Monday, February 08, 2010

On Not Being Beautiful #2 – On Beauty & Sexual Attraction

I continue my rambling and disjointed treatise... (it started here)

Beautiful vs. Sexy

La Femme au Mirroir by PicassoContrary to what our culture tells us, beautiful and sexy are two very different things. Most people who have spent any time interacting on-line will have had the experience of becoming sexually-attracted to someone whose picture you've never seen. Most people who have spent any time interacting off-line will have met people who are truly beautiful but not in the least bit sexually attractive. You could stare at them for hours - several hours longer if they were naked - but they'd have as much chance of turning you on as a sunset or a rosebush. (And please no, if there is such thing as rosebush porn, I don't want to know).

For some people who are sexually attracted to women, sexy is entirely disconnected from what someone looks like. I think there are very few people for whom the quality is entirely and exclusively visual. For me, looks seem to be quite important, but I've fancied women I've not seen, and I've fancied women who I don't think are even slightly beautiful. Among the sexiest women I've ever met, the cultural standards of beauty don't apply at all - they've tended not to be especially young, they've varied a great deal in height, girth, colouring and disability status and their physical attractions have lain as much in the way they move about, smile and laugh and in their presentation, as in the underlying construction.

The aesthetic rules change anyway. A straight or wonky nose might make the difference between a beautiful face and an ordinary face, but it is almost impossible to remember the shape of a nose on a sexy person because you spend all your time looking at their eyes and lips. Sexy people's wrists, hands and the shape of their fingers can become a source of constant distraction, whereas on merely beautiful people they can be completely overlooked. Whatever colour and texture their skin, you want to paint your bedroom walls to match. Body parts which might be considered too big or too small assume their own integral perfection - people's own bodies generally suit them and make some kind of sense in terms of visually balance. Women's bodies especially so.

Asymmetries, scars, birthmarks, odd hair distribution, strange little folds of flesh, visible physical impairments and other oddities can themselves become sources of erotic delight because they're evidence of the desired person's uniqueness, their organic nature, their reality in flesh. The made-up lovers of our fantasies may be flawless, but they're always inferior to real fleshy sexy people in all their glorious fleshy sexy weirdness. Which isn't necessarily beauty. I am ghostly pale and was once complimented on the “sexy” blue veins visible under my skin - there's nothing beautiful about a giant odourless lump of Gorgonzola.

And we are still on sex here, not love. Romantic love adds layers and layers on top of all this, but even base sexual attraction forgives – and celebrates - very much of what an appraisal of physical beauty would not. And this is all visual stuff of course. As I said, for some people sexy isn't a visual thing at all, and in this respect, sexiness seems to be far more evenly distributed than beauty; most of us are not beautiful, but most of us meet someone's criteria for sexy.

The sexual advantages of beauty are all about getting noticed. Beautiful women get more initial sexual attention. In some contexts, this can be very significant and thus very demoralising for ordinary-looking women (or indeed beautiful women who happen to be not white, fat, trans or disabled*). But there's no evidence that, when all is said and done, conventionally beautiful women get more sex or better sex, let alone better and happier relationships. The only other connection I can think of between being beautiful and being sexy is that in getting more attention, beautiful people often have more confidence. Confidence is quite sexy.

Which puts me in mind of a rather winning compliment I once received from a very beautiful person;

“You're not exactly beautiful,” they said, “but you're very sexy and that's far more important. If I wanted something beautiful to look at, I'd get a full-length mirror.”

It was a fair point.

Beauty and the Male Gaze

I've been lucky with this stuff - I didn't anticipate having a male lover until suddenly I did, and before that point the male bit of the Male Gaze went over my head somewhat; I grew up seeing that my face and body did not match the images of beautiful women I saw all around me, but it didn't occur to me that my failure to be beautiful was a failure to be beautiful for men. But I understand that for many androphile women, anxiety around beauty has a lot to do with men and many of the conversations women have about their self-image are around what they perceive men want to expect from us.

