Tuesday questions, Gwyneth Paltrow edition

Last week, I wrote this about Ms. Paltrow (whom I do not hate):

I’ve never been all that struck by her beauty.  I think she is undeniably very pretty.  I think she is chic and glamorous.  But I found myself scratching my head a bit at her selection as People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” this year (an annual selection I hope we can all agree is unalloyed stupidity).  Because, quite frankly, I find her looks rather plain.  Pretty, but plain.

The topic of Ms. Paltrow’s looks, and the discussion of the physical beauty of her and other celebrities, rubbed several commenters the wrong way.

Wrote Sam:

I’ve got the heebie-jeebies just talking about this frankly.

And Chris:

This topic makes me shudder a bit…

And Jonathan:

I’m not sure I like this week’s question. It seems to me that picking apart a Most Beautiful Woman selection isn’t that dissimilar an activity to creating a Most Beautiful list. Even though there isn’t the explicit sense of judging and valuing people (mostly women) based on their looks in the OP, it’s not that far under the surface.

This all got me thinking.  I wonder why it is that a discussion of a celebrity’s looks in a critical manner gave people pause.

Is it that Ms. Paltrow is a woman, and that women have been and still are judged far too much on the basis of their looks?  During our (very fun) virtual viewing party for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kazzy wrote this about one of the players:

Plus [the Heat] have Chris Bosh, who looks like a weird muppet dinosaur.

Does that raise similar hackles?  If not, why not?  Is it because Ms. Paltrow’s career requires that people find her beautiful in a way that Mr. Bosh’s does not, and people are reacting to the inherent sexism of that reality?  Is commenting on a woman’s looks in an evaluative manner, at least in a public forum such as this, always sexist?

Further, what is it about talking about a woman’s appearance that makes it more unseemly than commenting about her talent or intelligence?  My co-blogger wrote about this quite eloquently for the Inequality Symposium a little while ago:

Like wealth, one’s degree of talent and looks are also at least partially a matter of luck. Like wealth, talent and looks further or hinder our interests.

[snip]

Interestingly, although most would agree that talent is partially inherited and the opportunity to develop talents are afforded to some children more than others, we see talent as more constitutive of a person’s identity than looks. Indeed, looks are supposed to be entirely not constitutive of a person’s identity. Someone who accords much weight to looks in her evaluation of a person is considered superficial. Why should that be? Presumably because looks are distributed with partial moral neutrality. No one earned good looks. But so too are talents. And for a guy to say he loves his girlfriend because she is so smart would never incur the opprobrium that he would get from some quarters if he said that he loves his girlfriend because she is so hot.

Quite so.  Consider the example of Sarah Palin.  I found her nomination to the vice-presidency to be one of the most cravenly cynical and irresponsible acts I’ve ever witnessed in American politics.  And that was in large part because she struck me as unmistakably unintelligent, a quality I believe to be at least somewhat innate.  I would not and do not shy away from saying she is not a smart woman.  But I would never in a million years say that she got the nomination because she is a beautiful woman (which she plainly is), even if I believed that to be the reason (which I feel compelled to point out that I do not).

Why would commenting on her looks be off limits but commenting on her intelligence be fair game, if both qualities are largely beyond her control?  When I commented during the 2012 campaign (in a post I cannot find to link) that I didn’t mind the Ryan nomination because at least he isn’t stupid and he has pretty eyes, was I behaving in a morally ugly way?  And if so, for which statement?

Or consider the example of Michael Phelps, an extraordinarily successful swimmer.  I could have spent my life swimming laps and would never have the advantages he has in the pool based solely on his build.  (That is not to take away a jot from the enormous effort he expended to achieve his goals.  But that again suggests a temperamental trait that may well be largely innate!)  Why is it perfectly OK to discuss the advantages his arms and legs have given him, but not the way the face and body of Ms. Paltrow have helped her career?

So, I put the question out there — is it ever OK to discuss a person’s looks in a public forum?  Does it vary by gender, and if so why?  Why do we shy away from discussing the beauty of a person when we are happy to discuss other innate qualities he or she may have, both physical and intellectual?

165 thoughts on “Tuesday questions, Gwyneth Paltrow edition

  1. What I have is more observations (and assertions) that don’t answer your questions directly, but that I think land in the ball park:

    First, some people criticize, or at least comment on, Hillary Clinton’s looks a lot.

    Second, I knew people in 2008 who seemed to hold Palin’s looks against her, as evidence of her non-intelligence. I should confess I’m not a neutral observer and my friends might dispute my representation of their comments. But I think her looks were among a lot of things that fueled the many (in my opinion) thinly veiled misogynistic comments leveled at her. (To be clear, I believe she was/is/would be incompetent as a political leader, and I don’t think my friends disliked her because she is a woman, but I think they took liberties to indulge in a lot of anti-woman tropes in making their otherwise very good criticisms. But again, I’m not entirely a neutral observer here.)

    Third, with the Phelps comparison, I imagine that a famous woman athlete might have attributes that commentators could comment on and still be speaking relevantly to her abilities (i.e., their comments wouldn’t be mere sexism).

    Fourth, depending on the speaker and the audience, it is a little bit different for genders. I imagine a speaker/audience that is very sensitive to the problems of sexism and judging women by their looks might well avoid commenting on a woman’s prettiness because they realize the function of such comments. The comments themselves may be made with no malice and with full respect, but knowing that others might reduce such comments down to the insulting “she’s dumb and pretty” stereotypes might discourage some people from making what in the abstract might be innocuous statements.

    • “Second, I knew people in 2008 who seemed to hold Palin’s looks against her, as evidence of her non-intelligence. I should confess I’m not a neutral observer and my friends might dispute my representation of their comments. But I think her looks were among a lot of things that fueled the many (in my opinion) thinly veiled misogynistic comments leveled at her. (To be clear, I believe she was/is/would be incompetent as a political leader, and I don’t think my friends disliked her because she is a woman, but I think they took liberties to indulge in a lot of anti-woman tropes in making their otherwise very good criticisms. But again, I’m not entirely a neutral observer here.)”
      I think people have a tendency to judge people viscerally light of the politics they hold, and display an often disturbing degree of tribalism. It is often quite scary to see some of the misogyny and racism that can rear up from people when talking about the other team.
    • (To be clear, I believe she was/is/would be incompetent as a political leader, and I don’t think my friends disliked her because she is a woman, but I think they took liberties to indulge in a lot of anti-woman tropes in making their otherwise very good criticisms. But again, I’m not entirely a neutral observer here.)

      I felt that way about a lot of the Palin criticism too.

      • Don’t you think she used her appearance? Her introduction to the national stage came with Rich Lowry’s ‘starbursts’ in the room. I don’t mean to suggest this makes the misogyny Palin experienced. But her feminine appeal was a tool, and she used it in a way that often helps demean women. It’s a difficult topic to dissect.
        • What does “used her appearance” mean?

          Did it influence her support? Yes, it did. So did Obama’s (who is either the US’s most attractive president, or second-most after Kennedy) – his youthful handsomeness must have played some role in the enthusiasm he was able to inspire. (It certainly did for me.) There are things some media personalities said about Obama that are about as over-the-top embarassing as Rich Lowry’s ‘starbursts’.

