Are Men Attracted to What They Think Other Men Approve Of?

Can we change the sort of person to whom we're attracted? That question comes up again and again in discussions about sexuality and culture, most infamously around the issue of whether gay and lesbian people can "become straight." But it's not just the malleability of sexual orientation that's open to debate. A more basic question is whether our cravings reflect something innate within us, or whether they're shaped by our longing for status. Nowhere is that issue more charged than around the subject of men's desires and women's bodies.

Eating disorders — and the broader problem of poor body image — aren't unique to women, nor can they be attributed to one single cause. But it's undeniable that whatever the truth about men's desires, young women's perception of "what guys want" plays a huge part in the pursuit of thinness. While the fashion industry deserves some blame for perpetuating an unattainable ideal, men's refusal to acknowledge the reality of their own desires is a key aspect of the problem. In other words, it's not that all men — or even most straight white men — genuinely prefer skinny women. It's that for a great many men, having a thin, conventionally pretty girlfriend is a way to win status in the eyes of other men. It's not actually about what they themselves want. Put simply, men and women alike confuse what it is that men are attracted to with what it is that men imagine will win them approval.

Writing in the Times last weekend, Alice Randall reminded us that what we lust after is at least partly socially conditioned. In "Why Black Women Are Fat," Randall argues that many black women are unhealthily overweight because of their perceptions of black male desire: "How many middle-aged white women fear their husbands will find them less attractive if their weight drops to less than 200 pounds? I have yet to meet one. But I know many black women whose sane, handsome, successful husbands worry when their women start losing weight. My lawyer husband is one." Randall cites the 1967 Joe Tex hit Skinny Legs and All (a forerunner to the 1992 Sir Mix-a-Lot anthem Baby Got Back) and its dismissiveness of thin women as a reason why she grew up "praying for fat thighs."

Though Randall acknowledges that obesity among black women has many causes, she leads off by fingering black women's expectations of what black men want. Her article raises two obvious points. First, if black women are fearful of losing weight because of how their black male partners will react, surely the same thing is true in reverse for many American white women who fear gaining weight. Second, Randall's claim about black men's preference for fat makes it clear just how much male desire for specific body types is driven by culture rather than by evolution. (No one has yet discovered an "I prefer fat women" gene that's dominant in black men and recessive in white dudes.) And if it's cultural, then — as Randall suggests in her article — it can be changed, can't it?

In his superb book about young American men, Guyland, sociologist Michael Kimmel writes: "masculinity is a homosocial experience, performed for, and judged by, other men." Though guys usually have sex in private, they have romantic relationships in public — and "hot" women are talismans of masculinity to be displayed to other men. For white guys, a woman's svelte figure is the indispensable quality that will help them establish cachet with other men. But their hunger (no pun intended) for thin women has much less to do with actual sexual desire than it does with the longing to boost one's standing, a point made devastatingly clear in a post last week by Jennifer Fink at Blogging About Boys:

Yesterday, my six-year-old — my innocent, cherubic-faced 6-year-old — told me that his "rich, secret life" would include lots of tractors. And 1000 girls.

The tractors were no surprise. This boy has loved John Deere tractors and all kinds of heavy construction equipment from day one. 1000 girls, though? That surprised me.

What kind of girls, I asked?

He motioned me closer and whispered in my ear: "Sexy."

Then added: "Not fat."

No one seriously believes Fink's 6-year-old son was expressing a genuinely sexual attraction to thin women. His answer, however, reveals an obvious truth: so much of our cultural loathing for women's fat (to the extent that it exists) is rooted not in sexual desire but in men's sense that skinny women are trophies (like lots of John Deere tractors?) whose function is to impress other dudes. It's not that straight men aren't physically attracted to women; they obviously are. It's that the longing for thinness has little (if anything) to do with sex, and everything to do with status.

But we also know, as Camile Dodero wrote recently in the Village Voice, that there are a hell of a lot of guys who are attracted to heavier women. As Dodero points out, however, that desire gets stigmatized as a strange fetish rather than a perfectly normal variation. But what makes these guys unusual isn't their interest in women who aren't skinny — it's their implicit rejection of the idea that their sexual and romantic choices should be driven by the desire to impress other men. Well, good for them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that slender women aren't attractive, or that all of men's sexual preferences are simply about trying to win approval from other guys. Yet as Alice Randall, Joe Tex, and Sir Mix-a-Lot all remind us, what men want has at least as much to do with culture as with biology. In the black community, Randall suggests, those expectations about male desire have encouraged female obesity; among middle-class whites, expectations about what men want play at least a strong supporting role in women's destructive pursuit of thinness. No, it's not all "men's fault." But men are hardly innocent bystanders either. As the anecdote about Jennifer Fink's six year-old makes painfully clear, what guys are taught to find attractive drives their desire at least as much as does their evolutionary hardwiring.

The sooner we start challenging men to think about why they want what they say they want, the sooner we'll start moving towards at least one part of the solution to the body image crisis.

Image by Jim Cooke