Artificial beauty, and why anyone would care

A while ago I went to a talk by a woman who was smart, driven, savvy, accomplished, and attractive. I was particularly interested since she’s gotten the degree I’m about to start working on, and it was exciting to hear how one person has made a non-clinical career in the field of sexuality. She was describing the legal and media harassment she experienced after opening a feminist sex shop in a rather conservative suburb, and her talk was interesting both in content and presentation.

Shaun and I went for drinks with a couple other guys after the talk, and as we were walking toward the bar one of them said, “So: real or fake?” We both went ‘huh?’ back at him, and he clarified: “Her boobs. Real or fake?”

It’s been a long time since I hung out in company that devoted two seconds’ thought to breast enhancement surgery, so my initial reaction was ‘What an odd thing to wonder.’ Shaun said something, I don’t remember what, and I hazarded the opinion that she’s been too busy with education and entrepreneurship to have gotten cosmetic surgery (she’s quite a few years younger than me, and she’s already a successful business owner and finishing up her PhD. Sigh.) The conversation then turned to a discussion of her background, with a liberal dose of “how DID she do all that in so short a time?” And then, after a few minutes, our friend returned persistently to his question: “So are they real or fake?”

Which is when I got annoyed, and said quite coldly, “Why do you care?” Now, I’m not immune to impertinent personal speculation — at another point, Shaun and I agreed in our guess that she was hetero and monogamous in her dating life — but to fixate on the exact provenance of her breasts struck me as puerile and offensive. And I was sincere in my question: Why did he care? Why does anybody? I’ve done my share of admiring attractive breasts, but it’s never occurred to me to speculate on exactly how they got to be so beautiful. And if I did find out that a particular pair was surgically-enhanced, I wouldn’t find that interesting or noteworthy. I know that the “real or fake” question gets some play in dudebro circles, but I’m not clear on why.

My guess is that some hetero men are troubled by the power an attractive female body exerts on them. That some of them — particularly the young and insecure — find ways to demean and diminish the bearers of those bodies, and one of those ways is to say with a sniff, “But it’s not real.” Because… breast enhancement surgery is cheating or something? The logic is weak, but I think that must be at the bottom of it.

Another possibility, which could happily coexist with the first one, is that exacting standards of beauty are not primarily about evolutionarily-coded fitness signals, as we’re so often told these days. Instead, they’re about status and acquisition. Women with lovely faces and perfect bodies are rare, especially as today’s “perfect body” is tiny with large breasts, not a common naturally occuring combination. Anything rare can be assigned a high value, and gaining possession of a rare valuable grants status to the possessor… especially when competition comes into play, as it seems to do with partner-choice. If a naturally-perfect body is a diamond to shine on the arm of a victorious male, then a surgically-enhanced perfect body is cubic zirconia: just as lovely, but easier to come by and therefore less valuable.

Contrariwise, if attraction is about fitness signals, then someone who’s not currently planning to breed shouldn’t give two hoots where the perfect body he’s drooling over comes from. And if anyone tries to make an argument that we are evolutionarily designed to be turned off by surgically-enhanced breasts, I am going to scream and shoot something. I hope I don’t have to explain why. Anyway, I don’t think most dudebros are any less turned on by surgically-enhanced breasts… I think arguing that they’re fake is a way of rationalizing the woman into lower status.

Anyway. If anyone has other insights on this I’d love to hear them.

Words I dislike: normal

Does anybody remember The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle? Great book. During Charlotte’s trial-at-sea, the captain is accusing her of “unnatural” behavior — as a young female passenger, she came to wear sailor’s clothes and take a place in the ship’s crew. They have an extended dialogue where he points out each aspect of her behavior and says “Is this not unnatural for a thirteen-year-old girl?” and she counters with “Unusual, not unnatural.”