          And Palin, far more than Obama, had little to no choice. Looks affect a woman’s chances in politics far more than they do a man’s. Look a Hillary during her campaign and then as sec-state – during the campaign she had more cosmetics, she looked younger, her hair had more colour. It wasn’t until after the campaign was over that she could go back to looking like a normal woman her age. If Palin had dressed in a way that the news decided showed poor fashion sense, all the news channels would have been discussing it. Men’s clothes don’t matter to anyone. If she has to be worrying about her looks every moment of the campaign regardless, why not get some benefit out of them as well?

          I don’t like Palin, I don’t find her either intelligent or thoughtful, and (going from her halfway-decent governorship in Alaska prior to the VP nomination) I think she let the fame and publicity go to her head. But that doesn’t change the fact that she faced a barrage of sexist attacks, and that the combination of those with the campaign-time attacks on Hillary Clinton say a lot about what the political sphere is like for women, and about why there hasn’t been a female president yet and why many women are less than eager to contend for the position.

        • For just one example – look at the ‘Obama girl’ video. For Obama, it was a net positive, emphasizing the youthful enthusiasm around his campaign. Something similar for Palin would only have entrenched people in their opinion of her as a flake.
        • Yes, she did. A woman in politics has no other option if she doesn’t want anything sub-par about her appearance dissected by the media.
  2. As far as men commenting on women’s looks, probably the discomfort comes from the awareness of our culture’s history of judging women merely by their looks. Quoting Sondheim: “As long as you’re a man,/ you’re what the world will make of you/ Whereas if you’re a woman/ you’re only what it sees.”

    Personally I don’t feel that reluctance when it comes to judging the appearance of celebrities, since that’s just what we do with celebrities, male and female. But I definitely squirm when guys at work talk about how our female co-workers’ looks.

  3. What kind of public forum?

    Obama talking about the attractiveness of Kamela Harris in a press conference? Unacceptable.

    A magazine like People, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire, Cosmo, etc talking about attractiveness of various people? Sure go at it.

    A bunch of friends talking about it in a bar or this place? Sure as long as it is not done in a cruel way and preferably at good volumes.

    Aesthetics and sexual attraction matter and they might be relative and in the eye of the beholder but I do believe that sexual attraction is important to humans for biological and evolutionary reasons. It is silly and counterproductive to claim otherwise.

    People seem to be the only species (as far as I can tell) that seem to constantly want to go against all biological/evolutionary impulse as being improper. On another internet forum I used to belong to, there was a decent number of people who seemed to think that the human race should die out. They thought that humanity was a pox upon the earth and that the sooner we disappeared the better for the rest of flora and fuana. I always thought that this was rather fucked up. Is there any other species that would think this way? And they seemed to think that their thoughts were noble which is even daffier.

  4. This is a very interesting question.

    Regarding Bosh, my anecdotal experience tells me there is a strain of on court trash talk around ugliness. When I’ve seen it done, it is almost as a punctuation mark… “Mother fisher can’t show AND he’s ugly!” It matters not whether the guy can actually shoot or whether or not he’s ugly… it’s trash talk… it’s meant to get under one’s skin, to throw them off their game. There are generally “rules” about what is permissible and what is not*; I’ve never heard an unspoken rule about attractiveness being off limits. Now, certain guys are sort of notoriously ugly and talented, meaning opponents are going to pick on their looks.

    As for discussing looks in general, I think it has to do with how the people present themselves. If I try to go on “America’s Next Top Model” or whatever it is called, I think it would be fair to discuss my looks; the show is all about that. Now, one can quickly wade into needless nastiness, but a discussion of someone who is attempting to be a model’s looks seems germane, if not necessary.

    Likewise for a politician: if we identify intellect as a necessary trait, discussing a candidates intelligence is fair (again, provided we avoid the needless nastiness).

    When folks wander into unrelated categories, it is almost needlessly nasty and usually in lieu of a more substantive criticism. “How can I vote for Christie? HE’S FAT!” If that is your biggest objection to him, sounds like you haven’t really thought about the matter.

    Actors, female ones in particular (do we still call them actresses?), are difficult, because there are a bevy of traits and talents they make their hay on. Activeness is one of them, but is obviously not a necessary one.

    Ultimately, for me, it comes down to how the person is presenting him or herself. If they are doing so in such a way as to make their looks a focal point, I think a reasoned discussion of that is fair. But if they are asked to be judged on other factors, we shouldn’t wade into unrelated areas.

    * There was a real brouhaha earlier this year when Kevin Garnett said something to Carmelo Anthony regarding his wife’s intimate parts, implying he had, well, intimate knowledge of them. This was largely seen as over-the-line. Suffice it to say, I don’t make the rules, nor do I know all the rules, but the rules do exist.

    • But let’s unpack the “America’s Next Top Model” example a bit. (I guess the truth-in-advertising people haven’t been able to force them to change the name to “America’s Next Top C-list Celebrity” yet.) Couldn’t one argue that participating in such a show perpetuates an unhealthy objectification of women? That modeling itself is morally suspect, and that judging participants on their physical attractiveness merely reinforces an unhealthy and/or immoral understanding of women’s value?
      • Except I know plenty of smart and accomplished women who love America’s Next Top Model and other reality TV shows…

        I hate most Reality TV. I think it is baneful. Yet once on Facebook, a female friend from high school made a post about watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model while working on her PhD applications.

        I asked about her PhD program. Another woman we went to high school with went made a comment around the lines of “LOL, NewDealer wants to know about the PhD program and I want to know what season of ANTM” This woman was a lawyer.

        There were also plenty of women in my law school. Smart, ambitious, hard-working, and talented women who loved to talk about what happened on The Real Housewives of Wherever and all the cattiness. I would say Real Housewives of Whereever does not do much for women either.

        People are complicated. I don’t see why modeling is morally suspect (disclaimer: My sister-in-law used to be a model and is now a fashion designer).

        Are aesthetics morally suspect? Is it morally suspect for someone to like fashionable and expensive clothing and not be satisfied with stuff at the Gap/Banana Republic level? I’ve met plenty of people who seem to argue yes and that the world would be better if it did not get fancier than jeans, a t-shirt, and a pair of chucks.

        • I feel compelled to stipulate (and here is as good a place as any) that just because I’m asking these questions doesn’t mean I necessarily endorse the viewpoint that informs them. I’m asking for the sake of asking, not because I actually have a problem with the modeling industry per se.
          • Of course not. I’m merely asking to spur conversation.

            And I’ve had a similar problem with people thinking that my asking a question meant I endorsed a viewpoint. Now I use disclaimers.

      • I wouldn’t argue with any of the presuppositions to your questions there.

        Let me use a slightly better example: American Idol, specifically the early rounds where they mock the crappy singers. As much as I feel for those people (and struggle with memes that develop, often tinged with a certain minstrel-show racism), the fact is they chose to go on a singing competition with a board of nasty judges, knowing full well what might happen. I struggle to watch it, but I also struggle to say, “Well, why are they being so mean?” Those people knew what they were getting into.

        If a contestant on ANTCLC objected to being critiqued for her looks, I’d say, “Well, what did you expect?”

        Whether we should have such shows in the first place is a good question on its own merit.

