In Which A Guy Is Held To A Standard Of Beauty, And Hates It

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was talking with a friend the other day, and she referred to Bradley Cooper as “someone I wouldn’t look at twice on OKCupid.”
I’m on OKCupid, and I don’t look anywhere half as good as Bradley Cooper.  Bradley’s a really handsome guy as far as I’m concerned, with craggy looks that aren’t to my tastes – but he has beautiful eyes, a radiant grin, and is fit and young and healthy.
I really don’t want to know what my friend would think if she looked at me on OKCupid.  If Bradley Cooper’s looks are a 5 out of 10 to her, then I can only assume that my pudgy ass is probably a 2 or 3 out of 10.
In that brief exchange, I got a clear idea of what she thinks of me physically, and it’s probably not good.
I despaired a little, because hell, if I can’t be Bradley Cooper, what can I be?  Even if I worked out all the time and lost forty pounds and got The Hollywood Abs, I’d probably be a 3 on that scale at most… at least physically.  I felt trapped at the base of a mountain that I literally could not climb – to my friend, I don’t think there’s a way I can be above-the-curve physically attractive to her.
As a result, I felt strangely like a failure all evening.
It wasn’t until this morning that I realized this is what women go through every day.
And I’m of two minds about that, because on the one hand I felt positively squidgey squeezing my muffintop into my pants that morning.  My bald spot felt baldier. My puffy moon of a face, which isn’t actually that bad looking, was something I didn’t wanna look at in the mirror because Jesus, that’s a 3 at best on my friend’s scale of beauty.  Maybe a 2.  My spiffy hat felt like a sad attempt to distract from the disaster zone of my misaligned features.
On the other hand, who the hell am I to tell my friend what she should be attracted to?
There’s a double-edged sword here, because on the one hand I adore my female buddy’s strong sexuality, the way she owns who she wants to fuck, and the unapologetic way she partners with the people who are going to give her what she wants.  That’s awesome. It’s a strength that women are often encouraged not to have, to instead passively accept whoever pays attention to them – so if she can say, “Fuck this guy, he’s not good looking enough for me,” then on one level that’s a total win for civilization.
Yet the other edge of the blade is that this off-handed idea that the Hollywood standard of beauty isn’t good enough is kinda hurtful.  It’s what women feel when they get compared casually to airbrushed beauties in Sports Illustrated, as though here’s what you should aspire to be, and you just aren’t.  The real you exists on the cover of this magazine, as an archetype, and the only things people like about you are all the ways you overlap with that perfection.
The rest of you is dross.
I stress that my friend did zero wrong.  She compared me to no one – she’d never do that – and maybe Bradley Cooper is a little weird-lookin’ for a Hollywood star.  (And I was in a peculiarly raw headspace at the time, thanks to bad news from Gini’s family.  They’re better now.)  And what we’re discussing here is not all of the non-physical ways one can be attracted to each other – just the raw battleground of physical beauty.  Which is a pretty narrow space, as I’m pretty sure my friend (who is quite gorgeous herself) has vapid hunky guys hitting on her on a regular basis, and I’m just as sure she discards at least some of them because she needs a partner who can feed that big factory o’luscious brainpower locked inside her skull.
Yet there’s this weird conflict rubbing like sandpaper in my head – it’s good that people should have strong opinions sexually, knowing what they want, and are willing to discard people who don’t appeal to them.  Yet it’s also a little bad when you’re held to those high standards and fall short, because you have this feeling like all the other bits of you – the interesting unique bits that make up you – can’t quite fill those gaps.
I’m not Bradley Cooper.  I’m me.  And I’ve done well, dating-wise.  But to someone, if we’re honest, I’m probably a 2 on her personal scale when I’m reduced to a headshot.
The steepness of that scale makes me despair a little.  Even as I think she has the absolute right to have it.
(EDIT: And if you’re going to tell me, “Oh, no, Ferrett, everyone finds different people attractive!” then you’ve missed the point I was trying to make.  The point is that women are often held to a standard of Hollywood-style beauty and scorned by folks if they don’t match it – vitriolically so, in certain circles – and that’s hard to deal with when those judgments are coming from people you’re trying to impress.  Maybe secretly they don’t think you’re that bad, but when a guy you like is saying, “God, Taylor Swift would be attractive if she lost a few pounds” or a woman who you think is gorgeous talks about all the ways her boobs look weird, it has a corrosive effect where you ask, “So what the hell am I?”
(And of course she likes something else aside from looks, a point I tried to make repeatedly in the text.  But that “looks alone” experience is an effect that guys do not often experience.  So I found it interesting to chronicle my reaction – which is not necessarily a rational one, or even a particularly well-thought-out one, but that’s my whole point.  When you get these kinds of emotional reactions, they affect you before you can apply the Reality Shields.  And as a guy who got startled by one, I thought it interesting to chronicle that.)


