Life

How Men Choose Women

From 'The Private Lives of Men.'

By J. M. Kearns 17 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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[Editor's note: This excerpt, from What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men edited by Ian Brown, is the last in The Tyee's Love on the Edge series.]

Let me say at the start, I don't mean to imply that men get to do the choosing. It isn't like a vegetable stand, where a man can say, "I'll take this onion here, not these others," and the onion has nothing to say about it. What we're talking about is, how do men pick out which women they are going to try for. Nor am I condoning, excusing or endorsing men's methods. Interesting essays could be written on how men should choose women, or how men wish they chose women. But we will focus on a topic of more practical interest: in the real world, how do men actually choose women? We will take a clear-eyed look at that question, and maybe we will find that the truth has some redeeming qualities.

The first thing we need to face about men is this: they are animals. More accurately, they are loons. They have their own ways of doing things. They don't proceed in a politically correct, enlightened way to select a woman. They may end up valuing her for the "right" things, the things she wants to be valued for. But that is not how they start.

Men are hard-wired to look for certain features. Evolution wants the mating process to succeed, and so it makes sure that men home in on that which will be conducive to success, regardless of how unrefined this strategy may be.

'How men think'

But no matter how strange men are, if you're a woman who wants to meet the right man, you have to clue in to how men think. (Okay, "think" is a bit of a stretch.) If you try to change men or just don't get them, you'll be stymied -- but if you accept how they are and forgive them and work with them, you will have enormous power and effectiveness.

Men want to look. First, foremost and always, men are visual. Men's eyes are always wandering, seeking out that which they could and would impregnate. Why is this so, Mr. Darwin? "Well, it's because the genes that triggered that kind of behaviour had the best chance of survival down through the ages, until all the men who were left had those genes." In other words, an obsession with reproduction leads to a better reproductive score . . . or something -- let's not get too technical. The fact is men can't help looking, even happily married men, even codgers who think Viagra is better than money.

So the first rule is, let men see you. This may seem too obvious to even mention, but in fact it is the key to the whole thing. If you make it difficult to be seen -- for instance, if you sit in the back booth with shades on -- you stop Step One from happening. So none of the other steps can happen. (Note that being seen is particularly crucial -- and achievable -- if you are trying to meet Mr. Right online.)

Now let us ask, what are men looking for? What are they hoping to see? If you're feeling cynical, your answer may be, "Cameron Diaz." Or if you happen to look like Cameron Diaz, your equally discouraged answer may be "Kiera Knightly." But this is so wrong it is laughable.

Shameful attraction

Men are, in the first place, looking for "attractive." Now what on earth does that mean? Well, the good news is, it means completely different things to different men -- but it almost always involves a combination of face, and body shape and size.

Different men like completely different bodies. Many men in our culture like slender, athletic female figures -- some men really do, and some say they do, because they are ashamed of admitting anything else to their male peer group. Some men want the rail-thin model type. But many men in our culture do not want a slender woman: they want someone with riper curves, someone who is larger, more "Rubenesque." Some men like pear-shaped women; some men like inverted pears. Some men want very large women. And some men don't really care that much about body size or shape.

Then we have faces. Here there is even less consensus. No one agrees on faces. A face that strikes one man as masculine may seem feminine to another. A face that strikes Tom as sexy may look shallow to Harry. Ralph may hate a lot of makeup on a woman, while Shawn considers it a turn-on. There are no objective standards concerning faces. Even in the realm of extremely good-looking celebrities, you will find a whole gamut of opinions. I know men who think Britney Spears is homely. I know men who think Pamela Anderson is grotesque.

'Boob men'

I know men who hate all blondes. Men who hate brunettes. Men who appreciate a good tan. Men who adore very pale skin. Boob men. Leg men. I knew a guy who got very turned on by a woman's handshake, if it was "as strong as a man's." His friends told him he was in the closet, but he stuck to his guns.

All this may strike the sensitive, intelligent woman as superficial, even offensive. "How shallow can guys get?" you may ask. Surely the cultured, educated, spiritual (yet masculine) man of your dreams doesn't look only at the outside of a woman. "True beauty is on the inside," women cry out from the salons of the world. "Besides," I hear them say, "we women are forgiving of men's looks -- why can't men return the favour?"

'Ruthlessly pragmatic'

Scientists say men and women are both designed to be ruthlessly pragmatic in their criteria for a mate. Women are programmed by evolution to choose men based on their father potential, which is closely associated with status in the group -- what we now call money and power. Men -- regardless of their conscious attitude to having kids--are designed to look for good reproducers; a low waist-to-hip ratio of around .70 signifies "likely to be a success at bearing children." (Larger waists relative to the hips have been linked to lower estrogen levels, less body fat available to sustain pregnancy and lower fertility.) And in both sexes, facial beauty is associated with grace, intelligence, popularity and, in general, fitness for survival.

