Dr. NerdLove examines the notion that you have to look like Brad Pitt for women to like you.
In Playboy‘s 60th anniversary issue, Gilbert Gottfried penned an essay entitled “Women Say They Want A Guy With A Sense of Humor. They Don’t“.1 This lengthy screed goes on about the apparently pernicious myth that women want a sense of humor, how being funny never got him laid and gets interspersed with complaints about the apparent cultural message that women only care about a good personality – which is frankly news to me. And, I suspect the majority of my readers.
From the article:
Guys are constantly being told that a good personality is the only thing that matters to women. “If you can make her smile, it doesn’t matter what you look like.” I know this girl who prides herself on being attracted to nerdy guys. But still she has slept only with a veritable who’s who of handsome rock stars. She’s a model (of course), and she worked for a day on some movie with George Clooney. She told me, “I wasn’t impressed with his stardom, and I didn’t think his looks were all that great. But he was genuinely funny.” Horseshit! If he wasn’t good-looking or famous, nobody would notice his sense of humor.
It’s astounding, astounding I say, that said model seems to prefer George Clooney over Gilbert Gottfried. After all, we all know there’s no bigger panty-dropper than bitterness and resentment…
It’s like those women who claim they have crushes on Woody Allen or Larry David. If you’re looking for a Larry David type, they’re everywhere. You want a bald Jew with glasses and an acerbic sense of humor, I could fix you up no problem. But they’re making $7.25 an hour bagging groceries at Whole Foods
We’ll ignore the fact that this is basically a compositional fallacy and focus on the underlying issues: how much do looks actually matter?
Now let’s dispense with the obvious: good looks are important. But that’s not the end-all and be-all of attraction. In fact, the issue of how much looks matter to women – and what is considered “attractive” in the first place – is actually far more complicated than we think.
The Looks Double-Standard
Unlike Gottfried, I – and most of my peers – didn’t grow up with the idea that looks didn’t matter to women. We got the “just be yourself” line instead. But I’m not terribly surprised that the idea was floated out there. There’s a lot of social pressure for women to “not be shallow” and to at least lie about how much looks do or don’t matter. It’s not terribly surprising, when you think about it. The idea of marrying for love – as opposed to what amounted to sealing a business contract or a transfer of property – is barely over 200 years old and dating, rather than arranged marriages, is even more recent… and even then, an attractive husband meant someone who promised financial stability and might not beat her to death. Actual interaction between men and women as social equals is barely even 70 years old, and it’s still relatively recent that women were able to actually pursue men that they are interested in rather than waiting for the guys to come to them.
Moreover, we still have the cultural myth that women aren’t as sexual as men, that women aren’t as aroused visually as men are or even that they don’t like sex for sex’s own sake; even womenbuy into this myth, apparently sublimating their own sexual desires to the point of not recognizing their own arousal. The Madonna-Whore dichotomy is still very real, and with it comes pressure for women to pretend that they don’t get the screaming thigh-sweats when Tyson Beckford or Joe Manganiello take their shirts off and start offering to wrestle Alexander Skarsgård in a tub of baby oil.
So it’s not surprising that women feel pressured to pretend – or even convince themselves – that they don’t want what they want. And yes, women want to fuck hot guys.
Shocking, I know.
Let’s be frank: we all want to date someone we consider “hot”. There’s been more ink and pixels spilled over the idea that the only way to date someone hot is to be hot yourself, and just as many people – such as Mr. Gottfried here – complaining about how unfair that all is. In fact, one of the most common selling points to various Pick-Up Artist gurus’ products is the promise that if you follow their secret system, you can attract 9s and 10s without effort, no matter what you look like. Guys who by their own admission aren’t likely to be appearing in the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog – or even Sky Mall, for that matter – want to date women who would be considered “out of their league” and complain bitterly when it’s denied to them.
Here’s the fun part though: the men who complain about how unfair it is when gorgeous women refuse to fuck them are in effect complaining that women believe that they’re entitled to the same thing the men are: to bang a whole bunch of hotties.
But – and you had to realize there’s a but coming – women have a wide range of what they consider “hot”. In fact, it’s considerably wider than what men are allowed to consider “hot”. Women are just as likely to love the skinny nebbish with the black-rimmed glasses as they are the six-foot-five bearded viking. There are women who drool over the swimmers-build, effeminate model types and ones who love – not just tolerate or accept but love – chubby, hairy men. Some women want Chris Hemsworth and just as many want Tom Hiddleston.
Men, on the other hand, are far more restricted in what we’re allowed to admit we’re attracted to. If she doesn’t resemble a Victoria’s Secret model or Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover, then he’s likely to take shit from his friends and peers. A man who openly admits he loves fat women gets called a “chubby chaser” and mocked for having such low standards; “going hogging” is only for when you’re so drunk you don’t know better and is supposed to be hidden at all costs. If he doesn’t lust after Kate Upton then there’s just something wrong with him because comeon, those tits. Dat ass.