  1. TheFerrett
    Jan 21, 2014

    (And just for the record, I cleared this with my friend before posting, and she herself acknowledges her comment may have been more about being miffed at the sexual dynamics in Silver Linings Playbook than Bradley Cooper himself, and she confirms it’s not just about the physicality. Still, my reaction was sufficiently interesting that we both thought it worth cataloguing.)

  2. Marie
    Jan 21, 2014

    Good on you for extrapolating from your experience, and acknowledging the tough row women have even acknowledging that we want attractive men.
    I’ve had people tell me “No, you don’t. You’re only interested in personality. Women don’t respond to looks.” A DUDE told me this, like he knew better than me what I like!
    Honestly, I think that attitude has a lot to do with men wanting to avoid the feeling you had – and as the gender in a power position, they’ve been able to enforce a social norm that does not point out to men when they are unattractive.
    And as I get older and less attractive myself, I have to wonder why I care so much what random guys think of me – I have my spouse and lifemate! Who am I trying to attract?
    We are more than what we look like. A hell of a lot more.

  3. Scylla Kat
    Jan 21, 2014

    As always, insightful. Thank you. Also, Bradley Cooper’s eyes are too damn far apart. Just because I feel compelled to say that.

  4. Ginger Nic
    Jan 22, 2014

    You’re right, that women (and some men) have to deal with this every single day. We know the standard is impossible and we shouldn’t be affected by it. We know the right response to a snide remark about weight or an unsolicited “you know, I hear miracle product X could make that scar disappear” is to shrug it off. But it makes me feel like crap, every time. Everyone else, too, probably. We aren’t supposed to admit it feels like crap though. It’s only tearing down your physical self image, right? How shallow must you be, if you let that get to you? (Hey, look, now I have weird hair and I’m shallow. This is getting out of hand.)
    You may be right, it may not be a rational reaction. It’s definitely a reasonable one, though, and common. Reading your reaction here helps confirm that. Not that it validates the feeling-like-crap, but reassures that having the feeling in the first place isn’t a moral deficiency. So thank you for that.

  5. Mark
    Jan 22, 2014

    Interesting stuff. I always figured beauty comparisons would work mostly within certain groups, so that you can find yourself attractive as long as you’re reasonably attrative compared to others in your social group. At least that’s how I do it, and within the group of academic dads between 30-35 I’m probably about average, but nowhere near Bradley Cooper-looking.
    I once read Happiness by Richard Layard in which he says that this is one of the negative ways TV influences our happiness, since you start comparing yourself to the people on TV rather than the people around you.

  6. Ann
    Jan 22, 2014

    Wow, I love you for this article

  7. Yet Another Laura H.
    Jan 23, 2014

    1. Back when I used to trawl OKC, I would reject those who looked like they were several orders of magnitude prettier than I (uh, I think the profile has been deleted, but it WAS NinaNiente). I’m kind of low-maintenance-but-blessed-with-good-cheekbones pretty; if a partner’s minimum standards involve “Beauty is the rent I pay for living on this planet. No body hair, full make-up/ product, and the equivalent of a part-time job going to the gym every week just shows you care,” that person is never going to feel appreciated by me, and I’ll never feel on an equal footing with my partner. Not good relationship dynamics. But I confess, I would “shop” more by geeky little details— if you used the “data” as a plural noun, you had to have some very off-putting in-person traits indeed to avoid getting lucky.
    2. I worry about porn for just this reason. I know several guys who just cannot enjoy sex with squishing any more because they “can’t” look at an overweight partner or the same partner every day… no, really. There’s even one who can’t bear to look at pictures of a porn star with a deformed foot, a “hoof,” because all he can think of is her imperfection. (The vibe I get is a fear of judgement by other guys for masturbating to someone imperfect, oddly enough. If true, how sad!)
    It reminds me a bit of the story of the English pheasant: female English pheasants mated with the male who had the showiest plumage. All very well and good until the Chinese pheasant, with its swoony plumes and shiny green head came to Great Britain, and the English males just could not compete. Within a few generations, the English pheasant died out as a result of sterile matings…
    3. On the gripping hand, one hopes that the ability to separate television/ movie screen from reality extends to personal taste. In person, I wouldn’t look twice at Michelle Pfeiffer, for instance— on women with her physique, I tend to get “alert! alert! This is an eight-year-old with really good makeup! Abort make-out!” signals from my body (unfair to the delicate-boned, but so is making out with someone who doesn’t arouse you), but on screen she is literally breath-taking to me.
    TL;DR: We can’t all have the same tastes, not even always within our own psyches/ mouths. Think what a haggis shortage there would be!

  8. Kimc
    Jan 25, 2014

    Contrarywise, if you DON’T feel bad about how you look, people tell you you need more modesty. You can’t win.
    When I was young, I had the odd experience of having a so-so face but a perfect body. Mostly I wore baggy clothes to hide it. Our culture makes us just crazy about this issue.

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