“Natural” and “normal” are two words we use to express a dual meaning: what is commonly done, and what is in some way right or healthy. As a society, we equivocate on these two meanings to a shocking degree: we establish that something is “normal” in the sense of “statistically average within our population” and then we breeze merrily along and declare that to be otherwise is a sign of something wrong.

We do it with sexuality: a lot of fetishes, from liking heavier partners to liking to smell maple syrup, are statistically less common, and we immediately ask “what’s wrong with this person, that they’re turned on by something uncommon?” We don’t deem it necessary to ask whether there’s something inherently problematic about the fetish; the fact that it’s unusual is enough to make it suspicious.

We do it with body type. If we read that the average healthy person has a certain height-weight ratio, we assume that that is the height-weight ratio that is healthy for all persons. Someone whose body type differs from the average, particularly in the unfashionable direction (in our culture, of course, heavier is unfashionable), can protest all they want that this is a healthy and normal weight for them, and people will still claim that they need to change their weight in order to be really healthy. Even if, to do so, they’d have to eat less than their body actually needs.

We do it with life choices. If you didn’t go to college at 18, graduate at 22, start working your way up a career ladder, date a while, get married in your late 20s and have two kids in your 30s… well then what are you doing with your life?

We do it with hobbies and interests, though less so than when we were younger. When I was a kid I learned very quickly that the things I loved were “weird” and likely to get me shunned or laughed at. The internet has brought a lot of geek interests within view of the mainstream, and as adults people are less eager to judge you based on the way you play (they’re too busy judging based on the way you work or conduct your relationships), but I’m still shy about bringing forth my knitting or mentioning Battlestar Galactica around strangers, and occasionally I get a reaction that justifies the shyness.

When you think about it, making “normal” normative is really senseless. Do we really think that we’d all be happier and healthier if we looked alike, acted alike, took pleasure in the same things? Do we really think the ideal human being is one that most closely matches the statistical average? I don’t think most people think that. But in their knee-jerk reactions to things, they often act as if they do.

I dislike the word “normal” precisely because it encourages this confusion between what is common and what is good or healthy. We can use it in the sense of “statistically common,” as in, “it’s normal for men to be sexually attracted to women and not men.” (After all, 90% or more of men are!) Or we can use it in the sense of “healthy and acceptable” as in “it’s normal for men to wear lace panties to bed.” Or we can do what I do and avoid the word like the plague, because in most cases there just is no necessary correlation between the statistically average and the healthy and acceptable.

Men are beautiful

This picture, y’all. This picture still makes me a bit wibbly, in large part because of what it did to me when I was 13. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, and I went around dazed and dizzy for three days, slain by the absolute beauty of Harrison Ford in that movie. We had a box set of all three Indy movies, and after watching the movie it was sitting out on our bookshelf, and every time I walked by it I was sucked in like it was a gravity well. I had to look at the picture, and looking at the picture gave me a physical pain. So beautiful.

As far as I can recall, this was the first time I had the experience of being devastated by a beautiful man, but it became familiar to me over the years. One of my best friends had similar tastes — some quite typical, some unusual — and we’d talk for hours on the phone, and one of the many things we talked about was how gorgeous and wonderful and captivating certain male characters of our acquaintance were.

My love for a movie or TV show was usually directly proportional to the presence of a male heartthrob. There was a variety in the type that could get me going — I liked cute men, nerdy men, swashbuckling men — but there was also some consistency. Then, as now, I tended to like thin men with pretty faces and a certain intensity of expression or bearing. Other friends of mine preferred more hunky, muscle-bound types, and that was all to the good. My best friend and I joked about our “harems,” populated by the male characters we found particularly appetizing. When we both wanted the same man, we’d barter and negotiate for who would get to claim him. (At one point I suggested sharing, but she put the kibosh on that. Guess I’ve always been more open to that sort of thing.)

With another good friend, I actually started a “harem book.” I supposed it was a summer-and-we’re-bored project. We both got blank notebooks and pasted in pictures of various men that appealed to us. I wish I still had that book, there were some pretty, pretty pictures.

