Thursday, 17 October 2013

Beauty vs Attraction

In the 1980s, the "Glamazon" look was in style. This was the era of big, blown-out hairstyle, big breasts, long legs and a ton of make-up. In the 1990, the "heroin-chic" look was in style. This was the era of rail-thin, somewhat boyish-looking, very young women like Kate Moss. What the 2000s it-look was, I haven't a clue because I stopped paying attention the day I saw rail-thin little women dancing around outside a department store advertising MAC products. I did a double-take. They weren't women. They were female impersonators. And I realized that it was now easier for relatively fat-free, long-legged, zero-hipper young men to epitomize the "perfect woman" than actual women. The apotheosis of woman to underage-looking teenage boy was complete.

Fortunately most men are not attracted to underage-looking teenage boys, but to real women with breasts and bottoms and thighs. Of course, like other human beings, they are drawn to facial symmetry, which is why we women stare into our make-up mirrors and busily try to make nature more symmetrical. Our parents often pay vast sums so our teeth will be more symmetrical, too, although this is less common in Britain where the natives say they are unnerved by American "chiclet" teeth and Georgia Jagger pouts at the camera with her mouth open, gap-teeth on display, looking unnervingly like a spaced-out, tarted-up twelve year old.

Fortunately, most men are not as obsessed with female beauty as women are. They don't think about it; one just finds this girl pretty and that one not, whereas another man may think the opposite. And they are not so obsessed with aging. This is, in fact, one of the themes of my novel. My heroine is in her 30s. Her boyfriend is in his early 20s. Her boyfriend is clearly attached to her, but Catriona waits constantly for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. She is older; he is younger. No matter what he says, the relationship must be doomed.

But I have been ditched twice for women considerably older than me, a life lesson I am unlikely to forget. One of my rivals was over 40, and told me she could not do better than the rat who had bounced to me and then back to her. She said I would understand it all when I was over 40 myself. I'm very grateful to her because I spent the next 10 years making sure I never did. Instead, I have learned some very good news, and it is that men are not just attracted to youth and beauty. They are also attracted to energy, confidence, happiness, kindness, brains (tempered with modesty), social position and fame.

This is particularly true in Europe, where 50+ film stars like Kristen Scott Thomas still play romantic leads. In the UK, Tilda Swinton and Helen Mirren are still considered attractive, and Tilda Swinton has always been odd-looking. Definitely attractive, with those huge, expressive eyes, but odd-looking. And I think a large part of this has to do with the fact that they are famous film stars and the media raves on about how marvelous they are. Thus, society has accorded them status.

It's amazing what gives you status. In Germany, young university students do not shun older university students just because they are older. In my experience, German undergraduates think friendly graduate students are cool. This may be because Germany is still a terrifically hierarchical society, the hierarchy being based on expertise. When I studied in Germany, I was so overwhelmed by the attention of German undergraduates that I sought out another foreign student, a priest, to moan about my culture shock. But in the words of a very sweet undergrad from Hamburg, "We are only undergraduates; you are doing a DOKTORAT!" They actually felt honoured that I wanted to hang out with them. And one or two of them tried their luck...thus exacerbating my feelings of culture shock.

Sadly, this was not at all my experience back in the USA where a nervous undergraduate goggled at me because I tried to sign up on the orthodox students' club retreat (" you faculty?") and the chaplain emphasized that I was not one of them ("They're great kids, aren't they?") Therefore, I am not sure how helpful my words of wisdom are for American readers. The generation gap in the USA seems very huge to me, and Mrs Robinson is a major figure of fun. Still, it may cheer you up to know that this is not true for the whole world.


Julia said...

HAHAHAHA! Don't worry about having been asked if you were "faculty"! Last year, when I was all of 22 (maybe even 21), I was asked by a uni library staff member whether I was a uni student or teacher. There are a couple of reasons that this might have happened - some tutors are very young, and also I think I appear to be older than I am (people might guess 27 rather than 23). I don't think I look old as such, but people often overestimated my age when I was a teenager. One particularly surprising example happened when I was 13. I'd gone to the local kinder to collect my little brother. One of the mums who was there to collect her kid started talking with me, and asked if I was "thinking of having kids soon" (I must have told her I was collecting my brother, so she would've worked out that he wasn;t my son). Whaaaaa....?

However, a few months ago, someone underestimated my age by a fair bit. A tradesman had come to the house because the central heating broke.

Tradesman: So what time was it that heating broke?

Me: Um...I didn't notice...?

Tradesman: Pfft. Teenagers.

Look, my hair was a mess and I was wearing trackies. And probably a dopey expression.

MaryJane said...

I second your point, Seraphic: age is not as big of a deal in Europe as it is in the US, which is sad. I think that's one European trend it would be good for Americans to get on board with. (It's kind of bizzare because for a country that is all about equality, we sure do have a lot of random social "inequalities" that I never even noticed before spending a lot of time in Europe.)

