Feminist Serena Smith thinks that Men Don’t Understand What Women Find Attractive. This is true of many men, just as many women don’t understand what men find attractive. Her assertion that women “just see people as people” is, on the other hand, laughable.
The male gaze theory has been discussed and dissected countless times: from film theorist Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, right up to illustrator Florence Given’s continued critique of society’s objectification of women. It should come as no surprise that an idea first posited five decades ago still resonates today, given that this culture of objectifying women is very much alive and well.
Men are naturally attracted to traits that indicate fertility. Women understand this. This is why women wear makeup, post pictures on Instagram, and wear yoga pants. Men are free to like who and what they want. Women are free to wear (or not) what they want. If you don’t want to be objectified, you can always wear a burka.
But what happens when women look at men? If the male gaze lingers on the most sensual parts of a woman’s body – the curve from the hip to the waist, the swell of cleavage – where does the female gaze linger? What do women see when they look at men? Tori Telfer, writing in Vulture back in 2018, had a simple answer: the female gaze “sees people as people.”
Bullshit. Women look for different things in men, but they objectify them just as much as men objectify women. Women look for signs that a man will be a good provider, including whether he is tall, reasonably fit, and well dressed.
This idea that the female gaze sees men as people – not objects – is currently all over TikTok. The app is brimming with videos from men asking for feedback on their dating app profiles, with many questioning why photos of them looking ‘conventionally attractive’ don’t do so well. Women in the comments are quick to point out that they aren’t as focused on their partner’s appearance as men.
This is correct. A man doesn’t need to be conventionally attractive to be a good provider. While women, like men, do value good genetics, they value wealth and status more.
Alejandro, 29, was one straight man who thought muscle pics would be a surefire way to rake in matches from straight women. When he realised that he was having more success with photos in which his muscles weren’t centre stage, he made a TikTok asking women why this was the case. “The first guy looks like he would cheat on me,” the top comment reads, referring to the photos of Alejandro tensing his muscles. Another user writes: “Because honestly only men are impressed by muscles like that.”
If we still lived in a world where physical prowess was an important indicator of ability to provide, women would find this attractive. When starvation was the norm for the poor in the Middle Ages, men found plump women more attractive, because that was an indicator of health and thus fertility at the time. What traits humans find attractive is largely hard-wired, but the indicators of those traits vary over time.
Dr Claire Hart is Associate Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton. She suggests that women aren’t judging the content of these photos, but their implications instead. “Research suggests that women (and indeed men) find well proportioned muscular men more attractive. Based on our ancestral past, signs of physical strength would be linked with an increased chance of survival,” she explains.
While a woman does value the genetic advantages that a strong man will provide her children, and strength has some correlation to the ability to provide for her, whether he will actually stick around to do the providing is more important than his strength.
“[But] without knowing much else about that person other than what is presented on their dating profile, you may make certain attributes about them which negatively impacts their desirability,” she continues. “For example, how much time do they devote to maintaining their musculature body? Would they do this at the expense of spending time with you? Do they have narcissistic tendencies? You might not stop to find out.”
I think the commentor said it better: A man who focuses on his physique “looks like he would cheat on me.” I.e., he wouldn’t be a good, stable provider.
This links back to Telfer’s idea that the female gaze sees “people as people”: instead of honing in on the desirability of men’s muscles – no matter how fit a man may be – women on dating apps seem more likely to consider what type of person would take a dozen mirror selfies with their abs out. “It is worth noting that the man in the TikTok video still looks well built and strong in both of his profiles,” Dr. Hart adds. “He may just appear more approachable in the latter one.”
Approachability has nothing to do with it.
Claire, a 23-year old student, is one TikTok user who replied to Alejandro’s original video with a TikTok of her own. In the video, she explained why she thought his pictures didn’t do so well. “The reason you didn’t get matches when you were super fit like that is because what you were subscribing to was the male power fantasy, not the female gaze,” she says. “The truth is that men tend to care a lot about aesthetics in their partner, but women don’t really care that much about it.”
True, though I wouldn’t consider fertility aesthetic, only its visible indicators.
Speaking to Refinery29, Claire expanded on this point. “Men tend to value power, strength, and hypermasculinity, and therefore assume that women find those things attractive just because men value them,” she explains. “I think women tend to just put the focus less on appearance and a lot more on emotional intelligence and how kind a man is.”
Wrong. Men don’t value power, strength, and hyper-masculinity. They know that these things can be seen as proxies for their ability to provide. Women don’t care about emotional intelligence and how kind a man is. Nice guys finish last. What a woman is looking for are cues that a man who has resources will commit them to her if she mates with him.
Dr. Hart affirms Claire’s suggestion that women are less aesthetically-focused than men – and explains that it’s an idea backed up by research on human evolution. “Most evolutionary theories would agree […] they claim that both sexes need to assess potential mates carefully but there are different drivers for men and women,” she says. “A man’s main criteria in choosing females should be to ensure they are fertile. Attractiveness cues serve as indicators of reproductive status – a youthful appearance, curvaceous body shape, etc.”
“A woman’s investment in parental efforts is substantial in comparison to men,” Dr. Hart continues. “Her best chance of reproductive success is to ensure survival of her few precious offspring. Females’ optimal strategy is to be choosy in choice of mate and seek a committed partner.”
Also correct. First, a man must have resources to commit to her. Second, he must commit them to her. Third, he must keep his commitment.
It seems that, in part, this disconnect between what men think women want and what women actually want springs from the fact that many men struggle to imagine a woman’s perspective – in any context. It’s not only why dating apps are flooded with gym selfies, but also why so many men expressed shock (or disbelief) when it was revealed that 97% of young women have experienced sexual harassment. These may seem like two extreme and discordant examples, but it’s symptomatic of a wider societal problem: a chronic lack of empathy towards women.
Bullshit. Young men posting selfies are idiots. They think that women want what they do. This is no different from women who think a degree or a high paying job will make them more attractive to a man because that is what they find attractive in a man.
As Claire says: “perhaps if more women were telling their stories and sharing their view of the world in the media, then society as a whole would begin to trend towards being more empathetic towards women – which would really be an improvement for society as a whole.”
Between #metoo and Hollywood’s gender obsession, we get almost nothing but women’s stories. If women want men to be empathetic, they should stop subverting men’s stories, and stop blaming all men for the misdeeds of the few. It’s hard for men to have empathy towards women when women treat men as utilities. Many men may objectify women’s bodies, but many women objectify men as walking ATMs. The #metoo approach of ‘beatings will continue until moral improves’ is not a workable strategy.