As I grew older, sexuality became more problematic. Complicated interplay of guilt and anxiety over being a sexual person, and well-founded fears that I was not capable of attracting an actual, real man, worked together to dampen my expressed interest in male beauty and sex. (Hence my getting rid of the harem book.) I tried to tell myself that I cared a lot more about whether someone would make a good husband than how pretty he was. I did catch myself out, one time, when I was debating whether to get involved with a friend who seemed interested in me. I liked him, but he had certain character flaws that gave me pause. In a moment of humbling clarity, it occurred to me that another friend of mine, someone I’d had a crush on for many years, had similar character flaws, but that friend was a creature of perfect Apollonian beauty, so for some reason they didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Reflecting on all this, it’s strange to me that our culture works so hard to deny the idea of male beauty. We value men for their competence, we say, we judge men on success and intelligence and wealth and sense of humor. For a man to be looked on as an object of beauty… well, that’s kinda gay. Or something. I don’t really know what it’s about, and it’s silly (I am a woman — my attraction to a man is pretty much by definition not gay. Even if that were a bad thing.) But I can promise you that I do not now, nor have I ever, felt that clutching in my heart and in my groin for a successful man that I do for a beautiful man. Power is sexy, oh yes, but it’s power with beauty, not power instead of beauty.

Now people can claim that women choose mates based more on success than on physical beauty, and in many cases they’re right. But it’s not because women are unresponsive to physical beauty — it’s because women, until recently, needed the protection and support of a powerful man. Hunger and thirst are more basic needs than sex. And then, at some point, men themselves decided it was unmanly to be attractive and desirable. They punish each other for it in the formative years. Muscle-development is the only way men are permitted to improve their looks. And hetero women’s propensity to be aroused by beautiful men is almost universally downplayed, by both men and women.

And yet, when I first met my boyfriend, my initial thought wasn’t “he looks intelligent” or “he looks successful” or “he looks like he could buy me a nice steak dinner.” It was, “Ooh, he’s cute!” I think this is normal, typical, for men and for women. But we don’t usually say it.

I could write more about the social ramifications of all this, where it comes from and what it leads to, but many of my favorite bloggers have done so, and I don’t have anything new to add. I just wanted to put it out there, to make it crystal-clear, with illustrations, how I feel, and how I feel is this:

Men are beautiful.

Asking for it

Several months ago, some of my co-workers were telling a story of some teenage kids who egged an older man’s car, whereupon the man got out and started shooting at them, killing one of the kids.

“Tsk tsk tsk… that’s awful. Of course, the kids should have known better. Parents have got to teach their children you can’t do stuff like that.”

A couple of years ago, my friend M, who’s gay, was at a bar with a girl who was being obnoxiously hit on by two guys — they kept “accidentally” rubbing up against her, among other things. When they weren’t looking, M switched places with his friend, so that one of the guys found himself suddenly rubbing up against a gay man instead of a woman. The guy and his friend grabbed M by the throat and started beating him up.

Someone later said, “Well, yeah, that’s terrible, but he should have known better than to mess with drunk straight guys.”

An American pastor publicly and obnoxiously burned a copy of the Koran, and in retaliation an angry mob in Afghanistan killed a bunch of UN employees.

“He should have known better. He should have known something like that would happen.”

In talk about rape, victim-blaming is a huge problem: “If she hadn’t dressed like that/walked alone/flirted with a stranger it wouldn’t have happened.” There’s a subtle, pervasive misogyny in that kind of comment, but it also reflects a larger trend of victim-blaming that we seem to engage in. Somebody who is the victim of violence is talked about like someone who got struck by lightning while standing on top of the Empire State Building in the middle of a storm: Yes, that’s terrible and sad, but they should have known better. In a way, they were asking for it.

