Beauty is No Prophylaxis Against Infidelity

This Genderal Interest column would have run last Friday, but was rightly postponed due to the Connecticut tragedy. Just Because You’re Hot Doesn’t Mean He Won’t Cheat looks at popular assumptions about looks and infidelity, and features a short interview with Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, whose writing on beauty is endlessly fascinating.

Excerpt:

Betsy’s “calculus” had two flaws. First, it assumed that male infidelity is largely a function of opportunity. She assumed that a good-looking mate would be more likely to stray merely because he could, and that a less-desirable dude wouldn’t because he couldn’t. Second, she didn’t consider the particular way in which less attractive men may crave a sexual affirmation that they very rarely get. A man who knows he’s hot may be a narcissist, but the hotter he is the more likely he gets validated for it. The good-looking guy knows that fidelity is a choice; he’s presumably aware of his options. When faced with temptation, he can tell himself “I know I could if I wanted to, so why bother proving it, risking this great thing I have?”

On the other hand, the man who doesn’t see himself as good-looking is supposed to judge himself astoundingly fortunate to have ended up with a beautiful woman. That can lead – as Betsy assumed it would — to gratitude, but it can also lead to a destructive, ego-driven curiosity. Is this woman who has fallen for me an anomaly, or am I really more attractive than I imagined? Can lightning strike twice? Who else can I pull?

The end result is that “less attractive” men may have additional incentive (but of course, not justification) to cheat. It may be a pathetic excuse for dishonesty, but the unlovely dude’s particular set of potential insecurities do deserve to be factored in to the algorithm of infidelitousness. And whatever constellation of factors you use to pick a partner, leave out the false presumption that a homely guy will never stray.

Read the whole thing.

“I am a good-looking man”: on why looks privilege is as real as any other advantage

My weekly column at Role/Reboot runs a day earlier than normal. How Much Do Good Looks Help People in Our Culture? examines “appearance privilege,” riffing off a superb piece from America’s best writer on beauty, Autumn Whitefield-Medrano. In my post, I look at why it’s so much harder to cop to the advantages bestowed by being good-looking than it is to those unmerited benefits that come with race and class. Excerpt:

Does “looks privilege” function in similar ways in men’s lives as it does in women’s? How much do striking (or merely conventional and modest) good looks help men in our culture? These are two of the questions that jumped to mind after reading Autumn Whitefield-Medrano’s latest essay at The New Inquiry on Beauty Privilege. One of our best contemporary commenters on beauty culture, Whitefield-Medrano notes that this benefit functions as an elephant in the room, a presence everyone feels but few dare name: “…think of how you sound if you talk about it openly: It can seem hopelessly narcissistic to own up to one’s ‘beauty privilege,’ and hopelessly affirmation-seeking to talk about suffering at the hands of looksism.”

As she points out, we live in a culture where responsible people are expected to acknowledge their privileges, often with an almost confessional zeal. If you’ve got white skin, if you’re male, if you come from a middle-class (or more affluent) background, if you’re heterosexual or able-bodied or Christian or well-educated, then you do well to note the myriad ways that those attributes can ease your way in life. If I say, for example, that growing up a middle-class white male has eased my way in life, that my background and family connections have cushioned me from the repercussions of my own poor decisions, few will argue. No serious person could deny that race, class, education, and sex all impact how one is treated in the world. In and of themselves, they may not be determinative, but it is evident that unmerited privileges like color and wealth shape our worldview and ease our passage through public space.

Looks are different, exponentially more difficult to talk about. It shouldn’t necessarily be so. Most of us learned about the power of being pretty (or cute, or handsome) in elementary school. Long before we could spell a word like privilege (OK, fine, I still have trouble with it), we figured out that kids who were conventionally good-looking got more attention and enjoyed higher status among their peers—and, sadly, often among parents and teachers as well. Looksism is arguably the first unjust bias many of us encounter in life, particularly those of us who are privileged in the “other” ways like class and race. By the time we’re done with junior high school, we’re keenly, often heartbreakingly aware of how looks open doors for some and not for others.

Read the whole thing.

Love Hurts, Beauty Hurts: waxing, pain, and the pursuit of perfection

My Thursday short column is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: Bare Down There: Waxing, Beauty, and Pain. It’s a brief look at teens and bikini waxing, and the growing popularity of the Brazilian wax among very young girls (including, as the article notes, among those who have not yet hit puberty and begun to grow pubic hair.)

