The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Beauty and Power thoughts

My discussions of the "Beauty-Power Axis" and the way it relates to the Soulmate Process always kicks up dust, and that amuses me. What does NOT amuse me is the fact that it obviously triggers pain, anger, a sense of loss and powerlessness, and more. If I could push a button and change that, I would--if it didn't throw off serious evolutionary patterns. It is certainly not my intent for anyone to "feel like a loser"--unless, by THEIR definitions, they ARE a
loser, and that realization motivates them to take the kinds of actions to bring their life into greater alignment with their
values and beliefs. I wanted to address a few things in connection with this.

1) I'm not saying that I think this pattern of human behavior is good. Just that it is an observable truth that, by a given culture's definitions of "beauty" and "power" the groups of men and women possessing these things gravitate toward each other. This is like saying water runs downstream. Does that mean that you can't carry water upstream? Or swim against the tide? Or boil water into vapor or freeze it? No. But if you don't understand the simple physics of the situation, it's harder to figure out how to get the results you want. If you don't understand gravity, it is much harder to fly.

2) Do I think this is more unfair to women than to men? No, I don't. I'm perfectly aware that many women think it is, but frankly, I find their arguments illogical. Women by this measure are at their most powerful when they are young (of child-bearing age), while men are at their most powerful when they are old. Quite an irony THERE, eh? It would be just as fair to say that this is "unfair to older women" as it would be to say its "unfair to young men." But the power within the set called "Women" doesn't change because you shift power from one group of women to another--the amount of power remains constant within "Women" just as it does within "Men." I mean, remember that those older women used to BE younger women, so that if there is advantage conferred to said group, they got it years ago. And if they didn't, other women
did. So the power doesn't leave the group "women." And those young, cannon-fodder men grow older and
amass the power in the group "old men" is still power in the group "Men." Note that when older women complain about men their age dating young women, I have NEVER, NOT ONCE heard those older women blaming the younger women for "stealing their men." No, what I hear is them blaming the older men for being attracted to younger women. Well, that would be honest...if women would give up their interest in wealthy, powerful men. Gee, when do you think that will happen? And do you really think it takes more time per day for a woman to preserve her beauty than for a man to preserve his power? Really? I've personally never known a woman who spent more than, say, 2-3 hours a day working on her beauty (and I considered that
pretty pathological) whereas men and women working 10-12 hour days to build wealth is relatively commonplace (if also pathological). Be fair: men and women beat the living hell out of each other in the mating game, and pointing fingers helps no one.

3) Am I saying these tendencies are universal and immutable? Hell, no. I say they are a tendency, sort of like "calories in/calories out" in weight control. Until you are sure that you've got this basic equation under control, don't search for fancy alternative reasons like allergies, gland problems, etc. If a man is attracted to women who, by cultural standards, is quite beautiful, while he, by the same cultural standards, has no power...he does himself no favor by ignoring this fact. Or in screaming that women are trivial and superficial.

4) Aren't these standards superficial? Yes and no. Wealth isn't superficial. Try being broke and homeless and see just how fast "trivial" money becomes a matter of life and death. Wealth is a hedge against destitution. A woman who mates with a man without considering if he brings resources to the table is doing her potential children no favors. Can't he at least have a stable job, one that he likes enough that he doesn't come home angry every day? Quite true that some chase wealth for its own sake, to the level of imbalance. That would be kinda like being an anoerexic, wouldn't it? Beauty standards around the world have as universal principles only two things that I know of: signs of fertility (body fat, hip-to-breast ratios, "youthful" appearance, etc.) and immune system health (clear skin, bright eyes, good posture, etc.). Most other signs of "beauty" are culturally are signs of "power" of course.

5) Why does this trigger so much anger? Well, I can only come from my own frame of reference, and from that frame of reference, "Anger is a mask over fear." What would the fear be for men? That they have no power, that they will never have access to the beautiful, smooth-skinned, shapely women they hold in their dreams. Or women who fear that their youthful beauty has flown, and that they can no longer compete with younger women for secure and stable men. God, do you expect me to mock that? Or mock a woman who dreams of a man who can support the household so she can stay home with her children? Or live with grace and luxury? There is nothing at all wrong with these dreams, so long as they
are approached with integrity, honesty, and a certain sense of humor. I remember very very clearly when the women in my high school let me know that I was not sufficiently powerful to attract the most "beautiful" of them. It was glaringly obvious that the most popular guys and girls gravitated toward each other. I could have done several things
a) ignored my own observations
b) resented women for being "shallow"
c) examined my own standards of "beauty."
d) decide to become powerful by my own standards, and trust that there would be women who agreed.

