A recent New York Times article, "Man or Male?" described the efforts in academia to create Men's Studies programs that would parallel the ones that already exist for women. The argument goes that courses currently offered to explore male gender (largely borne out of Women's Studies) do not present men's unique psychological, anthropological and literary point of view. Separating the guys from the gals, so to speak, would provide support for college-aged men, who many believe are floundering and yearning for an identity of their own.
The desire for a male voice and a perspective of their own has come up in the work I do on aging in contemporary culture. While giving talks about my book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change," I find that males in the audience have surprisingly strong reactions. "Hey, what about us guys?" they say. Or, "Don't you think we care about how we look, too?" One time, a fellow named Lenny called in to a radio show I was on and asked, "Do you have any idea what it's like watching middle-aged men in the movies make it with those gorgeous nymphets?" That on-air interchange led me to write a piece for The Huffington Post called "Men Need a Lift Too,' describing the possible connection between the increased use of erectile dysfunction medicine to the steep rise in women's use of plastic surgery. When Lenny said, "You know, we guys don't talk about it, but stuff like that makes us feel bad," I told him I thought I understood, since women have been feeling that way for years. Yes, both sexes are facing anti-aging pressures at midlife.
Which brings me to the origins of the piece I am posting today. Over the past few months, I have written a couple of articles about the perception of beauty in contemporary culture. The first one -- about women, and written with a female audience in mind -- described the results from a beauty survey that asked a series of questions of 35 to 65-year-old women. One of the questions (and the title of the article) was, "What Really Makes Women Feel Attractive?" The comments following that piece came from a much wider age range and, surprisingly, from both sexes. It stimulated a second article, "Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder or Beholdee?" that summarized the responses I received. I sorted them into categories based on their different perspectives and described the trends I found related to gender and age. I also offered possible explanations for the similarities and differences among them.
Now, I am following up on a suggestion made by bloggers who expressed interest in continuing the dialogue. They asked to focus on one perspective that was not covered in previous posts: male attractiveness. One man wrote, "It was great to read the commonalities women wrote in about beauty, but I'm curious to know what they find appealing in men?" Another blogger, a female, said, "Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what men thought about their own attractiveness? We're so used to listening to how they see us, but what about how they see themselves?" So, I am turning to you, bloggers, to help me compile more data about the perception and experience of beauty. I'd like to find out what men and women say in response to the question, "What makes a man look and feel attractive?"
We can start off with what one woman wrote on The Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago. After responding first to the question, "What makes a woman attractive?" she then initiated her thoughts about men:
I can tell you what I find attractive, Dr. Diller! Physically -- shoulder-length, curly, dark hair; neat mustache; slim build; beautiful smile (or wicked grin); readiness to laugh and willingness to be laughed at; serious and frolicsome, by turns; loving; empathetic; gentle; protective and enjoying being protected as well. Very specific, I know -- because it's my husband, and truly, nobody else -- even the Depps and Clooneys of the world -- are more than aesthetically pleasing pictures by comparison. I have total tunnel vision!
It will be interesting to see if other comments here illustrate how similarly men and women think, expressing one side of the argument described in the Times -- "that masculinity is essentially a cultural construct and that gender differences in general are fluid and variable." Or, perhaps the comments will raise a unique male perspective about attractiveness, in support of those who believe that "[m]en think and act differently from how women think and act because that's how evolution shaped them... they are basically still Neanderthals." My own research leads me to expect that men will assume that the "tall, dark and handsome" or "rich, strong and powerful" types are perceived as attractive, while women will look beyond the surface to less model-like men, seeing them, perhaps, as even more appealing.
So, please take a moment and respond with anything that comes to mind, in any way you choose -- one word, an experience you have had, hard data or just an opinion -- about what makes a man attractive. I'll examine the comments as they come in and view them from a psychological and cultural point of view to see if I can come up with some trends and conclusions. We've learned from previous posts that questions about people's appearance can be interpreted in a variety of ways: physical attractiveness, beauty that emanates from within, and so on. Let's keep an open mind, with the goal of adding greater depth and understanding to this whole topic.
One Men's Studies professor asked his class of 30 students (25 of whom were male), "Why are you taking this course?" The answer? "The boys didn't say anything. The girls all said, 'We want to understand the guys better.'" Clearly, the issues about men interest women, and vice versa. What is it about any male -- from Obama to Clooney, from your contractor to your husband -- that makes them appealing to you? We've joined together in previous posts to share what it really means for women to look and feel attractive. Now we can add new perspectives about men from real people like you.
The goal? To help men and women understand themselves and to get further underneath the surface of what it really means to look and feel attractive to one another. I hope to hear from both men and women about this issue.
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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit www.VivianDiller.com
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