A little bit of ugly goes a long way

megan-fox-with-beard-561683441Male 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.KristenBell

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.

What if you are unable to consent to sex you want?


This is an issue that pertains to some of our parents and may soon pertain to us. And it may induce you to think about the nature of desire and love.

In 2009, in a small nursing home in Iowa, a nurse discovered a 78-year-old man in flagrante delicto with an 87-year-old woman; in the nurse’s words, he was “going to town” on her.  Both were very happy; they had often been seen together. When the nurse separated them, she received insults and kicks from the woman.

The nurse contacted the head of the nursing home.  Why? The couple both suffered from dementia. Should they be allowed to carry on this way? Were they competent to consent to sex?

Neither the administrator of the nursing home nor the head nurse saw a problem; the woman was assertive enough to voice unwillingness (and she was observed to be calmer, in general, when she was with him); and the man would not have had an erection if under coercion.  There were no threats, no injuries.  The administrator did not report the incident.

However, when state inspectors heard of it, they charged the home with failing to protect the woman (concluding she had been “sexually assaulted”), and threatened withholding Medicare and Medicaid money, which would have bankrupted the home. The man was discharged.  Too late.  The head of the nursing home and the head nurse were fired, their careers destroyed.  The home was fined. Though the woman’s son had been contacted right after the incident and had found it unobjectionable, once the woman died, the following year, her family sued the home claiming it had failed to prevent her “rape.”

The event has been carefully investigated since, and it is clear that this was consensual, even loving, sex.  Of course nursing homes fear rape of helpless victims. But this is an entirely different issue, one that promises to grow to immense proportion as the 77 MILLION Boomers–who came of age in an era of sexual freedom–grow old, and many enter nursing homes.  Ten million are expected to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.

How are caregivers to deal with people who are confused, incoherent, might not even know who they are with? One school of thought is that they simply do not have the ability to consent, so such sexual activity, fraught with danger, should be prevented. But another school is that people with severe dementia have become, in the words of one observer, “to some degree somebody else.  They’ve lost mental connections with people they loved, with much of their past, but that doesn’t rob them of their desire and their need for touching, for intimacy. Just because they confuse who they’re with, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give them some pleasure at a time in their lives when pleasure comes at a premium.”

Involving the families of the patients can be very difficult.  Some will be very uncomfortable at the thought of their parents cavorting with people they don’t really know. Whereas others are enlightened.  The husband of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had dementia and “took up with another woman in the home he was living in. Justice O’Connor decided that this was good for him, that it made him happy. And she wanted him to be happy.”

One facility, the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York, long ago decided to go its own way: It encourages sex and intimacy. Its head says that he thinks its residents aren’t having enough sex.  He “believes none of the great programs they offer their residents can do anybody as much good as having a romantic relationship where somebody wakes up in the morning and can’t wait to see their boyfriend or their girlfriend.”

Some think that people with dementia should not be judged by what they might have thought or felt or done what they would have done earlier in life. Each should be thought of as “a new person who should be allowed to make new choices that makes that new person happy.”

In a sense this pertains to the choices we make while still compos mentis, in middle age: Can’t we choose to leave behind what we once did, and consider ourselves new people with different desires, to be fulfilled in ways we once considered unthinkable?


Honey, it’s time!

2a Peggy BundyDuring the gathering of accomplished middle-aged women that I mentioned in my last post, Oprah asked what sex was like at this time of life.

One woman said that sex with her husband “is definitely something I savor…when I remember I have a husband.”  She has a very young child.  (This helped me define middle age, which has eluded me numerically.  I think of the middle-aged as having children who have left the home, or are about to; or as having and planning to have none.)

Another woman said, “You always hear stories of married women going to the doctor because their libido is too low.  But how come you never hear about married men going to the doctor because their libido is too high?…Why are men’s desires considered the norm? Maybe instead of us going to see doctors, they ought to see doctors to get their testosterone lowered!”

This woman preferred chocolate to sex, and was defiantly owning it.  Oprah said that this was a common attitude (about both sex and chocolate, apparently).  Husbands of these women had learned to adjust–or to keep their mouths shut.

This is consistent with a running theme in TV sitcoms–if the husband does something especially noteworthy, he will be rewarded with sex; if he screws up, he doesn’t have to be told a dry evening is in store, because he is well aware of it.

However, in conversations I’ve had with women over the years, I’ve found that this is by no means common.  (I should say that I originally met all the women in my book online, where they were, or had been, looking for romance and/or sex; they are not a neutral sample.)  Many said that when the marital bed cooled, it was more often due to the dormancy of the husband; or else it was a product of trouble between the couple.  Women did not spontaneously lose interest.

This attitude burst onto the TV scene in the 90s, in “Married With Children.”  Peg Bundy is sexually inexhaustible; her husband Al, a failed shoe salesman, is content to watch television, with his hand down his pants.  He is the one in need of ignition; she is the one always begging for action–or insulting him for the lack of it.