"c" was certainly my first approach. If I wanted people to overlook the fact that I wasn't "powerful" in a traditional sense, I had to be willing to find women attractive who were not "beautiful" in a traditional sense. Fair is fair. But if I DID crave women who were "beautiful" in the traditional sense, I saw the game I would have to play. And I decided to play it. Remember: I don't believe in talent. I believe in hard focused honest work over time.

I would say that the percentage of women who CAN NOT be beautiful (by cultural standards) and the percentage of men who CAN NOT be powerful (by cultural standards) is roughly equivilent. It is well known that women are, on average, attracted to men they consider more intelligent than themselves. Excuse me, but is anyone out there going to suggest that it's easier for a man to increase his intelligence than it is for a woman to lose weight or improve her makeup, hair, and mode of dress? We play these games with each other, and they are unfair to either side.

6) Am I saying beautiful, powerful people have the best relationships? Yes and absolutely no. Certainly, marriages fall apart over money issues faster than ANYTHING else. So lack of power certainly makes nothing better. I fail to see how a perception of "ugliness" helps anything. So it could easily be said that the best and most successful marriages are those in which the partners find one another beautiful and powerful, by their own standards. Those standards
need not match the external social standards at all. Beauty could be a quality of posture, voice, movement, conduct or spirit. And so can power.

7) But...and this is a BIG but...if you are in the mating dance, much of what we initially know about people we learn at a visual distance. Across a crowded room, we see a member of the opposite sex (as I've said, I don't have much idea how this maps over to gay relationships) and have to choose a dancing partner. Men will, on average, approach the most beautiful (by his own standards) woman that he has the nerve to approach. Women will check out a man's shoes and clothes (I have heard this countless times from women, all my life) to make a snap decision about whether she should invest more time in him. Now...AFTER the initial contact is made, they can be laughing, talking, getting to know each other. If you
work or go to school with someone, or live next door to them or are sitting next to them on a plane flight, you go more deeply. Begin to suss out personality characteristics, etc. And if you LIKE the person, you know what? They start looking more attractive to you. But in a world of snap decisions? Bet on making a good first impression from across the room.

If you honestly believe you do not have these external qualities? And do not believe you can acquire them (or the idea of cultivating them is distasteful) then position yourself somewhere where people have a chance to get to know you. Over time, as they enjoy your personality more, your external characteristics will mean less. Schools, churches, social clubs, etc...all have this potential. The internet has been a blessing for those insecure in this arena. You can meet people and bond before they ever see you or your circumstances. And if they connect? They will automatically find you more "attractive." I had a woman say: "well, that's all well and good, but what if you were a woman who had her face burned off in a fire? What in the hell does she do?"

I suggested that if I were that woman, I'd get a job at the Braille Institute. She was aghast.
Hey, I'm just sayin'.

8) I think that there are lots of reasons why this whole thing is considered upsetting. We would like to think that our hearts have infinite value. And so they do. And so do everyone else's. That kinda cancels itself out, and we're left with mundane and quantifiable characteristics. Like I've said--until women start apologizing for being attracted to money and intelligence, it's kind of hypocritical to be upset that men are attracted to fertility and secondary sexual characteristics. ITS NOT FAIR TO ANYONE. IT'S NOT UNFAIR TO ANYONE. It just "is." The gentleman who said that he felt like a loser--God, I'm really sorry about that. If by that you mean that you can't attract the women you are actually attracted to...ouch.

9) So what am I saying to men who cannot, or do not currently, attract the women they are REALLY attracted to? Or women who cannot, or do not currently, attract the men they are REALLY attracted to? Well...several choices.
a) Sit on your resentment. Get sour. Harbor a secret grudge toward the man or woman in your life, saying to yourself "I could have done better" or far worse, hating your life.
b) Go unconscious. Bury your real feelings that you "could have done better." c) Be alone, and increasingly bitter that no one sees "the real you" and that men/women are so superficial.
d) Change your definitions of beauty and power: if you believe someone should look past the externals to the "real you" you have the responsibility of being able to look past someone ELSE'S exterior to see "the real them." Learn to see past flesh to spirit, and laugh at the children still caught in the external aspects of the "mating game." After all...a man actually in love with a beautiful woman stays with her through Chemotherapy, even if she loses her "beauty." And a woman in love with a self-made millionaire stays with him through bankruptcy. We're talking about what attracts, not what
holds together.