Statements like these imply that human violence is like an elemental force: if you get in its way, to some extent you deserve what you get. Which is… weird, when you think about it. Lightning is not a responsible agent. The human beings under discussion are… or we treat them as though they are. We let them hold jobs and vote and raise children. Am I really to blame for going through life assuming that the humans around me will not respond with disproportionate violence to any provocation?

I want to make it clear, before I go further, that I’m not in any way drawing an equivalency between the three provocations I mentioned at the beginning. The levels of guilt range from nonexistent (my friend M) to rude (Terry Jones) to misdemeanor (egging the car.) But in none of these circumstances was the response in any way warranted by the provocation.

So why do we do this? Why do we, when hearing these stories, focus our attention on the victim and what they did wrong? It’s as if we mentally assign the assailant to the “force of nature” category without a second thought. We don’t even think or talk about them, after the first “oh, that’s awful!” All our attention goes to what the victim could or should have done differently.

I don’t really have answers here… I’m looking for your thoughts. What’s up with this victim-blaming thing we do? Is it complete bullshit, or partially legitimate? I have a few ideas, but I’m curious to hear what other people think.

Gender and humor

I don’t think Christopher Hitchens is a misogynist. I think that he, like many men, believes strongly in women’s rights, women’s freedom, and women’s equality. I also think that he, like many men, falls into the habit of viewing women through a skewed lens, a lens that sees their sexual and reproductive roles as primary and essential, while all the other aspects of their personhood are secondary. Or perhaps he doesn’t see things this way all the time, but it was certainly the dominant perspective in his 2007 article Why Women Aren’t Funny, which for some reason has been re-circulating the blogrounds recently.

I found the article mildly amusing and quite a bit annoying, and unfortunately reminiscent of a more recent Jesse Bering article that I won’t bother to link to. I like Hitchens much more than I like Bering, so it’s through Hitchens’ article that I’m going to attack this general notion that women aren’t as funny as men, and that this is probably mainly due to sexual selection pressures in the environment humans evolved in.

First of all, the instinct that “men are funnier than women” comes — can only come — from observations of our contemporary culture. It’s true that most professional comedians are men; it’s true that, at a party, the person likely to be talking loudly and making everybody else laugh is more likely to be a man. But it’s my opinion that we can find sufficient cause for this trend in our culture by looking at current male and female cultural dynamics, without resorting to how-things-were-on-the-savannah.

It’s a truism that professional comedians aren’t usually conventionally attractive, whether male or female. A comic can be old, fat, big-nosed, wild-haired… in fact, if there’s something odd about their looks, they seem to do better. Even attractive comedians (Jon Stewart, Tina Fey) are attractive in a cute-person-next-door kind of way, not a smokin-hottie kind of way.

My guess is that there’s a two-way cause-and-effect dynamic here. Many people who feel awkward and ugly in youth use humor as a way of gaining social success, whereas the Beautiful People have no need for it; so being less-than-stunning might make one more likely to exercise a gift for humor. On the flip side, I suspect that being stunningly gorgeous actually hampers your ability to make people laugh (genuinely, as opposed to sycophantically.) Beauty is intimidating, and we can’t laugh genuinely at someone we feel intimidated by. Humor can exist when we’re feeling a sense of cameraderie or derision, but not of awe and anxiety.

Note that this attractiveness standard applies equally to males and female. I can’t think of any comics, male or female, who rise above the cute-neighbor level of physical attractiveness. How does this apply to the gender disparity in comic ability? In our culture, women are far more rewarded than men are for achieving high levels of physical beauty. Men, in many cases, are even punished for it. So in the public eye, stunningly beautiful women are overrepresented, while men get a much more even distribution of talents and qualities.