    • To me, part of the issue with actresses is that a male actor can be successful without being attractive, whereas it’s extremely hard for an actress to do the same. Commenting negatively on actress’ looks – especially when they’re probably still better-looking than pretty much anyone on this forum – seems to reinforce this.

      That said, I didn’t have a strong problem with the original post, because it seemed more about what we personally find attractive and not attractive, compared to broader social opinion on people’s looks. Calling an actress ugly is out of line. Commenting on her attractiveness as something that’s relevant to her professional abilities is out of line. Discussing our personal views, as an examination of what different people consider attractive, doesn’t bother me so much, because it’s not a judgement on the actress.

      • That certainly was where I intended the conversation to go. I would never call Ms. Paltrow ugly (because that would be, among other things, absurd) or anyone else (because that would be pointlessly nasty). I was trying to start a discussion about subjectivity of attraction.
      • “To me, part of the issue with actresses is that a male actor can be successful without being attractive, whereas it’s extremely hard for an actress to do the same.”

        I would say they can be successful in certain genres. Jonah Hill will always have a successful comedic career as a secondary/character actor. He is never going to be in a dramatic role or leading role.

        • “Being funny” is a time-honored coping/survival method for those less-favored in the physical department (looks or strength). Men or women.

          I have an female friend whom I love dearly. She’s one of my oldest friends; like a sister to me. If I am being honest, she is physically rather plain – but she is one of the funniest people I have ever known in this life (ditto on her brother – not a looker, but a sharp, sharp comedic mind). Nobody, and I mean nobody, can make me laugh harder than she can. I don’t think these facts are unrelated.

          Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig are pretty good-looking women to begin with…but the fact that they make me laugh makes them much, much more attractive.

      • “To me, part of the issue with actresses is that a male actor can be successful without being attractive, whereas it’s extremely hard for an actress to do the same.”

        I always wonder who the female Steve Buschemi is.

        The few women who seem to get away with it usually do so by being very narrowly typecast, e.g., Melissa McCarthy (who I think is phenomenally talented).

          • Heh, I didn’t see the other comment.

            Though Steve sure as hell ain’t poor.

            But I think this is evidence of the trickiness of this topic. No one stood up and said, “Buscemi is a bug eyed freak with frog lips who nearly broke my TV screen!” People acknowledged him as an example of someone who did not meet traditional standards of beauty, yet still found great success. If saying even that a bridge too far? Because it seems like we are wading into “denying reality” ground at that point.

            Should I have used Paul Giamatti? Or would that have been mean to Paul?

          • I feel bad for Buscemi because he is always brought up in these contexts. It’s the sort of thing that makes of an excellent drinking question: if you could be a major Hollywood star, but you had to be the widely acknowledged “ugly” major Hollyood star, would it be worth it?
          • Again, Buscemi got his breaks largely on “funny” rather than dramatic – that comedic actors sometimes then turn out to have finely-honed dramatic abilities should surprise no one at this point. But his break came from playing funny (whiny, paranoid, neurotic, annoying). Giamatti too, for that matter.

            If I could give advice to average-looking women looking to break into showbiz, it’d be “learn comedy/improv”. Whether that would be enough to overcome the bias that both males AND females have towards looking at prettier women is unknown, but it couldn’t hurt, and there’s no question it builds chops.

          • I don’t remember all that much of Buscemi’s early career (I remember “Airheads” (REMEMBER “AIRHEADS”!?!) and “Billy Madison). But what you say seems reasonable.

            So it is possible that Melissa McCarthy is following his path.

            But I do think KMW’s observation holds. Need we refer back to all the still-images from Fox News Channel… sloppy guys and “car show model” women?

  5. I think an interesting case study in sports would be the Williams sisters, for whom a great deal of commentary is about their looks, often in a very nasty way. I think there is a weird mix of sexism, racism, and jealously at play, none of which they ever really asked for.
    • One could argue that, by pursuing a certain kind of celebrity, “asking for” jealousy and nastiness is inextricably part of the deal. While it’s truly sad that one can’t excel at something and enjoy the resulting fame without putting one’s self in front of people who will, because of their own inner poisons, want to tear you down, it’s unrealistic to expect a different outcome.

      And tennis is the only sport I will watch for its own sake, even though I’ve never played a game in my life. I love it, and I think the Williams sisters are a marvel.

      • I think the Williams sisters have handled themselves with nothing but grace and aplomb, from what I’ve seen. They just seem so above much of the nastiness.

        That said, there seemed to be a particular toxicity directed at them. “Who do these big black monkey women think they are, winning at our game and grunting while they’re at it?”

  6. As a 100% gay guy, I am very, very reticent about the attractiveness of men. My straight friends, please do consider the privileges you have.

    Also: If it’s okay to argue ad hominem, then arguing based on looks ought to be permitted, right?

    • Interesting. I don’t have the same reticence (as evidenced by varia I’ve written), by and large. (It obviously varies by setting and the company I’m keeping.) But then, I think I’m a more demonstrative person in general than you are, so perhaps it’s a personality thing?
        • Oh, sure. I work in an office where all but one of my colleagues are women, and the only guys around are either patients or employees, both of which are populations I would rather gargle battery acid than discuss in terms of physical attractiveness. But I would hope those same standards would apply to straight guys. Is that impossibly naive, at least in terms of the latter?
          • “But I would hope those same standards would apply to straight guys. Is that impossibly naive, at least in terms of the latter?”

            I had to call out a colleague last year but making an inappropriate comment about attractiveness in mixed company. Some guys do it, but it shouldn’t be considered appropriate, certainly not in a professional setting.

            I think place-and-time matter.

            I think I’ve told this story, but I used to workout at the NYSC on 16th and 8th. I trust you know the neighborhood. There were a couple of dudes who were always there around the same time as I. Their conversation was often rather explicit… “I need to get some d*ck tonight” … “He’s hot as shit” … ” That sort of stuff. Twenty-three-year-old Kazzy was initially somewhat uncomfortable with this. That is, until I realized it was basically the exact same conversations I had with my friends when we went to the gym together, only we were straight guys talking about women. Realizing this might be the only space these guys felt comfortable talking in such a way as openly as they were, that I was largely on “their” turf, I realized I needed to check my discomfort and realize the double-standard I was applying. I quickly got over it. Now, perhaps none of us should be talking about the objects of our sexual desire in such a way; but if I’m going to permit it amongst heteros, I must necessarily permit it amongst gays.

            Gay dudes in the gym… they’re just like straight dudes!

            I actually miss that gym. Lots of energy. Plus I got lots of compliments. Oh, to be young and in shape in a gay gym… :-p

  7. I didn’t comment on the thread at all because it discomforted me, and it does get tiring to always say, “hey, wait a minute Dudes.”

    For a different perspective, I’m in my 50’s. While I was never ‘beautiful’ in the way one might describe Paltrow, I was not horrid looking; I didn’t frighten small children and cause a blight on crops or anything like that. I certainly attracted my fair share of desire.

    The last decade has been eye-opening, though. Often, I’ve felt like I’ve turned into the invisible woman. People literally don’t see me anymore. When I seemed young and attractive, the world met me as if I had something to offer. And that pretty much seems to turn off with age, with the gray hairs, wrinkles around the eyes and neck, and changing shape of getting older. All too often, the presumption is that I’ve nothing to offer.

