Are Your Looks in Decline?

A 4-point scale for assessing attractiveness.

Posted Jul 02, 2018

At 65, I spend a lot of time with appealing women in their twenties. My approach to supervision, like my approach to therapy, has spared me the complication of wrestling with sexual feelings for them. In therapy, an intense relationship emerges between me and the client’s real self, the inner child if you will. Since I happen to be attracted only to strong adult women (and to women I don’t know), it only takes a session or two for sexual feelings to evaporate. I don’t manage them any more than I would have to manage sexual feelings for a little girl, because there aren’t any: the type of relationship I have with patients doesn’t evoke or support sexual feelings. In supervision, the relationship is far less carefully defined, but it is still organized around the supervisee’s learning posture and my avuncular mentorship, a role-relationship that also fails to elicit my own sexual feelings. (I am attracted to women I don’t know because there is no role-relationship for me besides the social one, although even then, there’s no sexual attraction to a nursing mother versus a woman with décolletage, because the former evokes a different kind of observer role for me.)

Once, in faculty meeting, we were discussing whether it was permissible to “friend” current students on Facebook. The answer was yes, partly because it doesn’t mean you’ve become actual friends. I added that I intended to continue to hold office hours at my local pub. My colleague Mark, then 32, said, “Michael, no offense, but when people see you in a bar with a 25-year-old woman, no one thinks it’s a date.”

It’s a well-known idea that you’re often better off comparing yourself to yourself than to your peers; it’s the idea of striving for a personal best. I blogged here about the one question I ask when interviewing psychologists: What are you doing this year to ensure that you will be a better clinician next year? The idea is to keep getting better, which is often undermined by the complacency or the despair that can come of comparing yourself with others. Unfortunately, when it comes to looks, it can be upsetting to compare yourself to your past performance.

To understand people’s social capital in mating markets, I invented a 4-point scale for looks: 1) people that people would pay to look at; 2) people that people like to look at; 3) people that people don’t mind looking at; and 4) people that people do mind looking at. It’s also an aide to understanding a person’s place in the social world. (I recognize you may feel like a 1 in your mom’s or dad’s eyes and like a 4 in the mirror, but I’m talking about reality. To find out your actual score, approach a 2—with nothing going for you but your looks—as if potentially interested in flirting and see what happens.) Recently, on my first trip to Vegas, my wife and I were engaging in one of the few sins of mine that Vegas actually caters to: unempathic people watching (a sort of holiday from empathic people watching, i.e., clinical psychology). She suggested, as we sipped our drinks in the heat, that we look for 1’s and point them out to each other. In the course of this nearly fruitless exercise (except for one stunning pair of gay men), I remarked that we had been 2’s our whole lives but somehow in the process of getting older, we had become 3’s. [My friends, there is no need to write to me with testimonials of my attractiveness; Janna and I still see the other as a 1, but our assessment of each other’s looks is a function of wit, generosity, affection, and classical conditioning.] More upsetting than having become 3’s is the certain knowledge that, if we’re lucky, we’ll someday become 4’s.

So, when it comes to the body, comparing oneself to others should stay in Vegas, but so should comparing oneself to one’s prior selves. If you look good for your age, it can be enjoyable to compare yourself with your age group, but the best strategy is to find a mate who looks at you appreciatively and to stay in shape for him or her. Many people, instead, adopt the strategy of not looking in the mirror—hanging up their spikes—retiring from the game. They concentrate on other things, like being a good person or keeping kids off their lawns. Not Aunt Mabel, though. Well past her centennial, she still did her hair and makeup before going out, and she’d leave her oxygen tank in the car because it made her “look old.” Retirees from attractiveness also seek new mates with either no sexual component or an overtly pragmatic one, seeking sexual pleasure from each other—to put it briefly and bluntly—with the lights off.

Younger people might want to recall that most old people you meet were once attractive teenagers or young adults, and the more attractive they were, the harder a time they may have with slipping down the scale, so cut old people a little slack and don’t talk to us as if we have always been old. And don’t compliment us or flirt with us as you would with a toddler or someone else who couldn’t possibly take it seriously. Conversely (for the gray and graying), if someone much younger addresses you with shields down and full-on eye contact, it doesn’t mean flirtation as it would among age-mates; it typically means you are simply not seen as a sexual threat.

As always, I also think that comedy can help: I like to maintain that I am much better-looking than I appear to be.

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