The show was very popular, in part because of the charming cast, and the comedic anarchy of the family relationships.  But my impression was that the sexual portrait of the couple found favor with viewers because there was a lot of truth in it–and no other show dared go there.

al bundy

“The best and worst things about being a woman are the same.”

Sophia and Jayne MansfieldOprah Winfrey convened a group of her “accomplished women friends” so she could ask them about their lives, specifically middle-aged life.  She had a number of questions, including: What are the best and worst things about being a woman?

One said something Oprah considered profound:

The best and worst things about being a woman are the same: the way we feel drawn to caring for others, and the way this impulse becomes so much larger and stronger and more consuming once we have children…  Motherhood brings with it a clear and compelling awareness of human vulnerability, and a sense of having been charged with the care of others. The dream that most women have—of having children someday, of being at the center of a family—is one of the most powerful impulses in the world, yet it is also a destroyer of dreams, of ambition, and that fact is a hard and sometimes bitter truth about being female.

I am not qualified to judge this remark.  But I have not often heard women sound bitter about motherhood, or feel it has destroyed their dreams.  Rather, they know that you can’t do everything in life, and motherhood is their choice.  I dare say that there are a good number of men who would rather log a lot more time with their kids.

It’s also possible that this woman is gnashing her teeth because she is feeling the daily pressure of motherhood.  Whereas once your family is launched into the world you can take a longer (magical?) view.  Then you imagine what your life would have been like without having children, and you’re very happy with your choice.

Comments, please.

(And no, the picture is not about middle age.  But it is about some of the good and bad things about being a woman.  And it is SUCH a great photo.)

Sacrifice of the virgin

James Woods 66 Kristen Bauguess 20This is unsavory actor James Woods, 66, with his 20-year-old girlfriend.  Galling though it is that someone like him can land a woman this age, isn’t it fortunate that he is out of the middle-aged dating pool?  Young ladies have the advantage in the mating game of being young and fertile; they also carry the burden of being young and stupid.

Oops, wrong hat! When the Magic goes wrong.

bullwinkleThere has been some less than sunny news about the health of middle-aged women.  One recent report finds that their stress often manifests physically, as aches, pains, migraines, and gastrointenstinal problems.  One of the authors opines that the huge changes in our generation, which sent most women into the workplace, also brought them new forms of stress. Retirement–living at home after decades at work–is a huge dislocation; women of previous generations, who spent their lives at home, did not experience it.

Another study reports that depression may boost the risk of stroke in middle-aged women, and yet another says that there has been a dramatic rise in the suicide rate among the middle-aged. Since women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, these ills falls  disproportionately on them.

There is no magic if there is no risk.  The good news is that women who seek help are now more likely to find it, because the medical/psychological professions recognize the risks as real (and not just some old chicks sounding off because they’ve got nothing better to do).houdini_magic_upsidedown

The girl who has already done it all

meangirlsI read an article that recommends ways over-50s can ease back into the romance game. The jist is that if you’re nervous because you have not been on a date in a long time, it’s easier to go on a group date or participate in group activities than face off mano-a-mano across a dinner table.

An activity based on a common interest is a good idea.  It gives you something to talk about other than the often unpleasant life events that culminated in you looking for new love.  However, I take exception to the idea of the group. It suggests that single middle-aged people are somehow like high-schoolers, who join packs for safety and to spare themselves from having to find out directly if someone “likes” them.

If this were a movie, you’re not the shy new girl in school who is dying to be accepted by the reigning clique. You’re the girl who has already done it all. You can do exactly what you want: play around, sift through the candidates for a new partner, or neither, without caring about your reputation or fearing that if a romance doesn’t work out you’ll die. These kids are all new and will take some time to learn. But you will find what you want; more important, you know what you don’t want.  

I occasionally have a dream that puts me back in high school. Some grandiose official tells me I will not graduate until I do something I don’t want to do–write a paper, take an exam I don’t know anything about, I’m not sure.  The dream revives dread I (and many others) felt during those awful years.  But I have learned to extricate myself from the dream by telling myself: Wait a second, you graduated from college, so this can’t be real…  It’s the one bad dream I can escape by force of will.

It is very much like the nightmare that some have anticipating new midlife romance. Remind yourself: You’ve been through this and much much more. Then you wake up and resume your life, with fewer cares and greater skills than you ever imagined when you were young. 

More from the OK Cupid files

writing1More answers on the OK Cupid site, all by mid-lifers.

Q: Assume you have a homosexual friend who is the same gender as you. Would it bother you if they hugged you?
A: No
Unless he lifted my wallet while he was doing it.

Q: Do you believe that dreams can be messages from a “higher level”?
A: No
Mine are usually messages from a lower level.

Q: You’re dating someone new. You discover that they have a room-mate the same sex as you. This:
A: Doesn’t faze you one bit
It increases the probability of finding beer and a wide-screen TV there.

Q: Do you like the taste of blood?
A: Yes
If it’s of an enemy chieftain I slayed in battle, and now, to gain his powers, must eat.