    Yet when people take the time to actually talk to me, they generally conclude I’m of some value to them. But I often find I have to force that; I’m not given the opportunity due to my appearance.

    I stayed off the Paltrow thread because of this. I don’t mean to judge here; for women are as likely to see through an older woman as men. But I do want you to understand: that value of looks first translates into devaluing the experience and learning of older women later.

    Go take a careful look at the recent pictures of Palin; her face is pretend; an attempt to lock her into pre-50. Her neck tells the truth; it looks like mine. Somedays, I feel sorry for her; for she’s fighting an uphill battle, and it’s not clear if she’ll take the path of Joan Rivers or Maggie Thatcher.

    • Thanks for commenting, zic. I posted this week’s question because I took seriously the concerns raised last week, and wanted to give people who had qualms plenty of space to express them.

      I can relate to some of what you write, though obviously my experience as a man is going to differ a great deal from yours as a woman, no matter how much what you say may resonate. However, I do think gay men may have a bit more in common with women in some regards, at least when it comes to looks.

      There’s no non-horribly-conceited way of saying this, so I’ll just say it and hope it sounds as non-awful as possible. I’ve generally considered myself kind of cute. My looks have served me well enough in a sub-culture that puts a premium on being cute. And as I get older and approach an age when I probably won’t be able to pull off “cute” any longer, I wonder how that will affect my self-image. I’ve never minded aging much, since I look pretty young still, but I’m going to pass a threshold one of these days when I’m going to look older than I’d like. I genuinely wonder how I’ll handle it.

      Sorry if that comment is impossibly obnoxious. I don’t mean it to be, but it seemed germane to your thoughts.

      • Doc, I don’t mean to suggest that the diminishing-of-value due to aging is only a problem for women; I do see it effecting men, also. Particularly because I know so many men who work in performing arts. Who do you want to front your band, the hunk or the old fat guy with a receding hair line?

        It becomes a greater problem for women because they’re too often judged first by appearance.

        But both men and women are varied; too. Some folk build a sense of worth rooted in appearance to some degree, some root in accomplishment and deed, most in both to one degree or another. It’s a hard discussion because people vary so much.

    • zic,

      To borrow a page from Roger, why must it be zero sum? Is it possible to admire the beauty of a 20-year-old, the experience of a 50-year-old, and where appropriate those who have both at any space on the age spectrum?

      • Kazzy, that would be nice. What I find, all to often, however is that worth stops with the admiring of beauty. The appreciation of experience doesn’t happen so much. For women, who live in a sea of their worth often being equated with their appearance, aging can become a process of struggling to maintain your worth; something the cosmetics/cosmetic surgery industries have found to be very profitable.
        • How much of this is a function of people not actually getting to know one another? Obviously, with celebs, most of us will never know them in any meaningful way, and thus are limited to judging them based on other things (though that need not be limited to looks… we can judge their acting ability, how they carry themselves, what we know of their lives as wifes/husbands/partners/parents/children, their philanthropic work, etc).

          But in our real lives, there is no reason we shouldn’t know the people we tend to interact with beyond the superficial. Perhaps I’m uniquely situated in that I’ve worked in majority-female workplaces throughout my career. I certainly notice the looks of my colleagues, but if this is all I take the time to know, I’d be poorly situated for success at my job.

          Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t take the time to actually get to know others, with a weird divide forming along gender lines. I know men who’ve worked with women and figured, well, the fact that they were a woman told them all they need to know about that person. For shame.

    • RE: “invisible woman”.

      Not to take away from your experience, but IMO this happens somewhat to older men too (though perhaps to a lesser degree, and perhaps later in life). A friend and I were commiserating over beers the other night that when a man is young, he is seen by women: either attractive/favorably; or unfavorably, as a potential obstacle/harasser, or worse – a threat, to be avoided. A woman’s eyes register a young man’s presence, and she reacts according to the situation. A young man in the vicinity needs to be judged and accounted for, if for no other reason than her own safety.

      But when a man reaches a certain age (probably not coincidentally, the age when testosterone begins to recede a bit), women just…don’t notice you at all anymore. You hold a door, they breeze past you without a glance, as though you were a chair propping that door open. You become a physical fact of the landscape; no more attention is spared than would be for furniture.

      It’s a little depressing.

      • I’ve actually experienced a bit of this over the last year or so: a combination of being more out of shape than I ever have (I was an athlete once upon a time), a receding hairline, and actually starting to look my age (I’m 37, but until very recently, I looked perpetually 23), I’ve noticed a marked difference in the attention I get. I was once a bit of a rake (and by a bit, I mean I was a complete rake), and while I don’t miss those days (usually), and I definitely don’t miss that side of myself (ever… OK, usually), I sometimes miss the attention.
    • I need to be clear on turning invisible here; women are as guilty of not seeing older women as men; the worth perceived based on looks is not necessarily gendered worth. I wonder on this, too; it seems a deep-seated cultural thing.
      • I think you’re right that it happens differently for women, but I think a large product of that has less to do with differences in how we see men and women aging than it does in differences in how we see younger men and women. Or rather, it’s an interaction: we see aging in men differently because we weren’t judging men primarily on appearances to begin with.
        • +1. That’s very much what I’m trying to get at. When the first worth is looks, losing looks means you’ve lost the essence of worth.
          • How much of this is a function of a failure of ability or willingness to judge people (positively or negatively) along other lines?

            It seems that physical attraction is, in some ways, biologically ingrained in us. We see certain people and our brain and body respond in certain ways. Even little kids have a sense of pretty, who is nice to look at and who is less so.

            I tend not to focus on athletes’ looks because (at least in the sports I watch), I know what makes a great athlete and look for those things and judge accordingly. When I start to wander into less familiar sports, I do notice greater attention to looks (e.g., women’s gymnastics during the Olympics). With my colleagues, I might notice who I find attractive, but I’m fully capable of evaluating them as educators because I am a trained educator myself.

            With acting? I don’t know all that much about what makes an actor great. I can identify certain performances as better than others, but I’m not a student of the craft. So I’m left with what I got, which is noting their looks.

            This isn’t meant to be a defense of this line of thinking, since you note very well the damage it causes. But perhaps if we fostered a culture in which people were both better equipped and more encouraged to appropriately critique others, we’d fall less onto the inappropriate ways of doing so?

          • Kazzy, I think part of the problem is how the standards applied to athletes/entertainers spills over to the regular-joe crowd.

            I’d never expect you to be built on Michael Phelps, I doubt you’d expect me to look like Paltrow. But those elite standards are what we often bring to the table for everyone, if that makes sense.

          • 100% agree, Zic.

            When I read stories about how Actor X added 25 pounds of muscle or lost 30 pounds or whatever for a role, I have to remind myself that he did so with the help of a nutritionist and personal chef and personal trainer and didn’t have a 9-to-5 job on top of trying to get in shape. Otherwise, I start to think, “I should be doing that.”

      • In my experience (which, standard disclaimer, white dude and all) people have a tendency to not notice old people at all. The break point seems to be about 35.

        You have to be rather notably distinguished looking to be noticed for your appearance between 35 and dead.

        Now, to my specific case, I think I remember being aware of being thought of as attractive a half-dozen times in my life, and let’s just say that hammers were applied repeatedly before I got it. I don’t consider myself attractive, and never really thought of myself as attractive, so a huge part of this might have been completely missed opportunities on my part. As a result, though, I’ve gone through life always assuming that if I wanted to be noticed, I had to do something notable.