Which actually brings us to my next point:
“Good Looks” Are a Cultural Construct
The idea of what makes somebody “hot” not only isn’t ubiquitous, it’s not even vaguelyconstant. Desirable body types, facial features, breast size, hips and waist ratios, penis size and musculature are all products of culture, not nature. Aside from basic signs of physical health – facial symmetry, clear skin, etc – there are no inherent, universal standard of “good looking”. In fact, what we consider to be “attractive” is dependent on cultural transmission.
Consider the recent trend of hating on redheads.
Well fuck you very much too…
It sounds like a joke at first… right up until you start reading British papers; ginger-hate has actually led to physical assaults and literally has driven people to suicide. In the US, this is absurd to the point of sounding like bad comedy2 right up until the episode of South Park that focused on gingers. Suddenly “gingers don’t have souls” and the rest becomes a meme and Buzzfeed is doing articles that says “No guys, redheads are hot, really!”
Geeks, on the other hand, love redheads. Take a moment and consider the sheer number of redheads in science fiction and fantasy: Ariel, Amy Pond, Barbara Gordon, Poison Ivy, Jean Grey, Rachel Summers, Mary-Jane Watson, Rose and Thorn, Saffron, Red Sonja, Caitlin Fairchild, Dawn, Natasha Romanov, Willow, Dana Scully… the list goes on and on. Scratch a geek and you’re going to find somebody who’s obsessed with redheads.
Again: cultural transmission.
You see this time and time again when it comes to what features we consider to be “hot”. Right now, for example, the facial features most that are most commonly considered attractive are Northern European – wider eyes, high cheekbones, smaller chins, smaller noses – and there is a great deal of pressure for women of color to conform to them. This has less to do with any sort of racial or geolocational superiority and far more to do with cultural hegemony and class structures.
European colonization of India and Asia brought European aesthetics along with their culture, while the American slave trade and subsequent oppression of African-Americans directly affected what would be considered “beautiful”. Over time, indigenous standards of beauty would start to conform to the western ideal, while more “ethnic” features were considered to be “bad”. Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, for example, spends a great deal of time examining how much effort many African-American women devote to trying to give their hair European and Asian characteristics – and the cultural statement inherent in a woman having an afro or dreadlocks. Similarly, skin-lightening creams are incredibly popular across India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – having lighter, whiter skin is considered to be more attractive – while plastic surgery minimizing the epicanthic eye-fold is all the rage in Korea.
Obviously, colonization isn’t the sole cause; the European colonies are a thing of the past3. However, the effects linger and are amplified by mass-communication. America’s greatest export is its culture in the forms of movies, television and magazines. We tell the world over and over again that these features are what are considered “hot” and desirable, that this is what they must aspire to.
Physical attractiveness is often a matter of class signifiers as well. Tanned skin was once the mark of a physical laborer, someone of a lower class background, while pale skin was a mark that you didn’t have to work. Over time – and with the changes in industrialization and business – tanning is a mark of someone who has the time to go luxuriate out in the sun, while pale, pasty skin is the mark of somebody trapped in the office all day under florescent lights. Similarly, weight used to be a mark of prosperity – someone who was chubby had the money for food and didn’t have to perform manual labor. Now, thinness and athleticism are signifiers of someone who has the time to spend in the gym and the money to spend on organic everything rather than the cubicle worker whose paycheck makes McDonald’s a luxury and food deserts mean that often their only acceptable choices are processed foods full of sodium and sugar.
And this is without even getting into the fact that thanks to Photoshop, the standards of beauty for women – and increasingly, men – are often literally impossible.
Now at this point you’re probably wondering why I bring all of this up. This is because…
We Like Who We Think We’re Supposed To Like
Let’s circle back around to what I said earlier about the acceptable ranges of what men and women consider “hot”. These standards don’t just materialize out of thin air. As much as we all like to think that we’re icons of pure original thought, immune to outside influence, a lot of what we consider to be “hot” is based on what culture dictates – especially with respect to gender roles. Returning to a previous example, there are lots of men out there who love large women. Not just “curvy” or “chubby” but big, beautiful women. And not because they think that fat women have lower self-esteem and will let them get away with more; they are legitimately attracted to fat women.
The tricky part though is that when they’re younger and less secure, they’re far less likely to actually own their attraction. They’ll either try to force themselves to like the more conventional beauties or will date a larger woman on the side and hope to Christ their friends never find out.
