Male fixation on (young) looks is, in my opinion, the great impediment to romantic contentment for millions of middle-aged men and women who are otherwise perfectly suited for each other. But male taste is not fixed. During my lifetime it has changed from Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg to Twiggy to Kate Moss, and to the ripped, muscular paragon of today. Though it is strange that the “ideal” woman can change so far so fast, it is also heartening. Why can’t the visuals of aging be as much in play as physique?
I was cheered by a mathematical analysis of men’s reactions to women’s looks conducted by the site OK Cupid: Men tend to ignore a woman who is “cute.” The more that men, as a group, disagree about her appearance, the more attention she gets; and if some (but not all) men think she’s ugly, more will approach her.
It’s no surprise that the “hottest” women (determined by users’ ratings), get four times the number of messages from men that average-looking women receive and twenty-five times as many as ugly women. However, the average rating a woman receives does not tell the story. More important is the distribution of these ratings.
Two actresses serve as a case in point. (On the OKCupid site you can see a number of real people, how they have been rated, and what kind of attention they receive.) Kristen Bell is “universally considered good-looking.” Almost everyone would rate her as “very attractive,” but not many would call her “super hot,” and no one would rate her “unattractive.” Below her picture is a distribution of how she might be rated.
Whereas Megan Fox would have a wider range or reaction. “Many dudes think she’s the sexiest thing ever.” But some, for example “the small number of people who have seen her movies,” would rate her very negatively.
While these two women are beautiful and impeccably tended and advertised, if you apply the principle to real people you find this: those who get strong reactions, for and against, get more attention than those who are found consistently “attractive.” That is, Ms. Fox would get more attention than Ms. Bell, even if Ms. Bell had a higher overall average, because of the wider range of feelings she provokes. “The more men disagree about a woman’s looks, the more they like her…when some men think you’re ugly, other men are more likely to message you.”
Why is this? One explanation is that men are more likely to take a chance on a woman they think they might attract. They may take a flyer on the super-hot, knowing they have no chance; they won’t on a good-looking woman who is obviously out of their reach (the “curse of the cute”). But another factor is it’s a wide world out there, filled with Spratts of all variety, those who eat no fat, those who eat no lean, and those who like their meals tattooed and pierced.
The site offers this advice: in their photos, people should play up their idiosyncrasies rather than try to obscure them by the way they pose and dress. Don’t hide your “flaws”–broadcast them. This will bring you more attention overall, and give you a greater chance to draw a good match.
Though this analysis was based on young people, I take a wider view. Midde-aged women err when they play down their years and, in effect, try to look age-lessly “cute.” Better to stress the difference. Some will find you ugly just because you are older. However, others will be drawn to the “idiosyncrasies” that aging generates. The mathematical analysis suggests you might get more attention overall. More important, you give men a chance to see you as you are, and some will find, perhaps to their surprise, an allure in women’s looks that surpasses cuteness.
Men have an innate prejudice toward youth. But their taste is elastic. Only if they are confronted with unapologetic mature looks–older beauty–can they learn to bend toward it.