        Most people don’t do notable things (at least, this is how I interpret how other people notice other people, I think a lot of things are notable, but I’m weird).

        I think women are more culturally predisposed to feel noticed for their looks, even if they’re not particularly notably attractive (there are things that are perverse here, to be clear). When some guy finds you attractive, even if you’re not Heidi Klum, you notice it, yes? That’s less frequent with guys, I think.

        I wonder how this plays into the dynamic.

    • The last decade has been eye-opening, though. Often, I’ve felt like I’ve turned into the invisible woman. People literally don’t see me anymore. When I seemed young and attractive, the world met me as if I had something to offer.

      I wonder—and I doubt that either of us knows the answer to this, since neither of us has ever been a member of the opposite sex—to what extent what you’re experiencing now is all that different from what men experience their whole lives. Because the way you’re describing your youth doesn’t sound terribly familiar to me. If a stranger talks to me, it’s almost always to ask for money. Occasionally, in certain parts of town, a gay man will offer to fellate me. Beyond that, though, people don’t seem terribly interested in me by default, even though I am fairly good-looking.

      • That’s a very interesting question, Brandon. First, to be very clear; I’m not just talking about attraction and being seen in terms of sexual attraction. Rather, sexual attraction is just one of many ways people are welcomed to participate, to interact with other people, and feel their contribution valued. There are many domains through which interaction gets valued.

        I am gifted in some domains; one is three-dimensional visualization; I consistently test out in the top %. There are men in my family with the same gift; it’s accepted, almost expected of them; if they have it, they should use it.

        I cannot begin to tell you how dumbstruck I’ve been throughout my life when people showed shock that I have this ability. For my father, my brothers, opinion was valued. Me? Often I solutions to 3-D problems as a question, which allows others (usually men, but not always) to process the solution as ‘their idea.’ This is better then the alternative of arguing about it, which is just a waste of time; believe me, I’ve wasted a lot of time that way; and often had a poorer solution implemented. So as a girl, there were definitely areas where I was also invisible.

        I’m fairly certain you’ve grown up in a world where, if you offered an opinion on something typically the domain of white males, it was simply accepted. For women, it’s often sexual attraction that’s easiest; and when it fades, they disappear.

      • Brandon,
        sounds like you probably aren’t fairly good-looking.
        Charisma is what defines looks, far more than actual looks themselves.

        Pardon, but you don’t seem to be the most charismatic person out there.

          • Now this cracks me up. Dudes like Weiner who want to be admired (and I’ve met more then a few through the years) too often miss a big portion of their potential audience.

            Girl like me might not want to receive those pictures, but it doesn’t mean there’s no audience for them.

          • I assume they’re more interested in getting laid than in being admired.

            I see it as an example of the limits of introspection as a tool for understanding others. A man figures that if a woman sent him a sexy picture, it would make him want to sleep with her more, so obviously the way to make a woman want to sleep with him is to send her a sexy picture of himself.

            Women being different from men, that generally doesn’t work very well. It probably would work on gay men, but that doesn’t do you any good if you’re not interested in having sex with gay men.

          • I’ve gotten offers like that in the neighborhood of gay bars, as well as actually in them. Maybe that’s what he means by “in certain parts of town?” Granted, in Austin there is a sort of gay strip (it used to be called the gay 6th Street, but I dunno if anyone calls it that anymore), so a large portion of the men in that area are going to be gay, which means the atmosphere at times is not unlike the one inside the gay bars.

            Also, I’ve never had someone just walk up to me and offer that. It’s always been after at least some conversation. In fact, if someone walked up to me and offered that out of the blue, I’d probably assume they would want money, because seriously, who does that?

          • In my town, the corner female prostitutes will occasionally proposition guys on foot or in a stopped car at a light, but even they tend to be a LITTLE more reserved about it, using euphemisms like the classic “You looking for a good time, honey?”

            Are male street prostitutes that much more open about the transaction on offer?

            Or maybe he just lives in a city afflicted with an epidemic of Fabulous Tourette’s?

            (NOTE: Tourette Syndrome is Not Fabulous).

          • It was only ten bucks when I heard that joke.
            Inflation is everywhere these days . . .

            . . . mumble, mumble . . . (something about the value of a dollar) . . . mumble, mumble . . .

          • The female prostitutes in my old neighborhood (there were a lot of them) used to always come up to me as I walked by. There line was always the same: “Don’t I know you, honey?” The drug dealers would ask, “Are you lookin’ for somethin’?”
        • Not shouted*. For example, the first time it happened I was walking back to my car a bit after midnight, and a short, stocky, Hispanic man about 5-10 years older than me stopped me and said, “I am just like you.” (Is that some kind of gay password?) I was confused at first, because I thought he was going to ask me for money**, and he was kind of beating around the bush. Eventually he gave up on subtlety and said, “I want to suck your dick,” at which point I politely declined.

          Are pickup attempts from gay men really not something all halfway-decent-looking men get from time to time?

          *I did once get an offer for anal sex shouted at me, but that’s different.

          **It later occurred to me that I’ve never seen a Hispanic panhandler.

  8. I’ll offer a few thoughts, but they’ll probably be incomplete, so I might want to re-visit them later.

    “Is it that Ms. Paltrow is a woman, and that women have been and still are judged far too much on the basis of their looks?”

    Well, primarily, it’s that she’s a person and making ugly comments about people generally isn’t nice (and, to be clear, in the part of my comment that you noted, I’m not saying that was happening in your post, but it was a direction that sort of discussion could lead).

    But to your question, yes the fact that she’s a woman plays into this. Women are much more harshly judged based on their looks than men. And it’s pretty clear that North America’s obsession with looks has harmed a lot of women (or caused them to harm themselves). This is a problem, and people in the media (us bloggers included) need to be aware of this and measure our words very carefully.

    “Kazzy wrote this about one of the players: Plus [the Heat] have Chris Bosh, who looks like a weird muppet dinosaur…”

    That wasn’t very nice of Kazzy. He probably shouldn’t have written it (and, I’ll admit, I’ve probably written similar not-nice stuff in the past – I’m working on that). There’s no need to comment on a player’s looks as it has nothing to do with their abilities.

    …but, again, there is a difference when it comes to men and women.

    Pierre notes the crap Clinton gets for her appearance. Did Trent Lott ever appear in fashion pages of newspapers? Michelle Obama is constantly judged on her appearance/attire, and there is absolutely no reason for it.

    You noted, by being in People and by being a celebrity, Paltrow is the one who made her looks a topic of discussion. This is fair, but it’s a fine line to walk. Noting that some actors have a better chance of getting work because of their appearances is probably in-bounds (it’s similar to commenting on Phelps’s swimming ability). On the flip-side, it can be interesting to note who gets acting roles despite issues with his/her appearance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Flanagan_(actor)#Personal_life).

    But, again, it’s a balancing act. Such analyses are fine, but they tread perilously close to judging people on their looks. This diverges with the Phelps question because commenting on Phelps’s dolphin kick, and saying that it is so much better than Ryan Lochte’s dolphin kick, doesn’t have the same ramifications.

