I have recently been thinking quite a bit about the nature of attraction and attractiveness–when Kate blogged awesomely about the subject a few weeks back in response to a dumbass troll’s comment, it so happened that I had been mulling the same topic over myself, and then more recently I’ve had a couple brief discussions/arguments with an acquaintance on the nature of attractiveness. Here is part of my comment from Kate’s entry (and yes, this is only about a third of the comment so you should all be very afraid of my capacity to spew verbiage if you are not already):

I feel like there are two worlds operating in parallel here: one where nobody would ever consider laying a hand on me and that’s a self-evident truth because attractiveness is some kind of universal, predictable, objective continuum from attractive to ugly, and the one where I am happily married and my husband finds me really hot, whereas I’m sure our friend the troll would puke if he saw me naked, and as Kate said, both of those things can be true at the same time. I believe that there are a lot of people who really and truly dwell in that first world, and they and I have a complete inability to understand or relate to each other. It’s not really a question of what their aesthetic preferences are or how important physical attributes are to that equation, either; it’s whether they can understand that those preferences are anything but the same for everyone. I once had an argument online with someone who never could be made to understand how my husband could be attracted to me without having a so-called “fat fetish.” Of course there’s no reason I couldn’t have been married to a man who prefers fat women, it just so happens that there actually isn’t much pattern to the sizes of the women my husband finds attractive. And the person I was arguing with could not for the life of him understand how weight–be it preferring fat women or thin women–might be a central part of attraction for some but not for others, and that’s fine.

Essentially, my acquaintance believes (if I am interpreting him correctly) that there really is some kind of objective continuum of attractiveness, and that it 1) can be elucidated by considering what “the average person” would find attractive, and 2) may be based on attributes that can be identified and quantified scientifically, such as symmetry, size and spacing of facial features, body size and proportion, etc.

Now, do I agree with him that there are almost certainly patterns that would emerge if you did a large, well-designed study intended to determine which faces and bodies Americans (for example) tend to find the most attractive, and I’m sure I have heard of people doing such studies–although I’m not finding much just via search engine, so I can’t link to any of the results. I also think this is an intriguing research question, and I can see why a scientist would ask it and would then go on to ask “OK, now that we know which subjects are considered the most attractive, can we determine what it is about them that causes this perception of attractiveness?” So I can totally see why my acquaintance finds this question interesting. It’s just that I think the question’s utility is pretty much limited to the academic.

First, sure, there are probably one or a few “types” of face and body that are going to be statistically preferred by the study participants, but the “less preferred” categories in terms of attractiveness are going to be so large that they too are significant. Even if only 0.1% of respondents thought a certain face was attractive, that still means (if the results hold true) that there are 300,000 people just in this country who would agree. It seems like that should be plenty to keep those “unattractive” genes in the gene pool. And just the fact that one sees people walking around every day (just in the U.S.) ranging from very thin to very fat, very traditionally “masculine” to very traditionally “feminine” (regardless of whether the person is male, female, or transgendered), very short to very tall, very small to very large breasts, etc. tells me that a variety of genes are certainly being perpetuated, and widely. I don’t think, to put it another way, that such a study would have any value in terms of predictiveness. And therefore I don’t think it would really make sense in the real world, where real people are living and befriending and loving and hating and being repulsed by and marrying and fucking and breeding with various other people.

So the kind of question I have been wrangling with my acquaintance about–essentially, I think he was arguing that the way you rank people’s attractiveness is with an eye not just for what I think but for what I think everyone else thinks–is, I believe, sort of misleading and beside the point. It’s easy to make the (IMO logically incorrect) leap from “this is the popular/media perception of beauty” to “this is what the average man or woman finds most attractive” to “this is what I expect you, as an individual, will find attractive.” As I said, you can probably find the strict numerical answer to “what the average man or woman finds most attractive,” but that does not mean that you could walk up to me on the street, present me with 10 photos, and predict in what order I would rank their attractiveness. Nor could you get the most widely-agreed-upon-as-attractive man in the world to sneak into my bed and be able to guarantee that I would necessarily want to have sex with him when I found him there. So, this is the kind of topic where you constantly end up conflating academic tendencies with individual preferences, which I think the following conversation is evidence of.

Acquaintance says “Guy X is more attractive than Guy Y, right?” I say “No, Guy X is a little too Abercrombie for my taste.” Acquaintance argues that “on the most basic level,” I would have to agree that Guy X is objectively more attractive than Guy Y. I disagree–in my opinion the “most basic level” is who I am more drawn to or, I suppose, who my brain tells me I would rather have sex with. I suppose the one thing I would concede is that Guy X did look a little more like the type of image I would usually see in the media, held up as “attractive,” than Guy Y. But that piece of information just doesn’t seem relevant, or to make any sense, to me. (Furthermore, I am highly suspicious that media representations actually get at the truth of what is considered attractive even by “the average person,” never mind all the other people.) Actually, all I think this does is to set up a circular self-fulfilling prophecy. Somehow, through forces that I’m sure are way too complicated for me to understand, we have arrived at the current belief that the faces we see in People or Us are the ones that are beautiful.

(As an aside, when did Star turn into like a fucking feminism/FA textbook? Every issue seems to feature both “stars who are too skinny” and “stars who are too fat”–almost always women, and often with a “diets of the stars” feature thrown in for good measure, and gee, I wonder why stars would ever starve themselves or gain weight under this kind of scrutiny–but I guess that’s another entry.)