Then there’s the question of humor’s impact on sexual success. A large part of Hitchens’ article is dedicated to the point that a funny man has a better chance of getting laid, so men are both biologically and culturally encouraged to develop their sense of humor. I don’t dispute the premise (funny men are more likely to get laid), but I think the reasons for this lie mostly in our current cultural reference frame, and that we can’t conclude anything about whether funny men at the dawn of humanity were likelier to get laid, and therefore can’t conclude that men have been under biological pressure to be funny.

In our culture, it’s another truism that a man has to work hard to get laid, while a woman pretty much just has to consent. I’ve written about this before, and if you recall, one of my contentions is that a woman’s relative reluctance to engage in casual sex with someone she’s just met has to do with trust and safety issues — issues that were probably not relevant in our evolutionary environment of small tribes. One thing humor does is create a heightened sense of trust. Laughter is relaxing to the body, and the ability to share a moment of humor demonstrates that we share a cultural reference frame; in a sense, it marks someone as being “of our tribe.” If someone can make us laugh, we have already let our guard down and been rewarded for it. This alone, in my opinion, is enough to account for the way humor increases a man’s sexual success. All the other things humor does — demonstrates intelligence, gives pleasure, draws attention to to comic — work equally well for men and women, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t have done so in our prehistoric days as well.

Along with this, there is one reason why being funny might actually decrease a woman’s sexual success: the same reason being smart, or rich, or skillful might decrease a woman’s sexual success. Men are conditioned to believe that they have to earn a woman’s interest by being better in some way: not just likeable and sexy, but also richer or smarter or more talented — or funnier. A woman who outdoes a man in these areas is often demoted from attractive to intimidating. (Check out Figleaf’s post here for more on how social hierarchy affects gender and humor.)

Which brings me to the biggest problem in Hitchens’ article about why women aren’t funny. Women actually are funny — and they’re funny about a lot of the things that Hitchens assumes women don’t see the humor in, like bodily functions and fluids. Half an hour spent in the company of female nurses will quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that women can’t be funny about the lewd and low and messy aspects of life: that is, it will quickly disabuse any woman of that notion. The nurses usually won’t make those jokes if there’s a man present, and why? Because men find it unsexy. Women are trained to carefully hide from men any hint that they fart and poop and menstruate, because men find it gross and offputting. Hitchens writes several eloquent and rather sweetly na├»ve paragraphs about how women are engaged in the serious business of bearing and raising the next generation, and can’t afford to be light about bodies, and he seems to completely miss the fact that all he really knows is that women aren’t telling these jokes around him.

Of course, women usually find body-humor jokes unsexy too, and men trying to get laid don’t usually indulge in this particular brand of humor. But Hitchens, because he is a man, has lots of experience with the way men talk when there are no women around. He has, I can safely assume, practically no experience with the way women talk when there are no men around, and he makes the mistake of assuming that there isn’t a difference.

I had an extremely hard time communicating to my boyfriend why this article and its assumptions irritated me so much. When men try to write about essential differences between men and women, they seem to forget how skewed their perspective necessarily is. Men see, to a disproportionate degree, the way women behave when they are trying to appeal to men. This functions both on an individual level (a man will rarely if ever see women joking the way women do when it’s just women) and on a cultural level (because men have held the economic and political power for so long, a lot of not-appealing-to-men behaviors in women have been suppressed outright.) So you have a man, being ever-so-clever about how men’s and women’s disparate displays of humor tell us something essential about men and women, completely missing the possibility that it’s articles and ideas like his that continue to uphold a cultural environment where men and women display disparate levels of humor.

When you think about it like that, it’s almost funny.

Blogs that make my day

I’m sorta sick and sorta blue, so I’m not feeling much like writing deep and thoughtful stuff, so instead I thought I’d give a shout-out to the blogs that make me happy on a sorta sick and sorta blue kind of day.

The Pervocracy – Holly is one of the best writers I read, seriously. She is witty and snappy and insightful, and if she ever decides to write a book, I will buy copies for myself and all my friends. She mostly talks about gender and sexuality stuff, and she writes about all the cultural crap that makes me angry, but does it so cleverly and humorously that all the churning rage evaporates and I just think, “Aren’t those people silly, and aren’t I glad that I and many other wonderful people have moved past that?”