So forget about how superficial men may be and realize that they, like you, are hard-wired in mysterious ways, which may or may not be as shallow as you think. (Fortunately, many of them don't toe the evolutionary line anyway--apparently their wiring has come loose.)

Take faces, for example. It's clear that we read far more in a face than looks. We think we are reading souls. We look into the eyes of the person we are talking to, and we feel as if we can tell who they are, deep down -- what they value, what they love. With certain people, something about the face feels familiar, even familial. Many people strike us as somehow alien; but some faces arouse in us a strange empathy from the first time we set eyes on them.

Friend or lover?

What is a man doing when he looks you over? On some level, quite possibly unconscious, he (or his genes) are trying to decide, could this person be a lover or is she just a potential friend? If the answer comes up "lover," his charm will probably kick in, and there will be a lot of twinkling eyes and banter and smiling (read: spreading of plumage) that might not take place if his circuits decided on "friend." And how is the decision made? Let's assume he finds you to be above some basic threshold of attractiveness -- what other factors come into play?

Well, as odd as it may sound, you are being checked out in a number of ways to determine whether you are too intimidating. You are being studied to see whether you are likely to defeat him as a lover. I mean this in the most literal way: he wants to know whether in your presence he might be unable to perform.

The average male who is old enough and mature enough to want to marry has realized that sex is not always a triumph. I'm not saying he is sexually insecure: indeed, with the right woman he may be easygoing, studly and confident. But therein lies the rub: how does he know which women are "right"?

Our evolving male has tried, with those few cells in his brain devoted to self-knowledge, to wrestle with this question. This has made him attentive to factors that influence his chemistry with women. Many of these factors are hard to pin down: who knows what creates that magical heat for some couples? And how many men have bravely catalogued the qualities of particular women that threaten their ego, and thereby their arousal? But one area, at least, seems to be a no-brainer: a man's own physical likes and dislikes. So he tries to screen out anything that might lessen his prowess if a woman invites him to perform.

This isn't all selfish. When a man spies a woman who is really "his type" -- whatever this may be -- he thinks he has found someone whose sexual needs he could enthusiastically fulfill. Shall we blame him for thinking this is good news for her too?

Intimidation and Attraction: A Short Vignette

It's lunchtime. Randy and Tom find themselves sitting next to a rather elegant woman in a yuppie bar in the business district. They strike up a conversation with her while they wait for their respective tables. The woman, Rachel, is friendly, glad to have someone to talk to while she waits for a friend to show up. The men are responding in kind, but meanwhile they are both, as discreetly as they can, checking Rachel out.

Now it happens that Rachel, though strikingly attractive, has a slightly hawk-like cast to her features, a slight fierceness built into her face, that reads to Randy as intimidating and as slightly masculine. He senses in her an unswerving confidence in herself and in the cosmos, and a capacity for aggression, that make him feel he may be out of his league. So Randy is leaning toward a no on the "lover" issue, except for one thing: he has noticed that Rachel (who is wearing an attractive taupe business suit) has long, very good legs, and Randy is a confirmed leg man. (He is having trouble getting good views of her legs, because he is right next to her, and has to lean back and tilt his head to inspect them.) To make matters worse, Rachel has said she is a criminal lawyer. Randy is a tax lawyer, and they are bantering about the legal scene. But he opted out of court work because it was too scary, and he is very conscious of a threat to his ego in this woman. Those legs make him wish that she didn't intimidate him, but he can't fight the verdict of his genes.

Meanwhile Tom, who is one barstool over, is caught in a different struggle. Tom does not perceive Rachel as hawk-like or aggressive; he came from a family of women who had features somewhat like Rachel's, and to him her face represents not only beauty, but comfort, femininity and warmth. Tom is half in love already. He is not a lawyer and is not directly threatened by any status Rachel may have in that area. Tom's problem is that he can't seem to get into the conversation (because Randy is the one sitting next to Rachel and they're talking shop), and is therefore unable to tell how he and Rachel might get along, or even how she might react to him. Tom is divorced, has been lonely and horny for ages, and he has checked Rachel's hand and found no ring.

Breast security

Tom has one other problem. Don't laugh at him, girls, or think he's a lout: he didn't choose this problem. Tom is a breast man. This does not mean that Tom thinks he deserves more goodies than the next guy -- that he wants a luxury that he could do without. Rather, Tom's problem is that his sexual confidence is tied to the large female bosom: he becomes just a little insecure without it because a large bust is the catalyst that sparks his sexual chemistry.