Lots has been written about pubic hair and what its removal means. Count me among those troubled by what seems the almost pedophilic fetishization of hairless vulvas in pornography. (To put it simply, I find it sexually and aesthetically unappealing as well as politically problematic.)

But the larger point is that waxing, like so many other beauty rituals, hurts. (That’s true whatever’s being waxed, whether it’s the pubis or the lip or the space between the eyebrows.) As older sisters and mothers and the media instruct young women about how they should best pursue beauty, they teach girls that pain is not only a rite of passage into womanhood, but a necessary (and continuous) aspect of maintaining femininity.

Pain happens on a spectrum, from the merely itchy (pantyhose) to the permanently body-altering (major cosmetic surgery.) High heels, piercings, and hair dye all exact both a financial and a physical price. “Beauty hurts”, older women say to younger women. And it’s not just beauty, but love that hurts: think of what we expect girls to go through with first intercourse — or with childbirth.

For much of history — and in many other parts of the world — this pain has been and remains mandatory. Girls have their genitals mutilated against their will in Mali and suffer fistulas from giving birth too soon and too young in Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite comparable in America, where we at least claim to give girls and women a choice to avoid these agonies. We don’t cut off little girls’ clitorises, we generally don’t force 15 year-olds into marriages, and we certainly don’t mandate Brazilian waxes for high schoolers.

But as most women and some men know, the cost of saying “no” to pain is very high. If a teen girl wants to feel confident at the beach in her bikini, making sure she’s bare down there (or damn near) is a price she must pay. Young women are raised to fear ridicule and social exclusion far more than physical pain. Watch what most young women do when they trip and fall: they leap back up, more worried about what others have seen than about any injury they’ve sustained.

The law doesn’t mandate you wax your vulva or straighten your hair or put on hose and heels. The state doesn’t force you to give up carbs and dessert to fit into a bikini. But the fact that certain behaviors aren’t genuinely compulsory doesn’t mean that they can’t feel obligatory. And for so many women, the pain that comes with meeting those obligations is less than the social cost of refusing to pursue beauty.

Any solution to this problem of pain has to meet girls where they are. Parents can refuse to let their daughters get waxed or get their ears pierced, but in most cases that only delays the inevitable. The solution, whatever it is, depends on opening up a conversation with our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our friends and lovers. And in that conversation, we need to look at the ways we consciously and unconsciously valorize physical and emotional pain as the price of beauty and true womanhood.

You’re not vain — or if you are, that needs to be okay

My Thursday post is up at Healthy is the New Skinny: You’re Not Vain. Excerpt:

In more than twenty years of teaching and mentoring teens around issues of self-image, I’ve seen that sometimes the biggest battle young people fight isn’t just to love and appreciate their bodies. Often, the biggest battle is to accept that we care so intensely about our appearance in the first place. We imagine, wrongly, that if we were “better” people we wouldn’t be concerned about what we look like. We imagine that we should somehow be magically immune from all the pressure from peers, parents, pop culture, and the fashion industry.

It’s an understatement to say that’s an unrealistic expectation!

Here’s the bottom line: part of loving yourself for who you are is accepting your feelings. And if sometimes you spend more time thinking about your weight and your looks than you do about the starving children in Africa, or about your faith, or about your English homework, that needs to be okay. Feeling guilty for how you feel is part of the problem we’re fighting against.

Yes, we all want to create a world where young people love themselves and love their bodies. We want to create a culture in which young people feel empowered to live out their dreams. We all want teens to be able to spend less time worrying about their bodies and how they look to others. But we’re not going to get there by dismissing the very real, very powerful desires so many of us have to be beautiful, to be desirable, or just to be accepted.

“You are so far from hot”: the tiresome fall-out from my Ratemyprofessors “award”

It’s been nearly two years since I “won” the honor (however dubious) of being named “America’s Hottest Professor” by the Ratemyprofessors website.

Over the weekend, an anonymous comment ended up in my moderation queue for this blog:

You are so far from hot. You rated yourself over and over again to win that award. Your (sic) ugly and vain and a poser.

I get comments like that every few weeks now, though in the days after I won the 2008 award from RMP, they were much more frequent. My actual ratemyprofessors page was spammed with all sorts of vileness, though whoever moderates that site did take down most of the cruelest and most scurrilous postings.

