Literary Greats Always Cheat at Golf

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Freakonomics on Attraction

I’m currently the last person on earth reading Freakonomics, which I’ve been meaning to pick up since I first heard the charming one on NPR.

A small section on online dating (something I loathe and you can’t talk me out of it, even though I understand that in the future, when are children no longer have individuated fingers and ask us “Mommy what’s typing” it will be the new “met in a bar,” but we’re not there yet as a people. Except for the gays.) talks about profiles:

“Most impressively, fully 72% of the women claimed “above average” looks, including 24% claiming “very good looks.” The online men too were generous: 68 percent called themselves “above average,” including 19% with “very good looks.” This leaves only about 30% of the users with “average” looks, including a paltry 1% with “less than average” looks—which suggests that the typical online dater is either a fabulist, a narcissist, or simply resistant to the meaning of “average.””

(Pg 74)

This has some problems which seem to me rather obvious. The first is that attractiveness is difficult to quantify, but more profoundly, attractiveness is not made up of a specific and universal set of physical characteristics, how could you ever expect these to curve out like a bell? There are certainly some near universal indicators, youth and health among them, but not where healthy is a secret code word for rail thin (Getting to that soon). Additionally, I would think people encounter some sampling error in their lives. How many times have you ever told someone they’re unattractive? How many times have you told someone they’re attractive? I think it’s actually encouraging news if people feel that they are attractive, it indicates to me that maybe we do a pretty decent job of reassuring each other.

Backing up to point one for a moment. Nearly everybody gets laid at least once, which would seem to point out fairly clearly that nearly everyone is found attractive by someone. I wouldn’t think the idea otherwise would be so persistent. But I’ve had the hairy Jewish men of my acquaintance tell me I’m “fucked up” for finding hairy Jewish men attractive. That’s really sad and insulting. What is the insinuation? That I value my own qualities so low that I’ve chosen to focus on the trolls of society?

During fashion week, a number of the fashion blogs I read were lauding actresses like Sophia Bush, Mandy Moore, and America Ferrara for daring to be real-sized women. There are two problems with this. First off, Sophia Bush wears a size four, Mandy Moore is a size six, and America Ferrara (who I once saw referred to as “adorable chunkster”) is also a size six. Last I knew, more than 50% of American women wear a size 14 or larger. These women are not pioneers into the land of beautiful plus size women in the way say, Toccara from ANTM is.

On the flip side, I was discussing this with a very slender friend the other night and she pointed out how grating the rhetoric is on the other end. “I am also a “real” woman,” she said. I hadn’t particularly thought about this angle before because, well, that cheese isn’t going to eat itself, but it’s grating to assume that women who are naturally slim are somehow unreal, or to ascribe the desire to be thinner, exercise, or watch food consumption as some sort of caving in to the patriarchy. I’m not a fat activist here, I think obesity is a big problem in the US and causes a lot of serious health issues, and a lot of people (self included) would be well served by enjoying a salad and then going for a walk.

But I don’t think that if you don’t do these things you should give up on being seen as beautiful or that it’s risible if you think you are, or that the men who find you to be attractive should feel strange about that. A good friend here was describing the girl he has a crush on, and he’s like, “I know it’s weird, because she’s kind of a fat girl, but 20 lbs. ago she was probably really attractive.” This was ludicrous to me. First of all, the girl wears maybe a size eight or ten. Second… if you want to sleep with someone, they are attractive. You are attracted to that person. How can this be so hard to see?

The Food Network is now only showing Nigella Lawson from the waist up. Because she’s you know, so fat. We certainly can’t show the woman who prepares food for a living weighing more than the typical TV host. No, ladies, even if you have a gorgeous, classic hourglass figure, your tiny waist means nothing until you get rid of your breasts and butt.

For my own part, if I make myself quantify it, I’d say that I was “more attractive” when I was nineteen than I am now. But I certainly get a lot more attention now than I did then, there are certainly more people telling me, on a routine basis that I look nice. Also, importantly, I didn’t feel more attractive then. I felt fat, big-nosed, too top-heavy, and like no one would be able to see past my rather prominent scar from cancer. I felt self conscious when I was naked with someone. More or less the same exact things that trouble me now. So was I wrong then? Am I wrong now? Or can we just all agree that attractiveness is both subjective and fraught with problems? I attract people. Thus… attractive. Maybe you aren’t attracted to someone, that’s fine, but they’re not deluded if they think they are.

There needs to be a decoupling of the discussion of health and the discussion of attractive. There are many things we do every day that are dangerous to us. Getting in a car, for example, has its risks. But there are a few things that some of us choose to accept the risks of—smoking cigarettes is another good example—that turn into moral issues. It’s not that you’re making a poor choice, it’s that you’re “bad” or that you “have no self control.”

I really wish I didn’t feel a need, here in 2008 to type these things out, but that’s, as they say, the war.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

That's it for now...