Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

The Right Weight to Be Attractive

A wider range than people think.

The desire to be attractive is natural enough, in fact it is universal. Animals all the way up and down the animal kingdom invest a tremendous amount of effort making themselves attractive: putting colored substances on themselves and preening and so on. Physical extremes of one sort or another are not attractive. Too short, too fat— and too skinny, for that matter—are not attractive. But, clearly, there is a fashion in such matters. The fat ladies in a Ruben’s painting were painted fat because that was thought to be attractive. Prehistoric figurines of women were portrayed fat, even very fat, Similarly, fashion models who are surely too thin to be attractive to some men are surely attractive to others—and appear attractive to women also; otherwise no one would hire them to be fashion models. But let’s talk about too fat. No one who is otherwise healthy goes on a diet to gain weight. Except, of course, body builders—which proves that I am wrong. Some people do find particular extremes, muscles, I suppose, or really big breasts, to be attractive. Now that I stop to think about it, I know of a club of 400 pound women who get men calling up for blind dates. There are not many such men, however.

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Some facts:

1. There are a number of married men who have complained to me that their wives are too embarrassed by their weight to have sexual intercourse with a light on. They go on to say to me (why would they lie to me?) that they find their wives very attractive. So, we may conclude by this that many women have an exaggerated concern about how their being fat affects men and, in particular, their attractiveness to men. I might say in this connection that if a seduction has gotten to the point where a woman has taken off all her clothes, it is not likely that a man is going to be deterred by any physical impairment she may have.

2. There are women who are so discouraged by their appearance that they make no attempt at grooming or makeup. They become unattractive, not because they are fat, but because they make no attempt to be attractive. Not infrequently, they snarl at men in the bargain since they are angry at being rejected, even before they are rejected.

3. Over the years, I have noticed that women commonly come to a therapy session and apologize for looking fat and unappealing and at other times tell me that they know that the three pounds they lost last Friday make a difference. Today they look good, they tell me. Usually, I can’t tell the good days from the bad days. I think I should be able to tell, because on the good days, they dress more carefully; and they are smiling at me, which I think should make them more attractive. But the fact is, I can’t tell. The differences that seem obvious to them are too subtle for ordinary human beings to take note of. I warn people who are dieting that their weight loss usually goes unnoticed until they have lost about one eighth of their body weight.

4. By my reckoning, about 5% of men and women are so good-looking that pretty much everyone finds them attractive. These are people who get noticed when they walk down the street. Another 15% of the population are really unattractive. This group is interesting to me. Many of them are not ugly because they are disfigured in some way. They seem to work at becoming ugly. They may be unkempt, poorly-groomed, slack in posture, and slovenly in dress and manner. Some whine unpleasantly. Perhaps some of these people feel bad about being unattractive, but most of them, as far as I can tell, do not care. If they did care, I suspect they might not be in this group.  That leaves everyone else. Everyone in the middle 80% of the population will discover the same thing: some people will find them attractive, and some people won’t. Fat or skinny, long hair or short, wearing glasses or contact lenses, or fake eyelashes, or designer sunglasses—it doesn’t matter. Some people will find a particular person attractive and others won’t. Everyone has to adjust to this fact. By the way, I have spoken to those few who are beautiful or handsome and asked them what it was like to be especially attractive. They say it only helps in the first few minutes when they meet someone. Maybe they are not entirely aware of the effect of their appearance. It is well-recognized that attractive people get paid more at work, for instance, than others; but, even so, their lives are not dramatically different from everyone else’s.

The bottom line: Except for people who are very fat—so fat that that is the first thing anyone notices about them—how fat or thin someone is is not likely to impact his or her physical attractiveness in any significant or predictable way. Therefore, the proper weight for someone who is trying to look his or her best is within a range. Most people do not recognize that their appearance does not change noticeably—noticeable to other people—if they gain five, or even ten, pounds.

Some people say they want to be at their proper weight, usually thin, not because they are anxious to attract someone else, but for its own sake. They want to look good just to please themselves. I was inclined, when I first heard someone say this, to dismiss it out of hand. I tried imagining that particular woman stranded all alone on a desert island, brushing her hair 200 times in the morning, as she usually did, putting on makeup, and squeezing into her favorite bathing suit, just to please herself; and I couldn’t do it. I realize now that she wasn’t trying to fool me or herself; the idea of being an attractive person can become so much a part of oneself that being true to oneself means being as attractive as possible.

Take the matter of plastic surgery. A patient, usually a woman, confides in me that she is planning on having plastic surgery. Usually, I can’t guess before she tells me exactly what part of her body she wants to fix. I may think she is unhappy with her nose—although it looks fine to me—but it turns out she wants to get rid of some fat covering her thighs. I have had this said to me by a beauty contest winner.

In my experience, most people who do have plastic surgery are pleased by the result even though they recognize that no one else notices the change in their appearance. So it is true that people, at least some people, want to look just right in order to please themselves. But they should know that when they struggle to reach the exactly right weight, they are trying to score a bull’s-eye on a target no one else can see.

Just as the effect of too much weight on attractiveness is exaggerated; the effect on health is underestimated.  © Fredric Neuman (Excerpted from “The Stuff Yourself Diet.”) Follow Dr. Neuman’s blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog  or at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column.

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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