So here's my theory about all this, as an in-betweeny kind of person. And in case any chaps are reading and feeling sensitive, this isn't what straight men are like, this is what messages women receive about men's attitude to feminine beauty. Clearly, what straight men are like is demonstrated by the fact that most of them appear quite happy to pair off with either ordinary-looking women or non-standard beauties.

Verticordia by RossettiIn evolutionary terms, sex is very important, but to social animals, peer-bonding is more so. If you don't make meaningful connections with others, you die. In a society which is often informally gender-segregated, most of us are highly invested in our standing with members of our own gender - thus things like my own status anxiety I wrote about the other day. We prefer sexual explanations because sex is more exciting and of course, our particular culture revels in the idea that men are motivated by sex and very little else.

Now, if you want to press someone's sexual buttons, you have to be either lucky or fairly specific. People's sexualities are extremely diverse and unpredictable. If you want to press someone's status buttons, all you need are easily recognisable symbols of high status – like logos. Some people would buy any piece of crap that had a particular logo which they associate with a certain social standing. If you're going to use the image of a woman as a status symbol, you need that woman to look as much like every other woman ever used as a status symbol. Thus the ubiquity of the tall very thin young white cis woman with the straight narrow nose and so on. She's not an idealised version of womanhood as envisaged by all heterosexual men. She's the Nike tick.

So when she's draped over the bonnet of a shiny new car, you're not supposed to think, “Hmm, beautiful women love shiny new cars; if I buy the car I shall have sex with a woman like that.” You're supposed to think, “Hmm, there's Status draped over the bonnet of this car; if I buy the car I shall be admired by other men.” We know this because the same woman is used to advertise things to women and we're not expected to want to have sex with her. Nor, by the way, does your average British woman, middle-aged 5'4" slightly plump brunette, imagine that she could ever look like her. But it still works because we've all registered the symbol.

So many of the images of beautiful women we see around us have nothing to do with male lust. And even the most sexualised images of women are often more about homosocial bonding that heterosexual sex. Like the Page 3 Girl – it's soft porn, but nobody buys The Sun as a masturbatory stimulus. The role of the topless model is as a topic of light-hearted conversation among groups of men; “You don't get many of those to the pound!” etc.. Having discussed the days' news, each man in the group asserts his masculinity by giving his aesthetic critique of the model, suggesting sexual activities he would like to engage in with her, and comparing her to other women of the group's shared acquaintance.

We know this because these conversations often occur in public and similar conversations take place on-line. Men who go to lap-dancing clubs and the like often insist that this is social rather than a sexual activity. And in the absence of a volunteer on the podium or in a photograph, some men turn to the women around them. It's small comfort when strangers are loudly and publicly discussing the merits of your breasts, that it's really one man's way of telling another man "I love you."

The Three Graces by RubensCommunal lechery as a bonding behaviour is by no means exclusive to straight men - nor are other versions always benign - but the straight masculine version is much more pressured, more prevalent and more acceptable within our culture. And as well as a shared approval of long legs, big breasts etc., it includes the shared disapproval of the ways ordinary-looking women deviate from cultural standards of beauty. Most of this is done through humour; all those fat bird jokes, jokes about having sex with older or trans women, plus the endless derogatory jokes about the looks of famous beautiful women. The more insecure and status-anxious men become, the noisier they become about their normal heterosexual tastes and the more critical they become of any ordinary-looking woman who strays into their field of vision. And this is largely unchallenged. This is a world where a journalist can complain about the visual appeal of female members of the Her Majesty's Government and get a job as editor for a national left-leaning newspaper.

I think the saddest manifestion of this nonsense is when men who buy into it all inevitably fall in love with ordinary-looking women, and you hear strange defensive explanations along the lines of, "I know she's not very pretty, she's plump and she has sticky-out teeth, but she has this weird thing where she walks into a room and the whole place lights up!"

Now, none of this tells us what men want and I'm not naive about the possibility that this stuff actually impacts on people's sexual behaviour - it probably does. Except, as I observed before, most men have sex with and pair off with ordinary-looking women, and we have no reason to assume that they are made miserable by this. Androphile women need to know that most of these cultural messages are not relevant to considering our own attractiveness.

