Tate was one of the most memorable kids from high school, a shorter guy with pocked skin who attended class in an oversize tie-dye t-shirt. Despite his appearance, Tate was popular with girls and guys from every clique. He was charismatic and engaging. He was what Hollywood might call “ugly sexy”—someone who is not considered good-looking by common standards but who is nonetheless desirable. I prefer to call this phenomenon “unconventional sexy” because what we often times find attractive in someone else has little to do with being gorgeous or beautiful.
In contrast to being sexy, “beauty” is more specific, at least as defined by evolutionary psychologists. According to this theoretical perspective, there are key elements of appearance considered universally attractive for both men and women. These elements include a symmetrical face and clear skin, which are theorized to indicate health. For men, key features include being tall with a square jaw, and women are considered more beautiful with a youthful appearance and waist-to-hip ratio of .7—i.e., the waist is 30% smaller than the hips, so a woman with hips measuring 34” and a waist measuring 24” would meet this ratio requirement. (For more, see this post by Gad Saad.)
In many cases, however, heart-racing sexiness has little to do with beauty. We can be intensely attracted to people who don’t fit the maxims favored by evolutionary psychologists—and that tells us a lot about sexiness. I’ll share a few examples of celebrities you may know to demonstrate the point, but the phenomenon obviously applies to men and women from all walks of life.
Let’s begin with famous women: Consider Anjelica Huston, an actress known for portraying strong and elegant characters. In the 1960s, she was a desirable model despite being “dark and moody” and far from the blonde girl-next-door-types who were landing the highest-profile jobs (Style.com). Huston herself was surprised that photographers would be interested in her face, with what she described as its "conflicting jutting bones." Or consider Janeane Garofalo, cast as the “less woman” in the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs. By the end of the film, she was far more intriguing to most men in the theatre than the conventionally attractive woman played by Uma Thurman.
If you’re more on the fringe, you might think of Peaches, a raunchy electronic musician and performance artist. With her gender-bending persona and adults-only lyrics, she’s definitely not for everyone. But some find her lack of femininity refreshing in a world where many female artists
tend to pose and pout (The Age).
Now let’s discuss unconventionally sexy men. Remember, according to evolutionary psychology, the most attractive men will be tall, with symmetrical facial features, clear skin, and a square jaw. But that doesn’t mean those traits are required to be totally fascinating and downright sexy. Think of someone like John Malkovich. A writer from The Boston Globe recently admitted, “I’ve had this, this thing for him for years. It’s his mouth—maybe also his voice…I imagine him raunchy and intellectual.” She’s not alone; there are many Malkovich lovers out there.
The ruggedly appealing Danny Trejo, born in 1944 and standing 5’6” garnered comment like this one in a Nerve article: “I find him oddly appealing despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact?) that he looks like he's about to kill me.”
I’d add my personal favorite, the oddly charming Steve Buscemi. In addition to being a well-known actor from movies and series like Boardwalk Empire, he was a firefighter in the 1980s and assisted the FDNY after the September 11th attacks. A fan page describes him as: “that talented bug-eyed actor who creeps you out in most movies who you don’t realize is actually extremely sexy.”
These are just a few examples of well-known people who are unconventionally sexy. And photographs like those posted here may be the worst way to determine true sex appeal. A more complete picture requires watching someone in action or engaging them in dialogue. A picture says little about a person’s confidence, conviction, courageousness, determination, honesty, humor, or passion. True sex appeal involves much more—and it’s almost always about being centered in one’s self.
We all age and become less symmetrical by the day. If we believe that desirability is based on a waist-to-hip ratio of .7, or symmetry in the eyes, ears, nose, or toes, our view of sex appeal—others', or even our own—will probably diminish and we’ll look past inner beauty and true appeal. Perhaps it’s time to stop limiting our perceptions of attraction to a two-dimensional photo or standard elements of beauty, and instead focus on the traits that scream unconventional sex appeal.
Heidi Reeder, Ph.D. is the author of Commit to Win (Hudson Street Press).