    There aren’t kids shoving their fingers down their throats because they don’t think they’ll ever have such a wonderful dolphin kick. The scourge of swimming-inability isn’t launching a thousand made-for-TV movies. The context isn’t the same.

    Further, we have to think about how much these different things (looks, ability, brains) wind up affecting people’s self-worth. There’s a lot of emotional baggage in appearance and the way we judge appearance, that isn’t there (as much) in the others. When we start picking apart Paltrow’s looks, we’re going to be turning the spotlight onto a lot of readers’ insecurities.

    Because we’re not just talking about looks. Read last week’s thread and there’s a whole discussion on beautiful vs. pretty vs. sexy. The first two might just be subjective aesthetic preferences, but the concept of “sexy” has a lot of self-worth wrapped up in it. Humans are sexual creatures and no one wants to think of themselves as un-sexy (or, at least, most of us don’t). I know we’re talking about personal preferences, but it still has the potential to run a lot deeper than that.

    Judging one’s smarts is similar. Palin was, by many, deemed not very smart. Unfortunately, a lot of people went from not-very-smart-person to undesirable-person (I’m using “undesirable” in a non-“sexy” way here). She certainly was judged on her brains. She was deemed of less worth by many based on her intelligence. That, too, ain’t cool.

    Ryan Lochte was generally considered a lesser swimmer than Phelps, but I don’t know anyone who judged him to be of less worth than Phelps based on their dolphin kicks. This is why analyzing the abilities of professional athletes within their chosen sports is ok. It’s an assessment of ability, not a judgement of a person.

    That’s where the issue with discussions of beauty. They can easily start to blend into judgements of people (both the people being discussed, and the audience who will probably never “measure up” to the people being discussed).

    And that was kind of the point of my objection (which was fairly hedged). That kind of judgement may not have been in the post, and may not have been behind all the comments, but it wasn’t that far away, and it would have been easy for people to read the judgement into the discussion, rightly or wrongly.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful comment, Jonathan.

      The First Lady is an interesting subject for discussion. On the one hand, Michelle Obama has faced soooooooooo much nastiness, a great deal of which seems like a combination of barely-veiled racism and misdirected resentment of her husband. It’s been unfair and unseemly and repulsive. I don’t recall anything like the same kind of vitriol directed at either Barbara or Laura Bush, but perhaps I missed it. (The former was FLOTUS before the advent of the Internet, so that factor probably played a big part.)

      On the other hand, designers fall all over themselves to dress Mrs. Obama. She enjoys a level of glamour that other First Ladies haven’t. Is she making the best of a sticky situation? Is she “asking” for criticism?

      • She is, no doubt, benefiting from certain privileges that come with being the First Lady, but I can’t imagine she’s doing anything other than making the best of a sticky situation. She had to know how she was going to be judged, and how “important” it was for her to look impeccable… yet still she’d catch flak for her body shape. There’s little designers can do about that.

        There’s basically no way she was “asking” for criticism. She wasn’t peddling her fashion sense. She wasn’t using her clothing or body shape to press a point, make money, earn prestige or anything like that (and to the extent she was using her appearance to help her husband’s campaign, it was because she was forced into that role by the media and populace).

        But still, the judgement’s there.

    • JML,

      In my defense, my comment on Chris Bosh was in a broader conversation about Russell choosing a team to root for based on athlete attractiveness. I was giving a brief and humorous breakdown of my understanding of players, largely based on the popular perceptions therein. There is a meme about Bosh and his dinosaur-ness, exacerbated by him having once played for the Raptors.

      That said, you are right that such a broader conversation might be misplaced. I touch above on the unique form of trash talking in sports that centers on looks.

      I just wanted to offer context. I generally don’t comment on athletes’ attractiveness unless their is someone who is particularly stunning.

      • And here is where I’m going to step in and say:

        1) I included Kazzy’s comment only because it seemed an interesting counterpoint to last week’s question and commentary, not because I thought it was inappropriate and not because I wanted to expose him to criticism

        2) As he notes, his comment was a direct response to my mentioning my usual method of picking a team to root for based on which members I thought were cuter.

        • Sure, and I didn’t think it was that much of a big deal. It wasn’t nice, but there was context, and it wasn’t really being used to judge CB4 negatively as a person. (And, since it was an aside, it wasn’t likely to lead to something worse.)

          But how comfortable would we have been with such a comment had you been watching a WNBA game?

          • As I said above, I tend to take the Roger Ebert approach to “judging” people: I do so based on the context in which they are “performing”. So I generally see little reason to comment on an athlete’s attractiveness because it is not germane to their purpose, which is to excel at their athletic endeavor. I see no reason to comment on a politician’s weight. I do think it appropriate to discuss a model’s attractiveness because a function of his/her role is to be attractive.

            All that said, my comments are generally those in the positive. I rarely call someone ugly. It does just feel nasty. I might say, “I don’t see what other people see with that person.” That’s usually as far as I go. If someone is particularly stunning or otherwise draws my attention, I might comment, even if it is outside the bounds of their profession. There is a WNBA player whose name escapes me that I always thought was really cue. Sue Bird maybe? I don’t remember.

            But when Britney Griner was attacked for being tall and having big hands and big feet… um, seriously? Those are the things that made her one of the best college female basketball players ever and will serve her well in her career. Those should be celebrated, not mocked. If you want to see dainty, small-handed women, you probably shouldn’t be watching women’s basketball. Of course, if a dainty, small-handed women can handle herself on the court, by all means, she should be out there.

          • To summarize, I guess I should say I definitely notice attractiveness, but I tend not to care. If you can do whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing well, your looks are secondary to that, if not tertiary.

            I also tend to develop a weird attraction to people who excel at a craft. I talked myself into thinking Donovan McNabb was cute because I loved him as a football player. I’ve fallen in love with every woman I’ve ever seen dance on stage, regardless of how they actually looked, because their excellence was sexy.

          • Kazzy,
            ” So I generally see little reason to comment on an athlete’s attractiveness because it is not germane to their purpose, which is to excel at their athletic endeavor”

            … not to make money for TV companies, which then pay for the sport to exist? Tv companies that are making tons of money off people ogling the figure skaters?

          • That might be the governing body’s purpose, but I doubt it is the athlete’s prerogative, especially in the sports I tend to watch.

            I’d venture to guess most male American team sport athletes (the ones I tend to watch) have the following priorities:
            1- Win the championship
            1a- Be the best individual player possible
            1b- Make money

            I include them all as 1’s because they all feed into each other and I’m sure individual athletes might rank them slightly differently than I have. Most aren’t particularly interested in promoting the sport nor do they tend to exploit their looks, except insofar as they make more opportunities for 1b via outside marketing opportunities.

            LeBron has a receding hairline, which has been goofed on at times. He wears his sweatband to hide it, but otherwise seems no more bothered by it than your typical 20-something going bald prematurely. If he were an actor, he might pursue hair plugs. As an athlete, that’s not necessary (though it didn’t stop Tom Brady).

        • Thanks, Russ. I should also add that I take no objection to what JML said. I know him well enough to know he was offering his usual thoughtful perspective. I’m happy to defend and/or walkback the comment as necessary. I just thought context was necessary.

          TL;DR: Russell made me do it.