Anyway, then, I feel that the circular part comes in because what my acquaintance is asking me to do is to codify the cues that I get from external sources like the media and to agree that these cues truly do define “beauty” or “attractiveness.” So what is attractive is attractive because the media says it’s attractive because it’s attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he believes that he is asking me to essentially act as a media aggregator–he thinks he is asking me to express my understanding of what human beings innately find attractive. But I don’t see how that is possible to do without being told by someone (and the only “someone” I can think of is “the media and other social forces in current U.S. society”) what the answer should be. All I can know is what I find attractive, and if I wanted to know what another individual person found attractive, I guess I would ask him. Guesswork about what such a person is likely to find attractive–regardless of how “set in stone” current beauty ideals may appear to be–seems clumsy and useless to me.

If my acquaintance is truly asking me “what do you believe studies would show as to whether Guy X is widely perceived as more attractive than Guy Y?”–and don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s less rigorous than that and he’s just trying to get me to validate what “everybody knows”–then I guess I find that a profoundly uninteresting conversation to have over a beer. And furthermore, I am not really qualified to comment because I don’t exactly do research in this area. I could offer an opinion, but we all know what they say about assuming. Going even further, I believe that offering my completely unsupported opinion could actually be damaging because we already make way too many hackneyed assumptions about attractiveness vis-à-vis biology (e.g. “people prefer thin mates because thinness represents health, it’s just BIOLOGY”), and I would just as soon not feed into that. So in some ways it’s just shooting the shit, but I think that I find the conversation sort of more profound and potentially dangerous than he does.

Maybe one of the big sticking points here is that I am way less convinced than my acquaintance of the likelihood that the average person on the street actually, deep down, prefers the current beauty ideal. Many truly do have that preference, some probably express that preference despite not feeling it strongly because of social pressure (e.g. to have a “trophy” wife or husband), and I suspect that there are very, very many who have other preferences ranging from a little outside the norm to WAY outside the norm. Jacob of Television Without Pity once wrote a recap that I wish I could find and link to (but I can’t even remember what show it was for, grrr), where he essentially said that people should stop making the mistake of assuming any given person fits a “type.” I think one awesome hypothetical he gave is that your coworker who you always thought of as a stereotypical, perfect sorority girl might actually have something like a drawer full of fingernail clippings that she saves compulsively. Similarly, reducing the “type” that people might prefer to an academic question just makes the world so much less interesting in my opinion. Or as Sarah succinctly commented to Kate’s post, “Do they [commenters like Kate’s troll, or those to another post arguing that fat people are essentially universally considered unattractive] live in the real world? I see ALL TYPES of people paired up on a DAILY basis.” Isn’t that amazingly varied reality so much cooler than trying to figure out if Guy X would be considered attractive by more women out of a hundred than Guy Y?

Few will believe this because I am fat and we don’t really get the benefit of the doubt in this arena, but I didn’t type up this entire post just to convince the world that I personally deserve more hot ass because I am a good person, or to cry about how nobody thinks I’m pretty. (If I were single, I wouldn’t exactly be jumping at the chance to screw somebody who found me disgusting, so the idea that fat people just want to FORCE everyone to date us whether they are attracted to us or not is pretty funny, by which I mean stupid.) Also, perhaps more importantly, I am married, so I can afford to look at this whole thing a little detachedly.

Growing up, I got vast quantities of crap for being fat (and being shy and smart and for crying easily and dressing weird… so who knows how much of it was actually the fat), but every so often a guy would come along who seemed to not only find me attractive, but to think it self-evident that I was attractive. My husband was one of those guys, which was fortunate for me and also a real-life data point that has served to illustrate to me how individual attraction really is. I didn’t do some PR job on my husband to show him that sure I was fat, but I had other characteristics that “made up” for it or that hey, maybe he should give fat girls a try because we’re really not so bad, and wouldn’t it be the sensitive nice guy thing to do for him to “get past” my appearance. He was attracted to me to start with, despite that he does not, on the whole, prefer fat women over thin women. In the same way, physically I would have said before we met that he wasn’t really my “type,” but when I heard his voice and learned how smart he was and had several great, easy conversations with him, he was very attractive to me–and we’ve been together so long now that what I thought was my type seems kind of silly and simplistic, and he is pretty much the definition of my “type” at this point.

So I believe that you are attracted to whomever you’re attracted to. I just think that people need the space to work out for themselves the degree to which that attraction is based on various physical characteristics, various personality and intelligence traits, etc., and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty whatever the outcome of that self-analysis, “shallow” or otherwise. And then my one “should” on this topic is that people SHOULD, then, understand and honor the fact that attraction is a different mix of factors for everyone. Take fat–for some people, a partner has to be thin or they can’t be attracted to her. For others, she has to be fat. For others, they prefer fat or thin but other factors can override that. For others, weight truly doesn’t matter. And everything in between.

So anyway, I think the only utility my acquaintance’s question might have in the real world would be to further obscure the importance of personal preference in questions of attraction and shift the emphasis to what “normal people” like or what you “should” like, which I think we get enough of in modern society as it is. And since I am basically Pollyanna and want everyone to be happy and all marriages to work out and everyone to be having awesome fulfilling dirty sex with people they are truly attracted to, not just people they feel they should be attracted to–not to mention that I enjoy irritating my acquaintance–I think I’ll just keep refusing to answer.

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