I said he didn't choose to be this way. Tom didn't sit down with a notepad at age thirteen and write, "I now decide that I will find the following features of the female anatomy unbearably exciting." He just discovered what moved him. Like a man who hears western swing music for the first time and knows he has found his Holy Grail. So what did determine the matter? It could be cultural: the TV did it to him, men's magazines did it. The problem with that theory is we have too many different men liking too many different body types: they seem to extract different images from the media. It could be genetic: his grandfather liked the same type. Or perhaps it was early childhood experience, or lack thereof. Maybe he imprinted on the first woman he fell in love with--and maybe that was his art teacher in Grade Four.

At any rate, ever since he noticed how lovely Rachel is, Tom has been trying to lean around his stocky friend Randy and get a gander at Rachel's chest. But Randy is always in the way, and unfortunately Rachel is wearing a business suit and the jacket pretty much hides her shape.

'A sighting'

Just as the men's table is announced, two things happen. Rachel says to Randy, "The only place that really matters to me is our family cottage on the lake," and Rachel twists toward them on her stool, her jacket falls open, and Tom has his first unobstructed view of the generous curve of her chest in a cream blouse. Tom is now completely smitten, because his own sacred place happens to be a cottage on a lake, and he is absolutely clear that Rachel, as a physical specimen, is his wet dream.

Tom now has achieved what we will call a "sighting." Tom is beside himself, if you must know the truth. He knows right now, with the same certainty that he knows his own address, that he could be happy with this woman. Behind his exterior calm he is hyperventilating, because this never happens. He sees women whom he finds attractive, sometimes, but they are not alone. And they are usually married. Mostly he sees them across a room or across the street. And he never gets to hear them talk about their lives, never gets even a hint as to whether he might be compatible with them in a personal sense. On this occasion in the restaurant, all these sad rules have found an exception.

This woman is classy, she is smart and she cares about lakes. And in Tom's eyes, she is a goddess.

Randy gets up to go to their table. He says goodbye to Rachel, who gives him a warm smile. Tom suspects that Rachel is attracted to Randy. Tom has no sense at all of Rachel even noticing him. He smiles at her but his smile comes out anxious and stiff, because for him there is too much at stake and he has no cards to play. Randy says, "Let's go, bud," a little sarcastically--and Tom realizes he is just standing there in a haze, gazing at Rachel. Randy tugs him away and says to Rachel, "This guy needs to eat."

Tom flushes and follows Randy into the restaurant area, and they order. Randy says dismissively, "She was nice, but kind of butch-looking. A little hefty, too." Tom, who knows his own taste for fuller-figured women is atypical of his male peer group, keeps quiet, doesn't mention that he just lost the love of his life. A few minutes later, they see Rachel sit down in a nearby booth with a very good-looking, well-dressed man, who seems to be locked in constant hilarity with her. Tom abandons a half-formed plan of somehow talking to her before heading back to work.

This is how it happens to us men.

A typical session in the endless male search: what can we learn from it? Let's inventory a few useful points:

  1. Facial looks are totally subjective: the same woman can look feminine and pretty to one man and just the opposite to another. Same for body shapes and sizes.
  2. Total accidents of seating and attitude can stop major connections from being made.
  3. Men very rarely have positive "sightings," and usually are not in a position to act even on those.
  4. Men's relentless scrutiny of women, the thing that drives feminists crazy, is just as much a screening out of that which is intimidating as it is a judging of whether someone is up to par. If truth be known, Randy's dismissal of Rachel had little to do with her being not pretty or too heavy. These were excuses. The truth was, he found her intimidating as a lawyer and as a woman.
  5. The most confident, forward man in the group is not always the most interested one. He may be confident because he isn't interested, and therefore has nothing to lose. The one who can't get a word out may be the one who is stricken with attraction. Above all, remember this.
  6. Qualities of character are often in play from the beginning. Men may seem to be judging solely on appearance--but in fact they see in appearance many other levels of humanity. In Rachel's face, Tom saw warmth, familial comfort, kindness, intelligence. In her words he heard a love for a type of sacred place that he too values. Even her body's sexual appeal to him holds other levels of connection--in her full figure he sees a reassuring quality, and a sensual opulence, that speaks to his emotional needs. (Randy saw qualities of mind that scared him off.) Both men were reacting to a whole person, through her appearance.

And what did Rachel think?