Why though? Because men are taught over and over again that their masculinity is fragile; part of their manhood is derived from their sexual prowess and the best way to display that is to sleep with the women that other men wish they could fuck. When you’re attracted to somebody that society tells you that you shouldn’t be, you’re risking having your man card taken away. Either you’re not man enough to get the hotties or you’ve lowered your standards so far that you’ve essentially “given up”. Guys will police other men for violations of masculinity because it’s a way of reaffirming their manliness. It’s how the system gets maintained. If somebody refuses to take part – such as when men are sufficiently confident in their own skins to buck what society says they should want and just own their attraction – then the whole system starts to crumble.
Women aren’t immune to this pressure either. Take the common complaint that women “only want tall guys”. Obviously this isn’t true, otherwise only NBA players would be getting laid. In fact, men and women tend to prefer people who are pretty much the same height as they are. But there is a stated preference amongst women to date men who are taller than they are. Much of the reason for this comes back down to gender roles – specifically, the power differential between men and women. Taller men are seen as being more masculine; being with a man who is taller than she is reinforces her femininity. To be taller than a man, especially a man she’s dating, means that she’s violating her assigned social role and is starting to venture into masculine territory. A tall woman – especially one who is taller than average – who dates a shorter man is bucking the system, and society is quick to try to reinforce the rules through social stigma and pressure.
This is the same pressure that women face to be “nice”. Part of that being nice often manifests as an attempt to seem open-minded and less shallow – being open to giving guys she’s not physically attracted to a chance for example. That pressure to be open to guys she doesn’t actually like is the vestigial remains of civilized history where women have been the acted upon, not the actors, when it comes to mating; until very recently, women had little say.
The problem however, is that the genitals want what the genitals want, and that frequently comes in conflict with what we tell ourselves we should want. The model that Gottfried complains about may be saying that she likes nerdy guys – notice how he phrases it: “prides herself” in liking nerdy guys – but when it comes to pure attraction, she’s into George Clooney. That instinctive reaction you feel to this – the “that shallow bitch” response – is exactly the reason why women will try to force themselves to be into guys they don’t actually want. Because wanting to fuck a conventionally hot guy “isn’t nice”. It’s the manifestation of trying to punish her for violating the social order. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her lusting after who she lusts after; our anger is equal parts feeling as though we’ve been lied to and resenting the fact that we’re not in the pool of men she prefers.
What Is Attractive?
So do looks help? Well, yes. Obviously. Beauty privilege is real; people who match social standards of beauty are seen in society as being better people in general. Conventional good looks definitely help when it comes to short-term attraction. And they’re not the only thing.
Attraction isn’t about one aspect of a person, whether it be looks, a sense of humor or a singing voice so low that it registers on the Richter scale. It’s about many qualities coming together to form a critical mass of sexiness. Looks certainly help, but fun helps just as much in the short term and even more in the long term. It is all about what you bring to the table.
Yes, women like a sense of humor… but you need to have other things going for you besides just being funny. You can’t just joke your way into her pants, and humor doesn’t overcome other unattractive aspects. Funny + shithead doesn’t magically equal sexy.
Similarly, no amount of hotness compensates for “asshole”.
Good looks are as much about presentation as they are about facial features, and you can make yourself look much better in five simple steps. All “hot” means, ultimately, is that they want to fuck you; it may be because you have the body of a Greek god with a penis that ejaculates chocolate mint creme or it may be because you’re a giant cuddly teddy-bear of a man and that’s what flips her switch.
Dealing With The Shallow
There will always be people who only want rock-jawed, chiseled-ab-sporting movie stars, who will insist that they deserve the hottest of the hot or only want whatever value of “high status” man you can come up with that doesn’t include you. Deal with it.
Getting angry about it doesn’t help; nobody has ever argued their way into somebody’s pants or convinced her to change their standards by being really pissed that she wouldn’t date him. Yeah, it’s irritating when they’re smug about it; you want to grab them by the shoulders and scream “you’re not better than me” at them. But, much like the impulse to want to take the hot bitchy girls down a peg, not only are you not going to change her mind, you’re making yourself look like an idiot by getting heated up over somebody who doesn’t care about your opinion. At best, all you’re doing is reaffirming that she’s so hot that people go apeshit over whether they have a chance with her.
At worst, you’re being another guy flinging shit at women because the universe stubbornly refuses to give him the hot chick he thinks he deserves. And that’s just sad.
Let the shallow want what they want. By being shallow, they’ve self-selected out of your potential dating pool and you should be thanking them for doing you a favor. Because as much as we all want to fuck someone hot, we want that person to think we’re hot too. If they’re not into you, then all that they’ve done is freed you up to go find someone else. Someone better and, critically, someone who actually digs what you have to offer.
You can be bitter about someone shallow who doesn’t want you, or you can be happy with somebody awesome who does.
The choice is yours.
- A tip of the hat to Amanda Marcotte for sharing this with me and the response over at Jezebel. [↩]
- …Starscream. [↩]
- Although it’s worth pointing out that the British Empire only truly ended in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong to China. [↩