The unspoken truth about the media buzz surrounding Jessica Simpson’s visit to Congress is something very primal that most people aren’t comfortable talking about in pleasant company. Ron Reagan said it quite brilliantly tonight on Chris Matthews’ show when he observed that “meeting Jessica Simpson is the closest most of these guys will ever come to an erotic experience.” Well put (not that she’s my type.) But why do so few dare say that out loud?
As with many things from food to drugs, Americans – most especially the so-called “intelligentsia” – have a rather schizophrenic attitude about beauty and sexual attraction. Most will uncomfortably admit, if hard pressed, that beauty really matters; but we seem to want to pretend it doesn’t, as if it’s somehow less worthy of our attention and admiration than intelligence or charisma.
Most men, regardless of intellect, are moved to romantic (read: sexual) engagement and interest visually. There’s heaps of science to demonstrate that this is built into our firmware. Sure, we have this fancy new thing called a cortex, but sexual energy and arousal is very limbically-rooted; and it is indeed sexual energy that is the primary differentiator between a romantic relationship and our other relationships.
In Rita Carter’s amazing book Mapping the Mind, there are powerful images of male and female brain activity during sexual arousal. The difference in the amount of activity at the visual cortex is astonishing. As a supporting tangent: I don’t think it’s a coincidence (nor the fault of western society) that the vast majority of pornographic material is consumed by men.
Luckily for men of unremarkable appearance, women judge romantic partners less heavily on looks – often much less. Women pay a great deal more attention to other women’s looks. But men are nonetheless sized up and judged rather quickly on such things as social status, resources, and even an assortment of physiological cues about physical power. Women have big limbic brains, too; they’re just looking for different signals. This subconscious thin-slicing kicks off the biochemical dance of physical attraction.
Another uncomfortable reality is that of choices – if a guy (in reality or in his own perception) has a lot of romantic options, with other things being relatively equal, he tends to gravitate toward the more beautiful of those options. And he is often expected to justify and apologize for it.
This behavior is further rewarded by the gobs of social reinforcement that is conferred upon men who date beautiful women. Men in social environments who are latched to a lovely female are subconsciously granted considerable “alpha” points (which can later be cashed in for tons of great prizes.) Recent research (such as Nancy Etcoff’s @ Harvard) has shown, for example, that other women find a man more attractive if he is with a beautiful woman than if he is alone, with another male, or with a female of “average” appearance. He does worse still if his companion is perceived to be of “below average” appearance. So, it’s not just men who make these judgments – women do too. It seems we are all moved, in some way, by female beauty.
To simplify and typecast in order to make a point, I also don’t get why the uber-smart girls handle this as they do. I could count on one hand the number of brilliant power-females I’ve met who were just as concerned with their looks as are women of more ordinary intellect. So, while the “pretty” girl labors at the cosmetics counter over which lipstick goes best with the new dress, her “smart” friend derides her frivolity and acts embarrassed and pained to be standing there. Many brighter women scoff and thumb their noses at the importance of beauty – as if beauty is only for those who need to distract men from checking out their minds. But this “new feminism” stuff is right about several things. Among them, brainiacs: beauty is profoundly important whether you choose to accept it or not.
Men are entranced by beauty not because we are neanderthal, shallow, or immature; and not because we may subconsciously recognize that a lot of the primping is done for us. We love it because we are wired to love it.
Of course, we should not be enslaved by our mammalian brains. But we must recognize that the “higher order” stuff – the deeper connection of mind and soul – comes more slowly, long after our inner beasts have snap-judged whether the other is fuckworthy. To ignore our wetware, our hard-coding, just perpetuates the schizophrenia. There is, somewhere, an honest balance we’ve yet to strike.
And finally, there is the question of spirituality. Many who call themselves Holy are the most likely to discourage the appreciation of physical beauty, as if it is somehow diametric to the pursuit of Truth. I object wholeheartedly; The Universe is no less authentically expressing itself in the eyegleam of a gorgeous 18 year old than it is in the glow of the moon, the scent of a lilac, or the craggy bark of a willow tree. Nature’s timeless drive to experience itself is the fuel that powers the engine of existence. The adoration of and immersion into that magical cycle – if done with love, kindness and respect – could not be more Divine.