A number of years ago, I saw in psychotherapy a divorced woman who was interested in finding someone to date. She did not consider herself particularly choos1y, and she thought of herself as “sort of” attractive; but she had not connected with any man for a considerable period of time. She was troubled, in particular, by what happened repeatedly when she went to singles dances or to bars with her best friend, whom she regarded as “really” attractive. Men frequently approached them only to end up paying attention to her friend and not to her. She wondered whether she was attractive enough to compete. In a more general sense, she was asking whether men are interested solely in dating the most attractive woman they can find.
The answer is “no.” I wished that I could have been present at those times when she and her friend went on these excursions so that I could figure out exactly what was going wrong; but based on what men had told me over the years, I was sure that physical attractiveness, although important initially, is never the most important factor that causes them to talk to one woman rather than another. Or to be interested in dating one woman rather than another. In fact, there are some men who are intimidated by women who are beautiful and will consciously seek out someone less attractive. I could not know for sure, but judging by my patient’s behavior in other situations, I guessed she was probably too shy and retiring to make much of an impression in these difficult and high-pressure social situations. I thought it was possible that she did not smile at such times—when she was anxious.
It is worth noting, first of all, that physical attractiveness is never just a matter of face and figure. Physical beauty can be summarized briefly. Someone with symmetrical features and a body that seems to be young and not extremely fat or thin, or extreme in any other way, can be said to be more or less beautiful. Attractiveness is something more complex. A man, looking at a woman for the first time (or a woman looking at a man) will respond to the way that person stands or sits, the way he or she smiles, or is quiet or animated, the way he/she responds to others, and to the way that person is groomed and dressed. That initial impression determines whether that person seems attractive or not. But the odd thing is that what strikes one person as attractive will seem unattractive to someone else. No one way of appearing will seem attractive to everyone. Not only that, what is attractive, or unattractive, to a particular person at a particular time may seem quite the opposite at another time and place. Not uncommonly someone goes unnoticed until he/she begins to talk, and then abruptly seems very attractive. I think that experience is more the rule than the exception.
It is worth underlining some of these facts about personal attractiveness:
- What seems attractive in someone of the opposite sex (or for those inclined, someone of the same sex) will not seem attractive to someone else. In fact, often precisely what seems attractive—being dressed casually, just to mention one of a number of such things—will seem unappealing or plainly off-putting to someone else. Attractiveness is not an intrinsic physical quality, but a combination of appearance and behavior.
- Attractiveness is important initially, and less so as time goes on. Or, to be more accurate, someone who is seen to be attractive initially will likely years later still be considered attractive by his or her partner unless there is a dramatic change in appearance, such as gaining a great deal of weight.
- Often the circumstances in which people meet color their attractiveness. These factors, also, are very many. Someone might be attracted to a man or woman who seems to be at the focus of a conversation, or who is in a position of power in a business or some other institution, or who is demonstrating a skill or talent, or who seems to be poised in the face of an argument, and so on. On the other hand, a man who is belligerent will seem unattractive. Being at a party with glamorous or famous individuals may make any one of them seem more attractive than they would be in some other setting.
- For that reason, it is frequently true that someone who seems to a man or woman to be “not my type” will seem more attractive later on if he or she is funny or discovered to be doing something exciting. Someone else who is manifestly kind usually becomes more attractive. On the other hand, a person who reveals ignorance or prejudice, or is just plain stupid, will rapidly lose his or her appeal whatever first impression that person may have made a few minutes previously.
- As is obvious from the above, whether or not someone seems attractive depends critically on the observer. It has been said that a person who seems attractive during the evening may lose attractiveness to his/her partner “the morning after.” I suppose this is true, but not often. What is more typically true is that someone who is intoxicated may judge a man or woman to be appealing yet feel differently when sobriety returns.
- Finally, when I ask a patient why their spouse appeared attractive to them at first, not uncommonly they respond by saying, “he/she liked me!”
It matters at the beginning of a relationship that each person finds the other attractive. It is not important that one or both be a “ten” on a scale of one to ten. Whether or not a man or woman is more or less attractive than someone else standing nearby does not matter. Being attractive is attractive enough. It is as if a switch operates in everyone. If the person they are looking at is attractive, the switch clicks over to the “on” position. If it is on, it is on. It can’t be more on with someone else. Once someone is attractive enough, other aspects of personality matter more.
I think there is a moral to this story. No one should agonize endlessly trying to put a polish on themselves. No one should struggle to be the most attractive person in the room, or even as attractive as possible. It’s too much trouble. Try to appear nicely dressed and groomed. That’s enough. Then concentrate on those things that really matter: being friendly and interested in the other person. And then be accepting of whatever happens. As Shakespeare has Rosalind say to Phoebe: “You are not for all markets.” It is true. None of us can appeal to everyone. Luckily, we only have to appeal to a few—one at least. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of "Maneuvers." Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/