What you MUST have to be happy in life is a life where your goals, beliefs, and values are in alignment with your actions. If you really think that the qualities of "beauty" and "power" are superficial, then you can laugh, or be saddened, by our cultural obsession with both. But if my words trigger anger or fear...that's different. That's not spiritual evolution on your part--that's denial.
e) My favorite choice. Get very, very clear on what constitutes beauty or power to you. For me, it is definitely "what did you do with what you were given?" rather than "did you win the genetic lottery?" A woman of spectacular genetic beauty is like a man married into a wealthy family. Both exist, but the majority of rich and beautiful people, I honestly believe, are that due to efforts of will. There are many, many ways to get rich or be considered powerful--as many as there are social fabrics and individuals with opinions. The same is true of beauty. There are many, many different ways to be beautiful. If you are beautiful in a non-traditional way, your easiest course is to find a man who is powerful in
a non-traditional way. Then, relish your lack of tradition and laugh at the plebes.
But if you like the traditional measures of beauty and power, then move in their direction. As you do, embrace your humanity, maturity, mortality, gifts and limitations. As you move toward your goal, you will develop enormous compassion for others along the same path. If you truly, deeply, love yourself despite the fact that you aren't the most "powerful" or "beautiful," if you get the joke, can laugh at life and still move forward...guess what? You will find someone who is moving forward at the same rate you are. Who is at the same place in his/her life that you are in yours. And if you really, honestly, see the beauty in your own heart despite your failings and imperfections, the beauty in your potential partner's soul will shine like a star. And the two of you will be able to walk together in life.

But don't ask others to see past more imperfections than you are willing to forgive. That is dishonest.


Mike Ralls said...

Just curious; in your viewpoint what does it mean if one member of a married couple begins making significant gains or significant loses in one of the three areas while the other member is holding steady?

Pagan Topologist said...

Steve, I know several women who are angry at younger women for taking away "their men" or trying to.

Treebyleaf said...

Argh-- can't find the link.

There's more science to take into account.

There was a ground-breaking and startling study published earlier this year-- thus my argh can't find the link-- that uncovered a flaw in all previous studies on the science behind human attraction. Previous studies were all done using strangers, this study discovered that personality is THE over-riding factor in longterm attraction.
As someone is kind to us, we learn to focus more on their eyes and mouth, which then "appear" larger and more striking to us. At the same time we learn to minimize eye contact and closeness with someone habitually snippy and cruel. The plain, kind woman ends up with co-workers blushing to describe her huge eyes and careful hands. The beautiful bitch drops to a small-eyed thin-mouthed average or worse. Over time-- and not much time-- our brains reshape the faces we see often, and the kind people in our lives become beautiful to us. I will not be at all surprised to learn that over time it is the responsible people we know who become powerful in our eyes.

People have been commenting along the lines of "Don't you wish our species was programmed with less shallow standards." WE ARE.

What the science of attraction has been studying turns out to be the most shallow and shortest phase of a greater whole to attraction-- the attention-getting phase. Conventional beauty/power do NOT rule the field; they are just the strongest initial attention-getters.

All of which shores up something I'll be willing to bet you've been saying for years-- that strong friendships make for strong partnerships. The person with strong relationship skills, who has networks through neighborhoods, family friends, congregations, activities, usually ends up falling in love with a friend without going near the highly artificial "dating scene" where Beauty and Wealth reign paramount. The scary thing is that we've come to accept a cultural norm so at odds with our biological criteria.

trembling-aspen said...

As I got older (say about 22-24), I found myself attracted to smart men. That overrode looks by far. I guess that's still power.

My husband and I were both somewhat chubby when we dated/married. I think he was attracted to my determination (full time job, full time college, while having a baby) and high value of honesty and truth. He never dated much, being a natural loner, and he said he found most women boring.

It didn't hurt that we had similar interests (sff, horror, video games, books, movies) and similar world views (politics, religion, social issues).

I never quite got the mirror idea until one day when I was laying in bed really wishing I could get my husband to do something I wanted (turn something off or check something or something stupid like that), and I realized there was no way in hell I could get him to do it... because he's just like me that way. We're not the kind to be bossed around, at all.

When Steve brought up the power/beauty thing, that made more sense to me. I think I did well picking my husband. At the time, he saw more in me than I saw in me, but I've grown into a much more secure person and I think we are a good match.

We both lost weight after I had a baby. Due to a benign heart condition, he kept the weight off using exercise as a means to control the annoying symptoms. After four years, I've gained it back and am struggling to pull it off again (having to learn to cope with stress-strain like never before).

