I want to discuss what I consider a riskier topic today – attraction. What better way for a socially anxious, aspiring ally to begin than to derail the entire discussion with qualifiers to assuage my guilt for wanting to discuss it, right?
First, this is not common from an academic, psychological perspective, and what I did not want to do is “prepare” for this topic by doing the relevant research first. Anyone reading this thinking, “Christ, this guy doesn’t understand a single objective point about the nature of attraction” would be entirely justified – I do not know the science behind it. It fascinates me though, and I want to talk about that without the filter of, “Here’s what I read about attraction and how I conformed my thoughts to that research.”
Second, well, I don’t want to say we live in an age of sexual objectification and men, in particular, offering their unsolicited sexual opinions to women because that is not specific to this age. Women do not have value equal to that of their perceived sexual attractiveness to men, and (again, as someone already socially anxious and inclined to worry that others see the worst in my comments) I tend to shy away from any discussion of aesthetics, even in a general sense such as this.
So while this may feel routine and benign to you, I am sweating bullets as I write it. Undoubtedly, people will have judgments about the opinions that will follow and the simple truth about my personality is that I will feel guilty and saddened by that.
Ah, whatever…there’s no way to feel comfortable about this. There’s also no learning otherwise, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Subjectivity and Context
The first thing that stands out to me is the extent that subjectivity and context plays in this.
For example, I can, as I imagine most people, call out a specific set of characteristics as attractive. Not a range of characteristics – a specific set. Black hair, blue eyes, pale skin, specific shapes to the features…if I were a better artist I could draw my “ideal” person (but I’m an amateur and need models for reference).
Of course my definition of attractive is not limited to those features – in fact, I can’t think of anyone known to me personally who matches all of that criteria. My wife is a rare brunette in my dating history. Despite finding black hair especially attractive, my dating history is almost exclusively blonde. It does not change or explain the preferences though.
A clear motivation would seem to be context built around the various criteria.
For example, one might find Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” kitschy, but both songs are close to my heart.
“My Heart Will Go On” appeared with Titanic in 1997, which was the exact time that I began attending middle school dances with my “first girlfriend.” It played at every single one of those school dances and I always danced it with her, so whatever context you might have for the song (the overplayed ballad from Titanic), my context is holding that woman in my arms and feeling on top of the world. I will always associate that song with those moments.
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” has a funnier context. The music video aired at my friend’s house right before I had to leave for our Little League World Series game. My team, the second place finisher in the regular season, was supposed to get beaten handily by the undefeated first place team. We won the game in extra innings when I bunted (my specialty) and errors turned it into a 2-run triple. We did get annihilated in Game 2. At my friend’s house again before Game 3, the music video came on television and we joked, “We should watch this for luck again.” A kid on my team who had zero hits all season drove in the winning run in extra innings, and then our third best pitcher stopped them from scoring. It cemented “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” as a good luck song and became part of a humorous pregame ritual ever since.
“Who the hell listens to ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ to get pumped for a game?”
I do. Because of this context that most people do not know.
I suspect physical attraction follows a similar theme. Yes, as a society we have things that get presented to us as the social ideal for attractiveness (article on exactly that). On top of that we have personal experiences that colour our opinions of that ideal. For example, there are people we knew and liked for non-aesthetic reasons and we then see those physical characteristics in others. That is, perhaps it’s not so much that I like black hair as it is that I had positive experiences with several black haired people and now just associate the two concepts.
Now I have written to some extent about this in other posts – and it’s at the heart of my fascination with the topic of attraction. Men are generally not attractive to me. Whether that is because I am myself a man and viewing it through a harsher lens of what it means to be attractive as a man (the way women may have body image issues from viewing media that present air-brushed women with unattainable standards), or because of the aforementioned context, men tend not to register as attractive in my mind.
Relax – the context for this is not misandry. This is not, “Men are ugly creatures on the inside that blinds me to any beauty on the outside.” Most of it comes from playing sports. I played soccer and ice hockey in my youth and adolescence, and those games and practices end in the locker room. If you have never been in a soccer or ice hockey locker room, you cannot imagine the smell. It gets into the equipment, most of which has no real means of being washed (just “aired out”) and accumulates over time the way a cooking pan might accumulate the flavour of past meals.
I take to it with a sort of morbid fascination. Even today, watching the NHL on television, I sometimes find myself in a nostalgic state with that aroma finding my nose. It’s like when one passes gas and then has some curiosity as to “how bad was it exactly?” It conjures fond memories, but it’s objectively awful.
That is where things start to get weird for me with men. Generally, when I come across a man who strikes me as physically attractive, my mind starts to wander to how he got that way. Again, social imposition or not, my idea of masculine beauty involves a degree of fitness, which does not occur genetically – one has to exercise to achieve that state of fitness, and I know well the consequences of that fitness. Enter all of the associations I have, however fond, of being dirty and smelling awful.