I was happy when I won the “award” not because I genuinely believed myself to be the most physically attractive college professor in the States — I doubt that’s true even within my own department. But I was excited about the possibility of leveraging whatever small degree of notoriety came with the announcement to drive traffic here to this blog and to gain a larger audience for my writing and speaking engagements. Not being very wise about this sort of thing, I operated with the “all publicity is good publicity” mindset, and though I would much rather have been named “best teacher”, I figured this little bit of recognition could only help.

My friend Jane, a PR professional, reminds me that that little saying about publicity is frequently untrue. Interviewers and media outlets have not come knocking as a result of my being named hottest prof. Though I’ve been fortunate enough to start work on other projects, and to collaborate on a forthcoming book (about which more will come, promise) none of those opportunities were linked to the Ratemyprofessors distinction.

On the other hand, my ego has taken one heck of a battering. Sometimes, it’s seemed a bit like some sort of sadistic high school prank: set the dorky kid up for something for which he’s manifestly not qualified, and then rip him ruthlessly. I generally stay away from the Ratemyprofessors site itself, as I don’t trust the authenticity of what’s written there. But the emails and anonymous comments, even when they are quickly deleted, do take their toll. I remember being an awkward, unattractive teenager. Frankly, the continued reaction to the Ratemyprofessors brings back unpleasant thirty year-old memories of being teased. (It’s worth noting that there’s male privilege involved here. Were I a female professor who had won, and my “victory” was considered equally undeserved, I suspect the comments would have been even ruder and more vociferous.)

In the grand scheme of things, this is not a source of great pain in my life. I have a wife and daughter who mean the world to me, a job I love, a community of friends and students and colleagues whose support is an indispensable joy. Their gentle ribbing is affectionate and welcome. My looks mean less to me than my health; my worries around my body these days are less about my appeal to others and more about staying fit under a breakneck schedule. But I’d be lying if I said that the steady flow of nasty reminders of just how undeserved the 2008 award was didn’t take just a little bit of a toll. While winning the “hottest professor of 2008″ title wasn’t quite the same as being handed a poisoned chalice, the taste of that “victory” has proved decidedly bittersweet.

“Better-looking when I leave”: a short note on vanity, aging, and Los Angeles

After a few days back in Los Angeles following a dozen on the East Coast — and after a few months of living in West Los Angeles again after thirteen years in Pasadena — I’m feeling once again twinges of discomfort about spending so much of my life in a place that, for all its merits, is so famously focused on looks.

Yesterday, I chatted with Meredith, who cuts my hair. Meredith is from Mississippi, and herself recently back from a trip to her hometown on the Gulf Coast. She asked me about my trip to the East, and I remarked “Everytime I leave Los Angeles, I feel as if I get better looking.” Meredith laughed loudly, and agreed; the stylist next to her and her client chimed in with their assents. What started was a four-way conversation among the two stylists and their clients (all non-natives) about the toll that living in L.A., particularly on the Westside, takes on one’s self-image.

I’ve always struggled with vanity and body issues; in previous posts, I’ve talked about my struggle with a serious eating disorder and exercise addiction. I’m much more content and self-accepting in my forties than I was in my twenties, and that is a blessing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t, with disappointing regularity, find myself studying my figure in a mirror or assessing the fit of my clothes, wishing that I were as lean as I was when I was at my thinnest. (Never mind that my thinnest years, though they corresponded with very fast running times, were also in most respects my unhappiest.) Becoming a father has been a huge help; focusing on a child is an excellent distraction and an effective palliative for narcissism. (How awful would it be if it weren’t!) Yet there’s no denying that my desire to be thin has not yet left me. I’ve said it before: I’ve been blessed, thanks to therapy and hard work and grace, with great success in overcoming so many of my addictions. My body dysmorphia and my anxieties about weight, however, remain with me to a far greater degree than I would like to admit.

Here’s the thing: I don’t realize until I leave Los Angeles how much more comfortable in my own skin I feel in other places. In New York, I invariably feel less self-conscious, even on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, than I do here in Southern California. And when I’m in Europe — even in fashion-conscious places like Paris or Florence or Mayfair — I don’t feel that sense that I’m too old. To put it another way, I feel more visible virtually everywhere else. I’ve written before, and many other feminists have as well, about the ways in which aging women are made invisible. There’s no question that we erase “older” women from our gaze in a way that we don’t with men; I’m keenly conscious that my authority as a teacher, for example, only grows with age. But though middle-aged men (I am certainly middle-aged now) are far less often rendered invisible than their female peers, I’ve felt — perhaps because of my unfortunate character defect of vanity — the way in which I too am more likely to “disappear” as I grow older. At least, I feel this keenly when I’m in West L.A.