Kate said...

I think the American horror of age-mismatched couples is only present in those parts of society that really value a certain look. If I'm out at a college bar, surrounded by 20-somethings who are on the prowl for "hot" girls (and use porn as a reference), then yes. I am far too old. However, I regularly get asked out by undergrads (I'm a professor) and they don't seem particularly phased by the age difference. Rather, like your German friends - they seem impressed with what I've done in my own life. [I don't actually go out with them...just to clarify.]

I think a big problem is that American men are allowed to stay children for so long, while the women are off getting their lives together. When I think of a 25-year-old man, I think of someone who might have lots of debt, is probably still in school or thinking of going back, and generally irresponsible. This makes them unattractive to me and many other women, I'm sure. A lot more goes into attraction than beauty - and if we weren't force-fed unnatural ideas on TV and from magazines, I'm sure a lot more people would agree.

Maria M. said...

“When I think of a 25-year-old man, I think of someone who might have lots of debt, is probably still in school or thinking of going back, and generally irresponsible.”

Kate, this is so true…except the part where you use the word “man.”

I am in my early twenties, and the vast majority guys I meet who are even close to my age seem immature and confused. I’m not saying I have my life completely figured out, but let’s have some concrete life goals, and some plans for reaching them! Most of the guys I meet seem to be primarily concerned with their car, their buddies, and going to the lake next weekend.

Lucky for me, I tend to attract men who are in their late 30’s and 40’s………….and this very much weirds me out. I still feel young enough on the inside to where it feels inappropriate for men that age to show interest in me. Even if I could get over that, these men seem to be in a much different place in their lives than I am, and I think it would be really hard to relate to them. So it seems that my choices are 1) Immature, age-appropriate guy, or 2) Mature, excessively-old guy. I’ve decided that my best option is to wait for my contemporaries to get a clue…

Wonder how long that should take?

Bee said...

Another U.S. single chiming in: with regard to platonic friends, I personally have not experienced age discrimination when it comes to me (25+) relating to older people (30+ dating male, 35++ single female, 40++ married female). I have been roommates and colleagues of 22-year-olds and there wasn't too much difficulty, thought sometimes it got exhausting to hear of dating drama I thought I'd matured out of.

I suppose the real culprit is that there is a lack of opportunities for older and younger to interact: there's the undergrad group at the college; the young professional group at the parish, with age cut-offs and no intermingling.

I also second Kate's observation that 25-year-old men are not grown -up. I'd argue that there are even very few 26-30 who desire marriage. I think this is a function of not being taught how to see a "both/and" with regard to marriage and career. Because right now it's either grad school/work/travel/'have a life" or get married and have children. If only they could see having a child is quite literally having a life.

Sunnysaffer said...

Maria M.,

" I’ve decided that my best option is to wait for my contemporaries to get a clue…Wonder how long that should take?"

I am in my late 30s and am still waiting. Now it is the men in their late 40s/50s who are attracted to me. Sigh.oryspir

Julia said...

"I suppose the real culprit is that there is a lack of opportunities for older and younger to interact: there's the undergrad group at the college; the young professional group at the parish, with age cut-offs and no intermingling."

Bee, I guess that that's true. The closest "older than me" friend I have is still only 29 or 30 (she just had a birthday but she didn't mention whether it was 29 or 30, so hey, neither did I). I met her when I was an undergrad (she's doing her PhD).

Other than that, I'm sort of friends with the ladies at my gym. I don't live in a student area, so the people who go to my gym are mostly very physically fit housewives in their forties.

Jam said...

I'm a (US) graduate student who's never felt any desire to socialize with the undergrads. Grad student is an awkward in-between status, but I at least have always seen us as essentially on the teacher (or management!) side. When I was an undergrad the TAs, like the professors, lived in a different world, and I guess that's how I behave now. Then also I came to grad school directly from undergrad and in those first couple of years I felt insecure about my age and status and was keen not to be confused for an undergrad. I didn't even sign up for the newsletters from the campus Newman Center. Away from my home campus I've made friends with undergrads and very recent grads, and of course I've gotten older and more senior and so I've relaxed over all. But I'm still essentially one of the jerks who give those unreasonable assignments rather than the poor angels who get to whine about them. I would add that most universities have rules about romantic relationships between TAs and undergrads; not that that rules out friendship but it does set a tone of separation. My school only outlaws relationships between a student and the person who actually grades their papers (so as long as someone else does the grading for the partner the TA would be allowed to date anyone in the class). I don't know what rules other campuses have but I think ours is more lax than most. Finally in the US you have to remember that half the undergrads are under legal drinking age. Thus "undergrad" events usually don't have alcohol and "graduate" events do (or may). But at the end of the day I can't say that I have any particular reason for not seeking out friends among the underclassmen; I've just never thought of it as especially desirable and our lives are so different anyway.