In career, he is farther along the path, but I do manage the house and kids. We both strongly believe in doing what is one's passion. I write fiction (sold short stories but mostly at the beginning of my career) and he makes video games. He's worked in the industry for awhile before starting his own company (Soldak). He has one game out and is working on the second. Financially, we're still in a rocky place, but over time (with more products and branding), this will work out. We'll be back to "normal" (haha).

Except for experience, we match in career (though he has greater earning potential). We don't match in fitness anymore, though we did when we dated/married. We both want the same future and have the same values. We're really good together.


Steven Barnes said...

Once the bond is made, all bets are off. Relationships are about raising children more than anything else (on a biological level) and what is initially attractive is FAR less important than "will my children be safe with him/her?" Which really translates to: "is my heart safe?" So you guys have it right: initial attraction gets you off the dock, after that you're rowing together. If your strokes match and you're heading safely toward a desirable destination, the relationship has a chance.
Friendship is simply awesomely important. How much of even the most erotic marriage is spent in bed?
I have ZERO doubt that many women are angry at those younger women. What I find interesting is that 99+% of the anger I've heard expressed publicly is with the men who dated out of their age group. This goes neatly with my sense that men and women lie like crazy about what's really going on.
If one partner in a relationship gets too far ahead of the other, there are real problems. But "too far" is individually defined.

Pagan Topologist said...

Maybe this is not the correct post to add this to, but concerning Ross Jeffries' "Speed Seduction," I read his first book maybe twenty years ago and was deeply offended and horrified. Now, however, he seems to insist that women be treated respectfully and listened to. He seems more than anything to be promoting healthy, sincere communication between men and women, which seems like a good thing to me.

Of course, I have not taken his courses, and I have never studied NLP as I know you have, so maybe I would find the actual techniques horrifying. However, looking only at his free emails that I subscribed to for a couple of months, I think he is promoting something worthwhile for a lot of people, not the kind of manipulation that he seemed to be in favor of in his original book. Honest communication is a worthwhile thing to promote.

David Bellamy

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I think the job market is unfairly tilted toward men. I think the political system is unfairly tilted toward men having more power (Sen. Clinton is a huge outlier here). I think the fact that men have more money and power than women on average means that in many areas there's a bias toward treating men as the norm.

But I think the mating game is actually close to even, in the advantages and disadvantages each sex has. Certainly a lot more even than the job market. Of course, I only dealt with the mating game as a young and relatively pretty woman (if no great beauty), and even now, in my 40s, I frankly think I'm more attractive than average for my age, and could attract a good man if, heaven forbid, my husband were to leave me. Still, I think the mating game is more an area where each sex has its advantages than a one way street.

I do think there's something slanted against women in our public narratives of the mating game (more than the reality of it). There are whole industries that feed off making even very young and pretty women insecure about their looks. There are books and articles shouting that you must marry practically right out of college, or you'll fade and lose your chance. I know men have their insecurities, too, but I wonder if they're stoked to the same degree - at least for those men who are at the top of the game with the opposite sex.

On older men seeking younger women, I'm not angry at men doing that by itself. But I do get angry at particular kinds of older men seeking younger women.

Mr. Unrealistic: Will tell you till he's blue that women, unlike men, just naturally prefer wrinkles and pot bellies. Fails to realize that only particular older men are attractive. George Clooney can let his hair go gray and not bother with Botox on his wrinkles, and still be attractive, because he's George Clooney. Men lots less good looking than Clooney can draw younger women, if, with age, they've come to bring something else to the table. But not just because they're old.

Mr. Double Standard: It's only natural that he's attracted only to young women with perfect figures; that's how men were born to be. But darn those gold digging women!

Mr. Insulting: He won't settle for being attracted to whom he's attracted to, but must go out of his way to insult all the women who are too old or too fat or whatever to meet his standards.

Mr. Wants To Be Boss: The women who are his actual peers are so angry and bitter. Younger women treat him the way a man ought to be treated. Like Mr. Insulting, he's not content if he can't insult the women he's not attracted to, but this guy has a more pointed agenda. He wants to let his peers know that they'll be so sorry for not treating men right - where "right" means "as superiors."

then position yourself somewhere where people have a chance to get to know you.

That's kind of what I generally did, actually. I did meet my husband at a party, but what got us to the same side of that crowded room and into a long conversation with each other was the fact that we both had friends on that couch, and were headed toward the people at the party that we already knew. And the other guys I've been involved with have all been in my social circle in one way or another - student computer center, student coops, etc. So we had plenty of time to be drawn to each other by personality (at least to a large degree). Which I think is actually pretty common; beauty and money may be important, but, as treeleaf says, less so in the real world than in experiments that study attraction to strangers.

