogle a man the less he resembles an underwear model.


Flavia said...

Well, there's noticing and there's noticing. I certainly notice with appreciation the handsome young surfer dudes, high school athletes, etc. But it's a pretty abstract appreciation, even if there's also an, um, physiological component to the response, too--they're like female models in magazines. Not potential mates, not anyone I'd want to talk to or even go out on a date with.

I first noticed this when I was a grad student at my undergraduate alma mater. I was really agog at how good looking all the male undergraduates seemed to have gotten--where were they in *my* day?? But upon reflection, I realized the difference was that I wasn't assessing my peers. As an undergrad, it mattered to me whether a particular guy was a douche, or a moron, or belonged to a particular subculture I felt alienated from, or whatever. When they were significantly younger, though, I was just free to admire them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The end of your second paragraph: yes. Also, there's no beauty or status advantage to youth in a pool where everyone's similarly young. A 22-year-old guy's friends aren't congratulating him for snagging a 22-year-old girlfriend.

I wonder if the noticing vs. noticing distinction is something women make and men don't. More to the point: I wonder how much of this is women being more realistic about the amount they'll have to say to 19-year-olds, and how much is that women don't feel entitled to partners they're attracted to physically. My guess would be that it's a bit of both.

It's also hard to separate this from the fact that women are stigmatized for having casual sex (i.e. the kind of relationships where having things in common doesn't matter) in a way that men are not. And it's of course not just stigma - there's also the disparity in physical risk. But stigma explains why a man might feel comfortable admitting to more than just admiring a much younger woman, while a woman would feel pressure to describe a beautiful young man in more... aesthetic terms.