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Men don’t understand what women find attractive


Kate Demolder explores why women tend to favour sidekicks over leading men


A 2010 psychological study made up of 3,770 adults, recruited via an online survey, suggested that heterosexual women often prefer older men. The trope has long existed, but rarely before had science appeared epiphenomenal in a world perpetuated by trophy wives. The theories surrounding the male gaze are lofty and plentiful, but perhaps John Berger said it best in his book Ways of Seeing when he wrote: ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ Men have long been perpetuated as far more visual creatures, but what do women see when they look at men? People, suggests Tori Telfer, writing in Vulture back in 2018, and TikTok agrees. 

The labyrinthian short videos app, popular with Xennial teens and young adults, is teeming with videos from young men asking for feedback on their dating profiles, with many questioning why photos of them looking ‘conventionally attractive’ don’t seem to perform. It’s earnest, naive and also, in a climate rife with vulnerability-bashing, valiant. It’s also not about conventional attraction, young women, some of which are teenage girls, helpfully share in the comments. It’s about more than physical appearance, they cry, speaking to why conventional high-octane attraction can only go so far. Female attraction, when described like this to men, appears entropic and even solipsistic but it also actually serves a very real purpose. 

According to a team of scientists led by Dr Helen Fisher at Rutgers University, romantic love can be broken down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Though there are overlaps, each type is characterised by its own set of hormones. Testosterone and oestrogen drive lust; dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction; and oxytocin and vasopressin mediate attachment. While we can certainly lust for someone we are attracted to, and vice versa, one can happen without the other. Attraction involves the brain pathways that control “reward” behaviour (a system that motivates animals to approach stimuli or engage in behaviour that increases fitness (sex, energy-dense foods, etc.), which partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating, all-consuming even.

For women, both attraction and lust are evolutionarily linked to the Darwinian ‘mate value’ (the sum of traits that are perceived as desirable, representing genetic quality and/or fitness (biology), an indication of a potential mate’s reproductive success) which covers a myriad from emotional intelligence to height to vulnerability to weight. Because of this, the ‘reward’ behaviour linked to heterosexual female attraction comes not only from aesthetics, but approachability, humour and, perhaps, gentility. “Women also love men who listen as talking is the number one way a woman de-stresses,” shares Dating Coach Frances Kelleher. “Men that can express that they cherish, respect and are devoted to a woman are highly attractive to women because these are three of the main love needs of females.”

Different drivers exist for men and women; a man’s main criteria in choosing women should be to ensure they are fertile, and attractiveness cues serve as indicators of reproductive status – a youthful appearance, curvaceous body shape, etc. A woman’s investment in parental efforts is substantial in comparison to men (as men don’t need to physically carry a baby or breastfeed) and therefore her best chance of reproductive success is to ensure the survival of her offspring. This is why a females’ optimal strategy is to be choosy in the choice of mate and seek a committed partner.

We see this played out in real-time by way of celebrities on any given day. When Kim Kardashian was first seen out with SNL comic Pete Davidson many broached the question, what is one of the world’s most beautiful women doing with him? “He seems super charming. He’s vulnerable. He’s lovely,” model and author Emily Ratajkowski told Late Night With Seth Meyers about Davidson. “His fingernail polish is awesome. He looks good! He also has a good relationship with his mother. We love it, that’s hard to find.” And while it seems like a joke, Ratajkowski’s right. Davidson is honest about the many challenges his life has rubbed up against while neither asking for pity nor casting blame. He’s getting through it, so to speak, indicating not that he deals with his lot and aims to wield positivity from tragic interludes. He’s also committed, “My love language, when I’m in a relationship, is I treat the person I’m with like a princess,” he told Paper magazine in 2019. “I try and go as above and beyond as possible,” he said, “because that’s what you’re supposed to do. If you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re just supposed to make that person feel as special as possible.”

An unlikely Romeo, perhaps. But a bankable mate in both potential and genes. Those who question his appeal have clearly subscribed to the male power fantasy, not the female gaze. The truth is that men, more visual creatures by far, tend to care a lot about aesthetics in their partner, while women don’t. And according to research, this continues until we’re at least 60. 

Men also tend to value power, strength, and hyper-masculinity in themselves and other men, and therefore assume that women find those things attractive, but we’re coming to understand that women tend to put the focus less on appearance and a lot more on emotional intelligence and kindness. As neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen noted in his study of the male and female brains, women have brains that are “hardwired for empathy” whereas men lack this deeply ingrained neurological trait. Whether made or born, a wide body of research supports the notion that women are more empathetic––and they value that quality, or look for it, in a mate. 

It seems that, in part, this disconnect between what men think women want and what women actually want springs from the fact that many men struggle to imagine a woman’s perspective, in any context. It’s not only why dating apps are flooded with hyper-masculine photographs of men flexing muscles, but also why so many men were shocked (or expressed disbelief) upon finding out that four out of every five young women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment. These may seem like two extreme and discordant examples, but it’s symptomatic of a wider societal problem: a chronic, and even systemic, lack of empathy towards women.

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves,” Berger’s Ways Of Seeing quote continues. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she becomes a sight.” For women to no longer be simply viewed as sights in the male-leaning world we live in, we must not just learn to go beyond what we can see – but perhaps change our way of seeing, entirely.