I’m not writing this post to fish for compliments. I’m certainly not writing to complain about how tough it is to be me. I’m a damned lucky man in virtually every imaginable respect. But this character defect that leads me to be unduly concerned with my own appearance, this anxiety about my weight and my attractiveness that, while blessedly diminished lingers with me still, this puerile self-absorption — this , this, this is exacerbated by place. I wouldn’t go back to my younger, presumably “hotter” days for all the tea in China; the anxiety was crippling and the narcissism repellant. But I will say, as I move more deeply into that long and ill-defined period known as mid-life, that there are many other places I would rather live than here.

Your loyal blogger…

… has had his dubious recent distinction publicized in this piece in the Pasadena City College paper. And of course, I hate the picture they took of me.

I have been teased all day at school by colleagues and students alike. Part of me loves it, and part of me feels humiliated, and part of me wonders in what particular way I am supposed to parlay this trivial but interesting distinction into something useful. It’s the sort of thing that one probably doesn’t want in one’s obituary, so I’ll simply have to accomplish enough to ensure that there’s no room to stick this “triumph” in there. But I’m not so embarrassed that I won’t note it here, and enjoy the fleeting notoriety.

Of sweat and scent: in defense of infrequent bathing

I will be posting on various things in the week to come. I’ve got reviews of a couple of books to put up (including Men Speak Out), and will try and say something intelligent about Planned Parenthood, race, and the complex legacy of Margaret Sanger.

But it’s Saturday, and if I post at all on the weekends, it can’t be about anything too serious. My wife has been in Europe (doing various volunteer things) since last Sunday, and I miss her. She’ll be home in two days time. The stereotype of the generally neat married man who reverts to appalling slobbery when his spouse goes off for a few days is a time-honored one: yes, things are looking a little chaotic around the homestead these days. Newspapers and magazines on the floor; laundry arranged in sensible; adequately folded piles; coffee cups resting on any ledge they can find. And Hugo, unbathed as yet today.

I’ve let go of so many bad habits over the last few years. An earlier incarnation of Hugo on his own would have seen me in a home littered with filled ashtrays. Liquor bottles would have poked their heads out of the trash as well. Bits of clothing and long strands of hair, forgotten and discarded by those whose visit had had but one purpose, would have lingered under chairs for weeks or months. On these scores, all is different now. Continue reading

A rambling post about blogging, hubris, narcissism, and the longing to be liked

This will be my last post for a week. We’re off to the Philippines tomorrow night; I’ve got lectures in Makati City (Manila) next Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll be home to Pasadena late on Thursday of next week, and then off on another trip as of January 16. I will post about the Kabbalah and Christianity lectures next Friday, deo volente.

(Just as I finished the last sentence, one of the chinchillas in the next room made an “I’m having a dream” call — a series of little grunts signalling not distress but something else. Perhaps just a desire for me to come into the room and make cooing noises to all of them.)

Re: Iowa. Thrilled by the strong turn-out, and deeply moved by Barack Obama’s speech. I said before that if Romney and Edwards were the nominees, we’d have debates between two immensely handsome, articulate men who struggle with slickness. But a debate between Obama and Mike Huckabee would be a thing to behold; two consummate “outsiders”, two men running on two differing visions of hope, two men who have an extraordinary ability to connect with a wide variety of people. The establishment right has underestimated Huck’s political skills. The left better not make the same mistake by assuming he won’t be the GOP nominee, and if he is, that he is unelectable.

Re: blogging. I’m not going to complain about the criticism I’ve received here and elsewhere for yesterday’s post on evangelism, feminism, purists and popularizers. But it reminds me of what I like least about blogging.

I’m an ENFP, and though I enjoy writing, I enjoy conversation more. When I’m talking with someone, I feel so much more confident, so much more at ease. I’m at my best “off-the-cuff”, with as few notes as possible. (I’ve got these two, two-hour lectures next week on a topic I’ve never talked about — and I’ll go up with a few quotes scribbled down and nothing more. I love the thrill of improv, the challenge of constructing a coherent argument extemporaneously. That’s not laziness as much as it is thrill-seeking.) But over the course of a debate or a conversation, there’s so much more opportunity to avoid misunderstanding, to avoid the accidental infliction of hurt. I know others feel the opposite is true, but honestly, I’m more careful with the words I speak than with the words I write, even though I write far more slowly than I speak. Continue reading