It’s a built in association that I am often unable to shake, and to some extent I do think that ideas like toxic masculinity drive it home. I see boorish, rowdy types who seem almost to bask in a state of…let’s say “ruggedness” to be nice…that serves to remind me of the other side of things.
As a consequence, men are often attractive to me when they overcome both, which I recognise is a double standard in my life. Some of the MCU actors, for example, fall into this category. I do see Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and others as attractive because they also have the right mix of charm and self-effacing character that it overrides my contextual association with the locker room.
Good grief – how many people have I lost already?
Full disclosure – this is why I have trouble with myself. I have received some wonderful compliments from others over the years about my personal appearance. Some feel more reasonable like, “I think you’re very handsome” or the, “No, you’re cute,” while others, rarer, feel more like cheap attempts at flattery than an honest compliment: “Dude, you’re fully hot.”
I have a laundry list of things I do not like about my appearance and when someone says, “No, no – she actually thinks you’re hot,” I think about all of those things and conclude, “There’s no way that a human would look at a human with any combination of these things and think they were hot” (even when I recognise that those other people probably think things like that about themselves while I regard them as attractive).
Here is where it starts to get interesting to me.
Let’s say we take a traditionally masculine man and a traditionally feminine woman with builds as similar as possible within that constraint – let’s embrace the generalisation and stereotype for a moment to picture the elementary school, socially-enforced template of a man and woman for just a moment.
Now, if I were to strip away all of the cosmetics from the woman, we shave both of their heads so the hair is not a factor, and we place some sort of gender neutralising cover over the chest and pelvic areas…I cannot help but feel that I would still be more attracted to the woman.
I understand that we are not on the same page yet, because that was poor articulation. I’m just leading into it.
What I mean is, attraction seems to me to be something far more than the traditionally gendered nature of the characteristics, in part or in composite. Take a hairstyle that I absolutely love on a woman and place it on a man with traditionally feminine features, it does not affect me the same way.
In other words, if I were to describe to you, objectively, the sort of things and features that I find attractive about a woman, you could find countless examples of that exact thing on men and I would not respond to it the same way. Logically, that makes zero sense to me.
What then? Pheromones or hormones? I have heard of these playing a role in attraction, but they are not immediately evident and I think it’s worth noting that both are present in all people to varying degrees. Men contain estrogen in varying levels just as women contain testosterone. In some cases, a particular man might have higher estrogen levels than a a particular woman – I don’t personally find it has an impact on how attractive I find those particular people.
Or perhaps I do and fail to grasp that. God knows I was a Pepsi fan for years before actually trying the Pepsi challenge, convinced I could tell them apart, and then not only failed to distinguish Coke from Pepsi but actually chose the Coke as my favourite. I get this isn’t as cut and dry as I present it here (don’t forget: not an expert).
Subjectivity from the Feminine Side
Let’s tackle this from the other side now. I already mentioned the relationship I have with masculine beauty, so as we pivot to this more interesting aspect of “why one and not the other?” I think you should understand the context I have for feminine beauty.
If you are not already aware, I have a litany of mental health issues: generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, medical anxiety, panic disorder, depression (previously), and obsessive compulsive personality disorder. We do not have time to unpack the genetics and life experience behind all of that here. What is important for this discussion is that women, time and again, played a critical role in helping me through things.
My father is great, my brothers are great, I have my male best friend, and my great grandfather was like a second dad, so it’s not like I had problems with the men in my life, but the women were often the critical players whether just as fantastic friends or taking an active role in seeing me through the worst periods.
I felt that needed to be said first.
Okay, now the aesthetics. Again, I don’t know what degree cognitive bias and social pressure plays in this, but one might summarise my preference for characteristics as a blend of delicateness and strength.
I once used a river as a metaphor for women, both physically and in character. When I say a blend of delicateness and strength, think of a river. If it encounters a rock, it will continue to flow around it or over it. It yields to the strength of the rock. However, while doing so, the river will erode and polish the rock. So while the slightest thing can re-direct the flow, the flow is also capable of cutting through mountains. The juxtaposition of such dichotomous traits is itself beautiful.
Delicateness is beautiful, but it’s fragile and itself not quite enough. An example of this is a chapter in L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz” in which Dorothy finds herself inside a porcelain bowl populated by porcelain people. They are beautiful, but they cannot move, speak, even smile without cracking and becoming damaged. Humans, on the other hand, bend without breaking, and that strength added to the delicateness is profound in its beauty.
Humans in general exemplify this. My personal favourite is the interplay of the arms, shoulders, collarbone, and neck. It forms a series of lines of unparalleled beauty. Sometimes round, sometimes angular, it has a flow and creates a topography that does wonderful things with light. Light attaches itself to it and casts shadows.
