Male sexual desire, Hugo Schwyzer writes, is shaped by a desire for the approval of other men.
One of the enduring myths about female beauty is that it’s not something about which men really care all that much. Van Morrison sang about girls who went out at night “dressed up for each other,” and few men question the wisdom of that famous line. Ask most men—perhaps particularly straight men—about women and beauty and you’ll get the same sort of answer:
I don’t care that much about fashion. I think a woman can look great in jeans and a t-shirt without any make-up. I don’t understand why women take so long to get ready/spend so much time stressing about clothes/worry so incessantly about their looks. Don’t they know that most dudes don’t really care about that stuff?
I’ve heard versions of that spiel from a great many guys. Most women have heard something similar from husbands, boyfriends, or would-be suitors. It’s one of our basic cultural assumptions about beauty, fashion, and the modern female: this obsession with looks is something women do to themselves. The judgment and the criticism are largely woman-to-woman. Men may be a bit clueless, the trope suggests, but they’re much more accepting of women than women are of each other.
At best, that’s an incomplete understanding of the issue.
Yes, it’s true that fashion is about a good deal more than simply making women attractive to men. Not every aesthetic decision is linked to a sexual agenda, a point made cleverly and creatively at popular sites like The Man Repeller. Many women’s passion for fashion has little at all to do with wanting to attract or keep a man. To pick an obvious stereotypical parallel: high school boys don’t go out for sports solely to impress girls (though that’s often one secondary factor among many in their decision-making process). Many men love sports for their own sake, irrespective of their appeal (or lack thereof) to women. The exact same thing is true of beauty. Men make a colossal error in assuming that those women who are fascinated with fashion (not all are, of course) are looking for ways to make themselves more sexually alluring.
But it’s also true that men care much more about women’s looks than they let on. And women know it.
Straight men aren’t just sexually attracted to women. They’re also, all too frequently, attracted to what beautiful women can do for their status in the eyes of other guys. Even those who are leery of claims that a “Guy Code” exists outside of feminist theory (or beer commercials) acknowledge that having hot girlfriends is the sine qua non of being an alpha male.
The desire for the approval of other men shapes straight men’s sexual desires. Think of the very reasonable claims of many men that they’re not attracted to size zero, skin-and-bones supermodels. Lots of guys claim, with apparent sincerity, that they love women with “curves.” So why are men so interested in dating skinny models? (A question asked and answered brilliantly in Ted Demme’s marvelous Beautiful Girls.) The answer, of course, is that a great many men care as much about what other guys think of their girlfriends and wives as they do about their own desires. The young guy who claims to love curves may be sincere, but he may also have to endure the taunts of his peers, who’ll call him a “chubby chaser” – or simply remark dismissively, “Dude, your chick’s fat.”
In Guy World, models imbue their beaux with a special and rare cachet in the eyes of other men. And that cachet is more than worth dating a woman with a body type that is less of a turn-on than a great many people imagine. This isn’t true of all men. But it drives a great many guys throughout their lives: from high school boys who sense the homosocial boost of dating a cheerleader to middle-aged men who suddenly start dating “hotties” half their age. Put simply, it’s not about the sex, it’s about the status.
Whether or not they can name this phenomenon for what it is, a lot of women know that men are being too cute by half when they come out with that “I prefer women in jeans and a t-shirt” line. As my friend Annemarie puts it: “I know my boyfriend thinks I’m hot whatever I wear. But I also know that when we go out he wants me to look hot for his friends too. Sexy, but not slutty. He just knows how bad that sounds if he asks for it, so he just hints at it. It’s chickenshit, but it’s par for the course with most guys.”
That line between what’s considered “sexy” or “classy” and what’s considered “slutty” or “trying too hard” is a very difficult one for young women to negotiate. Because it’s an inherently subjective distinction, women have to consider their own comfort level, their own aesthetic sense, the expectations of the setting into which they’ll be going, and the reactions of virtually everyone whom they’ll encounter when they’re out. Telling them “it doesn’t matter, you look great whatever you wear” sounds nice–but most women know that it isn’t that simple. (I remember when my first serious college girlfriend first met my parents. She tried on what had to have been seven different outfits. When I snapped with exasperation to “Just pick something already,” she snapped back “Easy for you to say. You know damn well this matters, and not just to you.”)
Just as so many young women know they’re expected to negotiate effortlessly the sexy/slutty distinction, many aging women know well that they live in a culture in which their looks are given a cruel, arbitrary sell-by date. Not every man over 40 stares at hot girls half his age; not every middle-aged father prefers to masturbate to images of “barely legal teens” rather than “MILFS” when he’s alone with his laptop. But enough aging men do sexualize very young women—and disparage their female peers—to send a loud and clear message to women on the high side of 35.
Men can’t have it both ways—insisting that beauty and make-up and clothes are irrelevant and bewildering wastes of time, and then responding with such unmistakable desire to those whose skin is youthful, and whose ability to negotiate the sexy/slutty dichotomy seems the most natural and effortless. Well-meaning compliments have to be backed up by our actions. And in our contemporary culture, women take their cues about what really matters as much from our actions as they do from Vogue and Project Runway. Admitting that would be a good place for guys to start.
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