So a friend (I hope) and fellow YA writer has commented on my previous article, taking me to task for contributing to the damage of (young) women’s body-image in the guise of claiming to champion it. She makes a significant point, and is far from the only one making it, but I believe it is based on a fundamental misapprehension.
There is no doubt that many women suffer from serious body image issues. I do not consider that to be caused by our being a clothes-compulsive culture, which is a function of the US being an extremely puritanical society. But what about the effect on women of things like the images I put in my last article? What about fashion magazines in general? As my friend notes, the average woman doesn’t look like that. Therefore (and here’s the big assumption) that’s what men will prefer, and that’s what they will expect. The conclusion is that idealizing these images is bad for women’s self-esteem because they think they have to look like that and never will. There are several problems with this.
I’ll start with the solution: what should we do about it? Are we saying that, because most women don’t look like fashion models, we shouldn’t have fashion models? Some women are more conventionally attractive than others, but why should we penalize them, or anyone? Equality is a chimera. Everybody is better than others in some way: appearance, strength, intelligence. We don’t complain about that. Shall we end up like the world in Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal “Harrison Bergeron,” where draconian measures are used to make everyone “average?” Or can we accept a world where some girls are prettier than others, just as some guys are, say, better ballplayers?
That leads to another problem with the whole argument. If body-image is a problem for women, it also is for men. In fact, moreso. I intend to address at more length the objectification of men that no one seems to worry about. But on its face, it’s a fact that women get unrealistic expectations of men. They read romance novels or watch chick flicks and then compare the real men in their lives to that, and we don’t measure up. I will never look like Brad Pitt or George Clooney. But the difference between me and a hypothetical woman being victimized by the comparison is that I don’t especially care. Sure, I’d love to look more conventionally hot. But I don’t, there’s not all that much I can do about it, and I’m sure as hell not going to ruin my life obsessing about it. And I’m sorry, but my sympathy for women who do only goes so far. To be fair, there are men who obsess about their looks as well, but, again, far fewer people seem to consider that a problem.
And that’s because of a difference between men and women, and why I say that it is unfair to blame me, and men in general, for women’s body issues, real as they may be. I submit that it is women who are to blame themselves, for setting unrealistic expectations for themselves. I think women are less realistic than men when it comes to appearance. This relates to the fact that it doesn’t really bother me that I’m not a hot studmuffin. I know that, and I also know that this is true for women; few of them are as hot as fashion models. My friend repeats the common accusation that men will expect the women in their lives to look like those models. To which I say, nonsense!
In my advanced composition class we frequently address the issue of body image, and over and over it becomes clear that the young men in the class are far less concerned about women’s appearance then the women think they are, or are themselves. To illustrate, I am reminded of an advertisement that a student showed that had two different women, one classically “hot,” and the other “hot” by contemporary standards. They asked which one the men in class preferred. The response that got universal agreement from the men (and the biggest laugh) was, “Whichever one is in my bed.” Here’s the deal. For most guys, the most beautiful woman is… the one we are with. The fact that she is with us makes her extremely attractive. Everything else is variables barely worth arguing about. I for one find the idea that a woman wants to be with me to be far more arousing than any physical feature. I am not alone in this.
It’s also a given that there is no absolute standard of attractiveness. There are men attracted to heavy women, and ones attracted to super skinny women. There are men who prefer boobs to be the bigger the better, and men who prefer no boobs at all. Tan? Pale? Long hair? Short? There’s somebody attracted to anything you can imagine. Hell, one of my main female characters is completely bald, and I went on-line looking for images of bald girls (never a good idea). Let’s just say there is some wild stuff to be found.
But the fact that men have preferences, and may in general prefer a conventionally “hot” woman, means little; in the end, rare is the man who will turn down a woman because she’s a 5 and not a 10. That’s because we know that turning down the 5 isn’t going to get us a 10. It’s the 5… or nothing! And we’re not stupid.
I’m not sure I can say this for women. For one thing, they hold us up to standards too, as I said. And they are far more unforgiving of guys who don’t measure up (so to speak). The women in my class are very forthcoming about this and quite clearly lay out what is—and is not—acceptable. No baldies! No shorties! Good luck finding a woman willing to date, or even be seen with, a guy who isn’t taller than she is. They absolutely hold us up to an unrealistic standard. And, just like men, different women have different preferences. However, they don’t bend from that. Some women like a six pack, some like a guy more sleek. But a woman who is Team Edward will not go with a Jacob, and vice versa. That’s a difference from men. A man might prefer blondes, but he won’t turn down a brunette. A woman will.
So, to return to the essential point, it is categorically false that unrealistic expectations of men damages women’s body image. Women do that to themselves. And to each other. My students make it clear that women are the harshest critics of each others’ appearance. It’s true that when women dress up, they are dressing for each other, not for us guys. And they are brutal about it.
How did we get here? We could debate the cause of women’s body-concerns for the rest of time and not resolve it. But the damage goes beyond their own psyche. It affects relationships. I recently read an article that profiled several women, most of whom have been married for years, whose husbands have never seen them naked. Never. They say they feel bad about this. Really? How bad? For whom? Not bad enough, I guess, because can you imagine how this makes the husband feel. Are you really afraid he will run screaming if he sees you? That he will focus on all your flaws? No. Only you do that. Let me be clear that the only thing he will be thinking when he sees you naked is “Yes!!!” The fact that you are naked outweighs anything else. And when you refuse, he ends up wondering why you find him so undesirable that you don’t want to be naked with him. Your negative body image is now damaging his. Did you ever consider that?
The fact that women can be so uncomfortable is made even worse by the fact that they blame men for their own neurosis. The husband wants his wife to be naked, but she refuses, and says it’s his fault, because he won’t think she’s good enough. He says, “Yes I will; I married you!” She doesn’t believe him. He eventually may well get upset, frustrated. May, in the worst case scenario, give up, and seek out some other woman who he can see naked. He wants to see his wife, but what choice has she given him? So he turns to porn, or has an affair or in some other way finds a woman who is willing to get naked. And his wife says, “Aha! Told you so, you bastard!” Blames him all over again, never realizing that all she needed to do was be naked. See, that’s another thing that figures into it. Men are attracted to women who feel good about themselves. Just as women like confident men, men like confident women, especially body confident. For most men, the idea that a woman likes to be naked is a tremendous turn on. He’d rather it be the woman in his life, but he’ll take what he can get. Nothing will turn him off as efficiently as saying, “Don’t look at me, I’m hideous!” He doesn’t think you are, but if you say it enough, he might start to believe you.
This is, of course not to say that all you need to do is undress and your man’s eyes will never wander. We are attracted to beauty. Again, that doesn’t mean we only accept the most beautiful. We like filet mignon, but we don’t demand it for every meal. What we prefer is home cookin’ (if I may run the analogy into the ground). Sure we look, but that’s all. We look.
And for all the women who still think that men who, for instance, look at the women in Playboy are comparing those women to them, I’ll say only this: it’s true. He is comparing his wife to the woman in Playboy. And he is finding the comparison identical.
Because he knows that he’s not going to get to have sex with the Playboy model tonight either.