Q: Do wild places such as mountains, rivers and forests call out to you?
A: No.
Well, the nymphs that live in them do.

Q: Do you believe that money can buy happiness?
A: No.
But it can buy lots of good shit, which happiness can’t.

Q: Do you like being in a car with someone else who’s driving extremely fast?
A: Yes
With Mario Andretti, sure. With Ethel Goldenfarb maybe not.

Q: If you found out your partner was cheating on you, would you cheat on them in revenge?
A: No, I’d confront them first.
I would short-sheet her bed and tie all her shoelaces together.

Q: You are sleeping with your significant other and it is very cold in the room, what do you do?
A: Nothing, I like it cold.
Better still: “Hey, get out there and chop some wood!”

Q: Love conquers all.
A: False.
Ray guns conquer all; but love is good too.

Q: How would you react if your lover called you by the name of their ex?
A: I’d pretend I didn’t hear.
I’d quickly ask her for the money she owed him.

Q: Is it possible for your partner to be too ambitious?
A: Yes.
If it’s possible for Caesar, it’s possible for my partner.

Q: Do you have a problem with people who wear fur clothing?
A: No.
It’s more of a problem if they’re wearing fur and it’s NOT clothing.

“Words of love, so soft and tender, won’t win a girl’s heart anymore.”

How do single middle-aged people find partners?  By midlife most of us have settled into jobs and social circles, and we don’t see much turnover.  Some social advisers say we would find like-minded candidates if we joined charities such as Habitat For Humanity. Whereupon we wonder what planet social advisers come from–and wouldn’t they be better off pounding in sheet-rock with Jimmy Carter.

Tens of millions of people of all age–including more and more mid-lifers–rely on dating sites. Despite the drawbacks, diligent, relentless, and not-easily-demoralized users often find worthy others. (Every woman who contributed stories to The Magic of Middle-Aged Women I met online.)

In the last few years, a new dating site has risen in popularity: OK Cupid. Its unique feature is its algorithm: there are thousands of (user-generated) questions, ranging from the usual (are you looking to get married in the next three years; what do you like to do on a first date), to the less usual (do you like to have your hair pulled; would you film yourself having sex), to many that are not at all love/sex related (should people be able to carry concealed weapons; would you watch a meteor shower at 2 AM; is Jesus Christ your lord and master).  The site does not pretend to fashion from your answers your “personality type.”  It simply shows, numerically, how similar you are to others, based on your responses. The site is also unusual in that it allows for the pursuit of all romantic ambitions, from a chaste long-distance relationship to a closer one bound by a bullwhip.

Each question offers multiple answers, and leaves a place for comments. This is where the magic happens. I have accumulated what I think are some of the more noteworthy comments, all written by the middle-aged:

Q: Would you enjoy going fishing with your partner?
But if we can be honest, worms usually work better.

Q: Do you know the first name of every person you’ve ever made out with?
It’s “Honey-Chitlin’.”

Q: Are carbohydrates something you think about?
Unless I’m really attracted to them.

Q: Would it bother you if your partner kept pictures of previous partner(s)?
If she kept limbs or scalps I would put my foot down. 

Q: How long do you believe people need to be in a relationship before before
getting married?
Less than 6 months/no requirement.
One trimester.

Q: Would you shave something you usually don’t because your boyfriend/girlfriend asked you to?
Not if it was on my body!

Q: Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?
Usually no one knows what that reason really is, but there is a reason.

Q: Do overweight people annoy you?
Unless they sit on me.



“Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”

EstherWilliamsBWDangerousWhenWet-778x10241-455x600Though this is a remark that could be made about millions, Fannie Brice directed it at Esther Williams (while no doubt thinking that she would pledge her life, her fortune, and her sacred honor to look like Esther Williams in any state of lubrication).

There’s no message here, just an appreciation of Ms Williams, who died last week at 91. Though my family was big on musicals, I was not, and I was a lamb at the slaughter when I walked into the living room one day to see the image below on the TV. It was a precursor to the blow to the soul Jacqueline Bisset delivered in Day For Night.

Obit Esther Williams

After winning the American championships in freestyle swimming, Ms Williams made some spectacular–and spectacularly silly–movies. Not at all a Hollywood type, she married badly; her husbands took her from the public eye, and one took her from her money. But she turned her life around in middle age, making a successful business of her own brand of swim wear, swimming pools, etc.

She was known for her “frankness and self-deprecating humor.” About women who were “fighting a thing called gravity” she said it was “crazy to have a bra made out of a piece of cotton that could double as a napkin on the table. And the thongs! God, we’ve spent our lives trying to keep our underwear out of that spot, and all of a sudden they want to put a fish line there?”

Toward the end of her life she regained some celebrity and made the very interesting remark: “When you’re out of sight for as long as I was, there’s a funny feeling of betrayal that comes over people when they see you again.”

RIP Esther Williams. I’m not sure what you’re doing on my blog, but I’m glad you’re here.

Age 67:

esther-williams at 67