We also need to identify the bullshit for what it is. Short of their having a Swatzika tattooed on their forehead, nobody should be offended or upset by the appearance of another person. No man is made sick by the sight of a flabby thigh or a hairy calf and if he were, it would be his own problem entirely. Women are not here to give men something nice to look at. Whoever you are, whatever you look like, you have just as much a right to be and be seen as anyone else.

This is not to say that the men we fancy will always fancy us, or that their disinterest won't be based on some aspect of our appearance – that's life and it's nobody's fault. But the same goes for all human relationships; you win some, you lose some and no matter how gorgeous you are, you haven't a hope of winning them all.

Well done to anyone who got down this far - it went on a bit, didn't it? Sorry. Just getting it out of my system.

* Kia Matthews recently performed a social experiment in which she submitted two identical profiles to the same dating website, one with a photo of her own round pretty black self and one with a photo of her thin pretty white friend. Worth a gander.


Mary said...

The Kia Matthews link is broken.

Uh... that's not the only thing I noticed about this post. I'm finding them interesting to read. I just don't have much to add. And I thought you'd want to know about the link.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you Mary - link now fixed. :-)

Ranx said...

Just found your blog..
Very interesting reading..
Thank you

elle said...

I have a she-writes-so-well-and-talks-about-such-interesting things crush on you.

*blushes and runs away giggling*

The Goldfish said...

Thank you Elle, I'm very flattered. :-)

Anonymous said...

Well.... thorough and sexy- that's alot for one woman! Appreciate all of your thoughts!

Montag said...

I have to admit that I have never thought about such things before, so it was very moving.

Men seem to exhibit "flocking" behavior around the women they consider beautiful. Of course, flocking may lead to dangerous situations...rather like that of someone who is caught in a crush of admirers.

That business about the whole room lighting up is good. I have known a lot of people who are sort of grindstones and look haggard, but when they really laugh and smile: incredible. It is rather sublime.

RealSteveHolmes said...

Even the most rational feminist writing in the most searching and honest woman comes nowhere near to understanding the male mind or the dynamic of attraction. Because you are actually objectifying both men and women.

In the pitiful mind of a man it is the woman's intention and what she may do that makes her alluring or not and by the time he can reliably anticipate what she will think and do next he is bored with her. It has very little to do with anything connected with "beauty".

Men are excited when life is generous to them in a pleasant way, not in a crude and nasty or calculating way. All you need do to mesmerise a man is be interested enough to care about him and want to discover more. Do that and he's yours. The feminist rant about porn and appearance and objectification is simply nonsense, through and through projection of the female objectification of the male as a good father and good provider. To a man, women are intrinsically exciting, so you gals must be working really hard to make yourselves so damned unattractive.

EHR said...

As a trained anthropologist, I don't think I've ever read a more insightful discussion about why all the women shown in media look alike. Reading this was like a lightbulb going off (except, not my own).

With those guys who DO expect a woman to fit into that particular mold, I have yet to meet one who was not considered inferior in some major ways. Usually, in my experience, they are not considered to be attractive themselves, nor do they have a lot of the other things that we associate with status (like nice possessions or a particular way of acting). Which makes me think that their desire for an impossibly attractive woman is actually a desire to finally have some sort of status in society, to be recognized as someone who is more important than the sneers and thoughtless glances that they normally get.

Of course, that still doesn't make it okay, because real human beings should never be used as objects like that. But it also makes me wonder why there isn't some other way for them to gain that status, and how we could go about changing it.

Thanks for a post that has made me very thoughtful!

Anonymous said...

I am a woman with serious body image issues. This post had me in tears. Your word are helping me heal.

Anonymous said...

What is SteveHolmes talking about? I'm not a feminist [long and boring explanation omitted], but then this post seems to take a humanist view of sexual attraction as much as anything else. The things that attract everyone to anyone else are all different, that is all. People making degrading comments about/towards others regarding their appearance is just a form of bullying (and yes, women do it too) and this post does a great job of explaining one very common manifestation of it.