I find this more true of women (in a general sense) because women tend to be more angular. Men often have a broader build that mutes the qualities I like most.
So when I say I find women attractive, I mean this in a sense very much the way one might say they find a river attractive. It is an objective (in the subjective sense) opinion of aesthetic elements separate from the beauty of a person’s character. That is, to the opening point about not liking the idea that it objectifies people, this aesthetic appreciation has precisely zero to do with appreciating the person themselves. A person with amazing aesthetic qualities (in my eyes) may possess an objectionable character, and that overrides everything else. Contrariwise, someone who I do not regard with this sort of artistic reverence becomes intractably beautiful with a strong character.
The most critical aesthetic difference, in my mind, is that women are free of the double standard I referenced earlier – even the most intensely athletic woman does not register in my mind with that same “nostalgic charming disgust.”
What do I mean exactly?
I see a man walking to his car in a suit and I immediately empathise with being that guy and all the times I’ve had to walk to my car in this stupid Florida sun, breaking into a sweat from door to door. So I see him just walking casually and my brain goes right into the locker room. It’s sweaty, I feel gross, my clothes are sticking to me – it’s awful.
I see a woman on a breakaway late in the second half of a soccer match – she seems fine to me. Sure, she’s visibly sweaty, but she may as well have just gotten out of a pool or come in from the rain. It’s water. Something feels light and airy about things. I see her in a full sprint and what I relate to is the feel of the air on my face and the smell of the grass. It’s intoxicating in that moment.
No, it doesn’t make sense. If, by this point, you don’t understand that we’re here specifically because this fascinates me and I don’t understand why this is the case, you either are not reading carefully or I am doing a terrible job articulating this.
If a man and a woman both approached me after a heavy workout in the gym, it would not bother me if she wanted to hug and say hello but I would not want him close to me. Objectively, both of them are in bad shape from the workout. Intellectually, I grasp that concept. Emotionally, one bothers me and the other does not.
Just Be Here
Where things get a little weirder for me is that I have been describing a platonic physical attraction. When I say that it would not bother me for this sweaty woman straight out of the gym to hug me hello, I do not mean that in a sexual way.
In fact, I cannot relate to this impulse that a lot of people (men in particular? ladies?) seem to have where they see someone they find physically attractive and immediately develop a sense of sexual attraction. Women may do this as often as men, but men often express it loud enough for me to hear on the regular. “Dude, she’s so hot. I’d love to get with that.” (Yes, I’m stressing this exact choice of words because, even if that’s not exactly what is said, that is what I hear – “that” and not “her”.)
I confess, however, that this is not 100% due to my innate sense of gender equality and wanting to fight against the objectification of women. Those things are true and perhaps made all the easier by the other aspect of it: the sort of self-loathing that I described before.
If I see a gorgeous woman, I am processing her in mind with the same aesthetic appreciation I might fine art or a river view. For my part in the situation though, I think only of all the things I find wrong with myself. The idea of imposing my physical self on that person is viscerally upsetting to me and immediately overrides any natural impulse to feel aroused by the attraction.
“What is the impact of this on my personal life?” one might wonder. The women I have dated, and now my wife, all eased me into the physical side of our relationship. Not only is the idea of imposing myself physically upsetting to me in this aesthetic sense, I have the character consideration of not wanting to offend, harass, or otherwise upset her by moving too quickly, too assertively, or both. The women I dated indicated their comfort and desire to have me there before I warmed to the idea of being there. Ask my wife – it takes some doing. There is a lot of self-doubt to overcome here.
There is a selfish aspect to the attraction though, and I don’t know to what degree others can relate to it.
When I see someone I find attractive, it comes with a whole set of associated, visceral reactions like those I discussed earlier. Sometimes it’s how the person is dressed. Sometimes it is the context in which I am seeing them. Sometimes it’s a fragrance they are wearing.
For example, I might see someone attractive and start to feel a mixture of things like an airiness or freshness, like fresh linen or standing on a hillside on a mild, gently breezy day. It can feel like standing barefoot in a cool river or letting a babbling brook run over my hand. In short, it’s a feeling of calm, refreshment, peace, beauty, and the like.
When I see someone I find attractive, my mind doesn’t turn to the sexual, but I do start to imagine, yearn even, for time with that person. To hold them and just sit or lay there. To just sit quietly with one another and enjoy having that warmth, calm, and airiness near me. Sometimes I do have this desire where I just want their face near mine – not to kiss, just to breathe in and bask in all of the positivity that I feel coming from them.
I do not discuss this for reasons that are possibly apparent already (like people doubting the innocence of the motivation here) or for reasons that may become apparent in responses to this piece. But this is “my truth” and it fascinates me, in no small part because I do fail to understand so much of the science of it.
So there we are – now what are your thoughts, dear reader?