  9. I think there’s a very fine line between discussing the attractiveness of celebrities, who, particularly in the case of women, are celebrities largely because of their attractiveness, and objectifying those women. The former is not completely unproblematic, because the attractiveness of celebrities has different import for men and women (you’re unlikely to find female Steve Buscemi’s who are as successful as Steve Buscemi), but the latter is just a problem. When you get a bunch of men, at least straight men (though in my experience, gay men aren’t really much better), together to talk about the attractiveness of women in the first context, the probability of it crossing the line into the second context approaches one no matter how enlightened those men are.

    That’s what led me to shudder. I don’t think you had negative intentions, I got what you were aiming at, but I knew where it would inevitably lead, even in my own head. It’s unfortunate, but it’s reality.

    I won’t go into the fact that I also have problems with people comparing black mens’ looks to animals because there’s a long and dangerous historical context to that too (though maybe extinct animals undercut the context?), but I clearly can’t hold my tongue or fingers completely.

  10. For me, the discomfort comes a general discomfort with sexual conversations, which is where any discussion of a woman’s looks tends to go. I have always been terribly uncomfortable with these conversations, and although this particular one was unlikely to end where they usually do – with Russell saying, “I’d absolutely hit that!” then looking at us for high-fives and chest-bumps – I still couldn’t get over the initial feeling.

    Then, there’s the second half of the post, wherein we’re meant to identify the beautiful people that have never really done it for us. “I know you’re in the most horribly particular business about looks, especially a woman’s looks, an industry that reacts in horror whenever a woman has a spare pound of allegedly misplaced flesh, but I just wanted you to know that you don’t do it for me, a person you’ve never met, and even though it’s unlikely that I’m half as perfect as you are on your worst day, I just wanted you to know.” I’m not accusing you of thinking of this way Russell, but for the men who get into these conversations, the disconnect between the target of their ire and their own imperfects is often shocking.

    • Ire?

      And as for “I just wanted you to know,” part of what made that thread non-problematic is the fact that the odds of any of the subjects actually reading it were vanishingly small.

  11. I find that it was easy (if not downright acceptable) for me to make comments about Brandon Routh/Bruce Willis. If I were to make comments about (insert actress of the moment here) and how I think “dude, she always looks baked”, I suspect that I might have been called on the carpet.

    Even though, seriously, she looks baked.

    So I keep my comments to dudes. I never get called on the carpet for that.

  12. Its a tricky situation. As others pointed out, women have primarily been valued for their looks, ability to bear children, and do domestic chores for most of history. Very rarely have they been valued for anything else. Only on rare occassions have men been judged solely on their looks. Being handsome was definitely an advantage but men could also gain status through their skills, material wealth, intelligence or a myriad other means.

    At the same time, people are people and people are sexual for the most part. We like good looking people of the gender we are attracted to. We also find good looking people of the gender we aren’t attractive to easier to be around in many cases. Trying to surpress this in every circumstance is not going to be possible.

    Like ND, I’d take it a depends on the situation type approach to this.

  13. Another issue is who is the burden on when it comes to not being offended about the attractiveness requirements of others?

    I’m short for a guy. A bit below average (I’m 5’6″) When I was an undergrad and still now, I see a lot of women who only wanted to date men much taller than me. These were women who were around 5’1 or 5’2″ (in other words, I still had a few inches on them) and they would boldly make statements about refusing to date guys who were below 6 feet. I still see profiles on dating sites with the same requirements of short guys need not apply.

    I was really hurt by this as an undergrad and it still kind of stings, it makes me feel inadequate for coming from a vertically challenged people . Is it wrong for these women to have their height requirement or is the burden on me to just say “Okay these women are not for me but that does not mean that there isn’t someone for me out there”?

    • Is it wrong for these women to have their height requirement

      For the record: there are many kinds of people out there with whom it is more than possible to have a deep and meaningful relationship. The people who come out and say “oh, I only date people who have (physical trait)” are telling you that they are not yet one of these people.

      Smile: You dodged a bullet.

      • Of all the single physical traits that some people seem to find attractive, a particular attention to height has always baffled me. How tall or short a guy is has never made the slightest bit of difference in my attraction, and I could never imagine saying “I’d only date guys above a certain height.”
        • I’ve heard a couple of reasons why women prefer tall men, on internet forums, I’ve never heard this in real life. ND and I are brothers so like him I’m short. From what I’ve heard is that short women like tall men because they make them feel safe and protected. Taller women like tall men because they make them feel feminine because women are supposed to be shorter and slighter than men. There is usually something about heels involved but thats too depressing to contemplate. This isn’t universal. We’re the same height as our dad and our mom said one of the things she liked about our dad was that she didn’t have to stand up on tip-toes to do things like hug him or kiss him.

          The preference for tall men seems to go beyond dating. The hegemonic image of man is somebody who is big or at least tall and powerful. Its well known that shorter men often receive less money in their salaries than tall men in many cases for doing the same work. Short men are kind of viewed as failures as men, childlike and not to be taken seriously. I think that Sex in the City made a joke about this where a short man shopped in the boy’s department for clothing.

          I don’t really mind that many women like tall men. What I do mind is how their preference is viewed as natural where if a short man were to want somebody with a small modicum of traditional attractiveness, he’s viewed as a sexist. If they can have their preferences, I can have mine.

          • If they can have their preferences, I can have mine.

            The “they” in question here are just the women with a preference for taller men, right? Because, as I said elsewhere in the thread, everybody has preferences. Whether or not they’re known and understood might be something worth discussing, but my guess is that almost everybody could pick out traits that have appeared in various partners across time.

          • Oh, sure, have your preferences. That’s fine.
            But then you don’t get to whine about how you ain’t getting any dates.

            My friend –the comedian — gives dating advice: “Date fat chicks. They don’t play games, and they aren’t likely to drop you in a perennial search for Mr. Right.”

            … he only gives it because men are too prideful to take his advice.

          • Also, you don’t get to be a total mysogynistic asshole because all the women you like don’t like you.

            If that’s the case: work harder.

          • [Fat chicks] don’t play games, and they aren’t likely to drop you in a perennial search for Mr. Right.”

            Like bloody hell they don’t!

        • I can see how if someone has some baggage about their height it could affect any minimum or maximum height they choose to have for potential mates. (eg if a guy has always been teased about being short, he might not want to date a woman who is a lot taller than him; it might make him really self-conscious.)

          “Is it wrong for these women to have their height requirement”?

          I would suggest that’s it’s not wrong, per se, but it’s not ideal. I think it just goes back to the fact that we can get so hung up on appearances that we don’t look much beyond that (which is kind of in line with my original objection to last week’s STQ).

          That being said, people are going to be attracted to different physical and personal traits. Some of that is just life, and we all have to cope.

          • “I would suggest that’s it’s not wrong, per se, but it’s not ideal. I think it just goes back to the fact that we can get so hung up on appearances that we don’t look much beyond that (which is kind of in line with my original objection to last week’s STQ).

            That being said, people are going to be attracted to different physical and personal traits. Some of that is just life, and we all have to cope.”

            This is largely my line of thought.

          • I think there is a difference between a “requirement” and a “preference”.

            If you had asked me to define my “type” before meeting Zazzy, it would have been quite different than how she presents… Olive skinned (e.g., Hispanic, Mediterranean), dark curly hair, on the shorter side, slightly curvey with hips. Zazzy has reddish-auburn hair, pale skin, average height… her body type is roughly what I tended towards. Now, if my “type” was a “requirement”, I would have missed out on meeting my wife. I would have been greatly harmed by such.