Here we encounter an amazing disparity -- a gap like the Grand Canyon. Her experience was so unlike that of the men as to seem like a cruel cosmic joke. Rachel did not have "finding a man" on her agenda. She wanted to meet her friend Pete and have lunch, and she was preoccupied with a trial she is in the middle of. Pete works at the same firm she does, and they hang out together a lot, but there is no chemistry between them and that is why they have the relaxed, hilarious rapport that Tom noticed later.

Rachel broke up with a long-term lover six months ago when she discovered he was cheating on her. Although she is lonely and occasionally makes a slight effort to meet new people, she is skeptical of all men. And anyway, she does not think of a bar as a place where she could ever meet a man. She was perfectly happy to talk to Randy, but did not even ask herself whether he was relationship material--he was just a fellow lawyer. Tom she hardly noticed. She did observe that he had a nice face, but it never occurred to her for a moment that he was interested in her, and he seemed sort of uptight and sad compared to his friend.

Rachel's attitude to her body is even more tragically counterproductive. Rachel has regretted since about age sixteen that she is not skinnier. She thinks of herself as full-figured, because although she has a model's legs, she has rounded hips and a full bosom. Actually, she thinks she's fat. If she could only lose thirty pounds, she might be acceptable in her own eyes. She has an older sister who still weighs 115 pounds and this torments her daily. Somewhere inside her, a voice still says, "You're beautiful," but lately she has trouble hearing it.

Oh Rachel! The truth is, you have a classic hourglass figure, and plenty of men would find you almost overwhelmingly sexy if you would let them--and if they could escape the caustic stereotypes of their peer group. So Rachel wears her business jackets in such a way as to conceal her generous chest--she is ambivalent at best about it. It certainly never occurred to her that Tom is a man who absolutely cherishes the very body type that she represents, at the weight where she is. Or that her jacket was preventing such an admirer from even verifying that she is what he admires!

Tom, a man who is normally cheerful and entertaining, managed only to seem a bit sad to her. And if he seemed sad, maybe he had a right to be. Because something sad did just happen. Rachel just walked away from Mr. Right. Tom was it.

Don't get me wrong here: I am not saying that Rachel did anything wrong, though she could be accused of being somewhat unaware.

What I am saying is that near-misses like this happen all the time. People who would be perfect together pass like the proverbial ships in the night. Then they trudge on down life's path, forever lonely. Women cruise through situations, blissfully unaware of the life-and-death struggle going on in the man who is right next to them.

'Life-and-death struggle'

For it is a life-and-death struggle. Biologically, nothing is more important than successful mating. And for an average male who is old enough and mature enough to want to marry, that challenge is an awesome test, a labour of Hercules, fraught with perils and obstacles. The main peril is rejection (intensified by the competition of other males, many of whom have him beaten in one way or another -- looks, money, physique, smarts, style, confidence . . .*). The main obstacle is rarity: too seldom does our eligible male encounter an unattached and approachable female whom he senses could really be the one.

No wonder a man goes a little crazy when a true sighting happens--success and happiness and an end to loneliness are beckoning to him, if he can only make the right moves. In our example, Tom froze up completely, even managed to make himself less attractive! Became stiff and sad-looking, tongue-tied.

Must we leave our little story of the yuppie lovers with a bad ending? Could Rachel have done anything to change the outcome?

Well, suppose we replay the scene with just a few tiny changes. This time, Rachel keeps in mind that any place is a good place to meet Mr. Right.

Let's say that again. Any place is a good place to meet Mr. Right.

So she has her antennae switched on. Then she may well notice that lawyer Randy is not really interested in her. And that he is a bit of a bore--too needy in the ego department. And she may well pick up on the fact that Tom is eyeing her in an almost stressed way. Why is he doing that? Maybe he fancies her. Maybe she should make a point to speak to him, instead of letting this insecure tax lawyer hog all her time. Tom does have a very nice face, after all. So she leans across Randy, smiles at Tom, realizes that her jacket has fallen open, which is fine, and says to Tom, "Why do you hang out with this lawyer boy, anyway? Can't you do any better?"

Tom lights up at this suggestion that she has noticed him, at her sense of humour, and at the curves that he has just detected. Tom starts to talk to her; Randy decides to go to the rest room; Tom cannot resist moving over next to her. They discover their mutual love of lakes and cottages. He asks her if she is meeting someone for lunch. She says yes, but he's just a friend. Finally Tom cannot restrain himself. He asks for her card. She gives it to him. They smile at each other. Love is born.

(Somewhere, Cupid frowns: because two people who will be happy together have found each other.)

Excerpted from What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men edited by Ian Brown, with permission by Thomas Allen Publishers.

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