Monday, February 16, 2015

Ugly women, unconventional-looking men

Just after telling a woman that she should settle for the guy she's with because she's in her mid-30s and not getting any younger, Emily Yoffe fields a letter from a man who describes himself as "ugly." He explains that he has everything else going for him - work, workouts, clothes, hobbies - but is so unattractive that women won't date him. His question is whether he should get cosmetic surgery.

Yoffe allows that there are such things as "actual facial deformit[ies]," but doesn't seem to believe it's possible for a man to just be ugly:

There are plenty of women who would go for the guys on this list of “actors who aren’t very attractive” (I’m winking at you, Paul Giamatti). A man who is happy in his career, who is seeking a committed relationship (and who cooks and can serenade), should have had many second dates. I doubt the problem is your looks, so going under the knife for cosmetic reasons will just leave you a lonely, different-looking version of yourself. So you need to figure out what’s really going wrong.
Normally, advice-columnists take letter-writers at their word. Not here. Yoffe deems unattractiveness implausible, but suggests he might "fall somewhere on the autism spectrum"! I mean, he might, but nothing in the letter suggests as much.

Yoffe's right that plastic surgery's probably a mistake - as it is for most, male or female, if only because elective surgery, ugh. But separate from the question of whether surgery should - or could - improve dude's looks is the one of whether physical unattractiveness is possible in a man. And... why wouldn't it be? Yes, looks are subjective, and yes, most people are within normal limits. A further yes - yes, sometimes people grow into their looks at unexpected ages.

But some people - men and women - are found plain-looking by the vast majority of people they meet. It minimizes the pain the men in that situation experience to suggest that their troubles in love can't actually relate to their looks. It can.* But it also - especially in conjunction with that earlier letter - suggests that women ought to be grateful for any man who's reasonably upstanding.

I wonder how Yoffe would have answered the same question from a woman. While I doubt she'd have recommended surgery there, either, she might have advised a trip to the Clinique counter. That is, I doubt if she'd have entirely dismissed the possibility that looks were at least part of it.

*The ease with which very good-looking men succeed in dating is the subject of a really spot-on scene in "House." It culminates with Chase getting the most interest by far, despite having put on an unappealing act, and despite the well-above-average attractiveness of the men he was with. Fiction, yes, but I link to it only because of the logistical and ethical problems with linking to real-life examples of any such phenomenon.


Doctor Cleveland said...

There are no ugly men.

There are only endearing character-actor types.

Because men must be allowed to overcome their looks on the sexual/romantic/marital market with other things. But he's so rich! And so funny!

No man is so ugly that he can't get a trophy wife if he's successful enough. But no straight woman is allowed to compensate for lack of physical appeal to men through her intellectual brilliance/financial success/wonderful sense of humor. "Nice personality" is a pejorative.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I assume you're saying this all sarcastically, but there may be some truth to it. At the extreme - men who are incredibly rich and powerful - looks probably do stop mattering, not to all women of course, but there, it becomes possible for an older, uglier man to at least find *some* younger, prettier woman. The same may not be as true for older, uglier, but equivalently-successful women, although it may be changing.

What gets to me is the belief - which I think Yoffe's supporting - that in the realm of ordinary people, a man's looks will (or should) be set aside. The mere fact of maleness - combined with a few basic life skills - is supposed to be so wonderful that a woman who snags herself a man would be foolish to a) reject him in the first place on the basis of something as shallow as looks, or b) if already with him, to let him go on the basis of something as shallow as not being into him.

This vision of how things go, or should go, is a problem both because of the pressure it puts on women to be with men they're not attracted to (which also can't be so great for these men in the long run)... and because of the extent to which women do, despite these social pressures, care about men's looks. Women care, but men think they don't, or shouldn't. It seems somehow... less bad, if still bad, if a man thinks his money-and-power are reasons beautiful women should date him than if he thinks the mere fact that he's a man and wants to date these women should be enough. Or maybe they're both just bad in different ways...

The Prudie letter-writer deserves credit, I think, for treating women's interest in male attractiveness as legitimate, and for refusing to take the entitled 'my looks shouldn't matter, but of course hers do' approach. That doesn't mean women should date him who wouldn't otherwise, but it does bode well in terms of how he might act in a relationship with a woman who does find him attractive.

Londoner said...

Remember that real slob of an editor you saw in a coffee shop? The middle-aged one with dirty hands and a beautiful, enraptured, female protege at his side? They were speaking French, I think you said?

Yeah, that's how it works with men and women. And no, it doesn't work the other way around.