            Since then, I still have my “type”… I still greatly prefer brunettes over blondes and the short-and-curvy set over the tall-and-thin set. Yet, I also will turn my head for damn near any red head, something I never did before then.

            Preferences are weird…

        • Eh, I don’t think it’s rational, but I understand it, because I’m generally attracted to tall women. My girlfriend is 5’7, and she’s the shortest woman I’ve dated since high school. The woman I dated seriously before her was 5’11” and fond of 6″ heels.
          • I became attracted to tall women by conditioning. I am somewhat tall myself, and something I noticed was that I did unusually well among tall women. I had a selling point. And so I started keeping an eye out for height. When you start keeping an eye out for something, you can easily start finding yourself attracted to it.
        • Russell, I think there’s got to be a straight vs gay element to this. The height thing is so often tied into opposite-gender dynamics. Which is that women don’t want a guy shorter than them, or else guys don’t want a girl taller than them.

          Sometimes people say not only does a female-type say that they want a male-type that’s taller than them, or vice-versa, but some degree taller or shorter. My wife has commented how nice it is that I am taller than her when she is wearing heels. And how, without heels, her head fits below my chin. And for guys who are sensitive about their height, they don’t want to just be taller, but they want a particular height advantage because of where they fit in into a certain dynamic.

          In other words, this all ties so closely into gender expectations that I’m not sure how often these dynamics are going to occur among people who are partnering up with their own gender.

          • My experience is that many times height is not defined relatively though. Short women like around 5 feet to 5’3″ have described me as short in addition to average and tall women.
          • My wife has commented how nice it is that I am taller than her when she is wearing heels. And how, without heels, her head fits below my chin.

            From the heels comment, I assumed that she was taller than that.

            Russell, I think there’s got to be a straight vs gay element to this.

            This actually ties into something that I’ve been curious about. It seems to me that a big part of heterosexual attraction stems from the asymmetry and contrasts of sexual dimorphism. Men are tall, women are short. Men are hard, women are soft. Men have short hair, women have long hair. Men have deep voices, women have high-pitched voices.

            Not all these things are always true, of course, but that’s the stereotype, and for many the ideal. Vive la différence! Is there anything comparable to this in homosexual attraction?

      • Everybody has things that they’re looking for. I don’t think that is necessarily the issue, unless of course the that you’ve pursued have routinely wanted things other than what you’ve got.
          • … maybe if you show a little more skin.

            [here: this is a comment that would rightly be considered downright insulting if said to a woman. the gender reversal is practically the only thing lending the comment the shred of humor that it possesses. Well, that and the cruel reality of liberal arts academia.]

        • Everybody has things that they’re looking for.

          It’s certainly true that everybody has things that they’re looking for but some things are more representative of deep/meaningful relationship potential than others.

          To use cars as an example, there’s the person who says “I am looking for this many miles per gallon, this much drivetrain security, this much upkeep above and beyond oil changes, and this much trunk space.” There is also the person who says “I just want it to be red.”

          While I don’t *KNOW* which car/driver relationship will be healthier (as measured by care and upkeep), I have my suspicions.

          • Sam,
            Well…. some people chose who to date based on personality.

            “When you realize that the person you’re dating is singing a song about chopping off your dick… and means to do it if you don’t learn her songs…What exactly about her personality made you want to date her????!!???”

            …. that’s a true story (the response: “she was a piano virtuoso, and she would do private concerts just for me”).

            The moral of the story: “Never stick your dick in crazy”

            … somehow, the whole “I like brunettes” seems to pale in significance, doesn’t it?

          • It has been my experience that my most successful relationships have been with women who had both a healthy dose of the superficial things I like and a healthy dose of the deeper things I like: so tall and funny works better together than tall or funny by themselves.
    • Is it wrong for these women to have their height requirement or is the burden on me to just say “Okay these women are not for me but that does not mean that there isn’t someone for me out there”?

      De gustibus non est disputandum.

      Really, what else is there to say? People want what they want, and you can’t force them to want something else.

  14. I was thinking about this again today as I wrote a several hundred word comment in response to the avatar-formerly-known-as-Hanley, doing a semi-thorough breakdown of LeBron James. Not just his physical prowess, but also his mental and emotional makeup, veering dangerously into the realm of making character judgements about him. And this after having written probably a 1000+ word post on the same subject matter.

    I bring this up to highlight the degree to which we will nitpick and analyze things we care deeply about. Now, nowhere in any of these discussions did I discuss his looks because they had nothing to do with the topic-at-hand.

    But, if someone were to care deeply about celebrity culture or actors or models or whathaveyou, such that they would regularly pen long pieces sharing their thoughts and analysis, it seems, perhaps not fair, but par for the course that their looks might be part of the discussion. Russell’s initial post wasn’t a bash session on Paltrow. He simply discussed whether he thought her deserving of the title of “Most Beautiful”. Well, how can you have that conversation and not discuss her beauty? It’d be like debating whether James was the MVP and never talking about his basketball skills. That would be a rather silly exercise, no? Carrying it a step further, I can think of several conversations where attractiveness would be highly relevant and, thus, appropriate for discussion. Of course, there are still offensive ways to conduct that aspect of the conversation. It is quite different to say, “She’s an ug mug!” than it is to say, “The character she played was supposed to be a striking, stop traffic kind of beauty. And I don’t think she really has that look about her.”

    As Russell mentioned upthread, there is a whole other conversation to be had about whether we should really be having contests to determine the most beautiful this or the sexiest that. But, well, that’s a whole other conversation.

    • FYI, I don’t think I came close to a character judgement of LeBron. From what I’ve been able to tell (not that I’m a particularly close observer), he seems like a decent guy, not too terribly warped by the type of success, fame, and money that is inevitably warping. I rather like him, and appreciate his desire to get his teammates involved (contra Kobe Bryant, who seems a much less likeable person–on the “who’d you like to have a beer with” scale, LeBron comes out far ahead of Kobe, if not as high as Magic Johnson (but then how many people in general rank as high as Magic on that scale?)). To suggest someone may lack that true killer instinct that MJ or Larry Bird had…if that’s a character judgement, I’m not sure it’s a negative one. As much as it may be a drawback on the court, it may mean he’s a better person off the court.

      And damned if LeBron isn’t pure joy to watch when he’s playing really well. He may not be the greatest outside shooter in the league, but he can more regularly hit from really long range, 30+ feet, than probably anybody else, and each time I’m gobsmacked at how easy he makes that shot look.

      • Please allow me to clarify… I was referring to my comment vis a vis character judgement. And I didn’t mean that as necessarily negative: assertiveness, selfish/lessness, mental strength… All these are aspects of character, to some degree, even if only his character as a player.

        My only point was that when we evaluate people, we often do so fully. Considering an athlete’s mental toughness is fair to the extent it impacts his player. Likewise, discussing an actor’s looks seems fair insofar they factor into his performance.

        But I’m sure we can all agree Kobe is an ass.

      • Magic was a Laker and is now a part-own of the Dodgers, and I still think he’s a great guy. Believe me, if there were something hatable about hin, I’d find it.

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