Steven Barnes said...

Men's insecurities aren't generally about their bodies: it's about their level of power, success, and money. And TRUST ME, men get as much shit about this as women do about their looks. Men who DON'T want to compete run into the same stress as women who DO want to compete.
Remember the thing about older men and younger women. They DON'T generally have to match them for youth and beauty. But they DO have to have the resources to make up for it (read: money). The world is not particularly kind to unmarried women or powerless men.
I think that the "speed seduction" stuff is useful--sort of like learning to poke someone in the eye. Yes, it works. But most common arguments don't call for that. And yes, you can punch certain buttons and vastly increase your chances of getting laid...but would you want someone doing that to your sister? And if you wouldn't, isn't that a violation of the Feminine energy? It seems to me a betrayal of what human sexuality is actually about.
That said, I DID learn some of the techniques and try 'em out. Let's just say I was appalled at how powerful some were. No, I won't say which ones. I don't like it.

Dan Moran said...

I'll throw out one that's not vile: learn to dance.

Pagan Topologist said...

Wow, Steve. My reaction to your comment following what I said about Speed Seduction was overwhelming and unexpected. I have felt a sense of hopeless despair for the last 24 hours. As I said, I have read only Jeffries' first book, which was morally repugnant to me, and his daily marketing emails for the past two or three months. It seems to me that his current approach is so different that it ought to be called by a different name. It seems to be summed up by the sentence: Treat women with respect and expect them to treat you the same. This seems like a wonderful approach, which might even lead to better overall communication between men and women.

I have always done the first half, but the second half never had occurred to me. Of course, I am coming from the perspective of someone who for most all of my adult life has reacted to women to whom I was attracted by avoiding them for fear they would find out and get angry. The few times I tried to break this pattern did not work out well.

I got into "relationships" only when a woman to whom I was not really attracted would approach me verbally and very explicitly. I learned well the feminist separatist message that women are good and men are evil, and assumed that continual emotional and verbal abuse were the price of having a sex life.

For the past decade, I have been in what seems to be a very healthy relationship, but I certainly just lucked into it. I would have had no clue as to how to bring about such a thing. Being treated with respect is nice, but I would never have thought it normal until reading Jeffries' recent stuff.

I know so many people who either have never had a date because they are challenged as I was/am, or they have given up on relationships because they were always abused emotionally and verbally. I really believe that the communication technology that I see in these emails is the only thing I have ever seen as offering even a glimmer of hope for such people. But if attempting real communication is unethical, things are indeed hopeless.

Dan, as to dancing, I studied ballet for seven years, but dancing is still an unpleasant effort for me.

Anonymous said...

"Well, that would be honest...if women would give up their interest in wealthy, powerful men. Gee, when do you think that will happen?"

It's already happened for some of us.

Now that some of us have the educational opportunities and vocational opportunities we need to earn a living apart from our sex lives, we can afford to consider people in our own age group whom we find sexy :) and can even afford to not have sex when we don't have partners we find sexy :D instead of limiting ourselves to the men who could support us being housewives, possibly settling for sex we enjoy as little as any other tedious-but-necessary-to-keep-the-job workplace chore, and hoping we don't get kicked to the curb or infected by STDs they brought home after cheating when bearing all their children makes us less perky.

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that his current approach is so different that it ought to be called by a different name. It seems to be summed up by the sentence: Treat women with respect and expect them to treat you the same. This seems like a wonderful approach, which might even lead to better overall communication between men and women."

...and better overall communication among all of us (if the advice is taken gender-blindly too), whether romantic or platonic, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, etc. :)

"But I think the mating game is actually close to even, in the advantages and disadvantages each sex has."

Meanwhile, even the concept of "even" is less applicable to mating than to employment.

I mean, lots of unfair discimination exists in the world's workplaces, hiring, and training. Unfortunately, a lot of people out there are denied their rights to earn a living in ways they're willing and able to do. >:(

At the same time, all discrimination is fair in mating. The right to say no to unwanted sex, unwanted groping, unwanted kissing, etc. is far too important :) to rule out anyone's reason for saying no.

For example, suppose I think a guy is hot and he rejects me for something I can't help, like my race, my height, or my being female. Sure I may feel frustrated about it, but I still respect his right to say no. There's no such thing as being "qualified" to date him despite him feeling unatrracted for whatever reason. Also, celibacy still threatens my survival a lot less than unemployment would.

Steven Barnes said...

And some men don't chase young, hot women. I would guess that the percentage of women unimpressed by power is about the same as the percentage of men unimpressed by beauty.