Swistle – Swistle is one of the blogs I’ve been reading the longest; she’s a mom of five young ‘uns, and writes a very simple “this is my life” blog. What I love about her writing is how open and friendly she is, how she gives herself freedom to feel however she’s feeling, and in so doing gives everybody else the same freedom too. I feel like she’s a friend, and in fact yesterday, when I was deep in the new-city-no-friends blues, I spent about four hours reading her archives (all of which I’ve read before, but you know how I love to re-read) and it helped me feel less lonely.

Blag Hag – I want to be Jen McCreight when I grow up, which may be a problem because I think she’s younger than me. Anyway, she writes about atheism and feminism and sexuality, so you know why I love her. I’m pretty sure we could be great friends, which actually I think I could say about all the other writers I mention here as well.

Svutlana – Svutlana is a sex-advice blog, and the shtick is that she comes from Svutlandia, a highly sex-positive island nation where people’s values and attitudes around sex are, basically, what I wish ours were now. Very funny and refreshing.

Manboobz – This is a fairly new one for me, and it does for MRAs (look it up, prepare to weep and gnash your teeth) what Pervocracy does for sex-negative woman-hating culture in general: points out the idiocies in a way that makes me feel less “Gaaah how can I live in this stupid crazy world!” and more “Ha ha, those people are idiots, glad we’ve got a strong counter-movement.”

Yarn Harlot – Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the self-titled Yarn Harlot, makes me proud to be a human being. She’s a knitter and a mum and a writer, three things I want to be, and with absolute humility and grace and a sense that she’s not doing anything special, y’know, it’s just this idea she had, she has galvanized huge masses of knitters to do amazing things, like donate over $1,000,000 and counting to Doctors Without Borders. She, and all the knitters she has inspired, are a force to be reckoned with.


I have been a humanist longer than I have been anything else, philosophy-wise. When I was a Christian, I was drawn to the work of Christian humanists like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. I was unable to leave religion until I found a reflection of those core values of mine in secular humanism. The core value of humanism, to me, is simply this: The ultimate good, whatever that may consist of, includes the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings. It is not limited to that, but to construct an ideal “ultimate state of good for the universe” that does not include the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings is nonsensical to me.

So I reject a philosophy which holds that humans are fundamentally unworthy of happiness, freedom, or existence — a philosophy held by “Original Sin” fundamentalists as well as “humans are a blight on the earth” environmentalists. Undoubtedly we have our problems, our often-fatal flaws, but there’s not something about us that makes us less worthy than any other species or entity (plants, animals, gods, demons, aliens, angels, etc.)

Of course there are lots of definitions and ramifications. For example, under the category “happiness and fulfillment” I include not only wellbeing — comfort, security, pleasure — but freedom to grow, to expand our capacities. One of our needs as humans seems to be to become better, stronger, smarter, to be able to do and think things tomorrow that we are not able to do and think today. A comfortable prison is not enough; we need room to grow.

Coming out of that is a principle of absolute intellectual freedom. Any question may be asked, any line of inquiry may be pursued. We must be afraid of understanding too little, never of knowing too much.

Moral freedom is more limited, because our actions have an impact on the lives of others. Questions of what is right and wrong usually involve a careful assessment of an action’s impact, both positive and negative, and the various factors to be taken into account are dizzyingly numerous. But an action which has negligible negative impact, on oneself or others, is always permissible. Nothing is disallowed without an account of who it harms, and how.

I am inclined to believe that humanism is the native value of humanity, at our current stage of development. I think it’s a natural outgrowth of our sense of kin identification. While selfishness is natural to humans, absolute selfishness is actually rather difficult for us (more on that in a moment.) We tend to have a wider circle of being whose wellbeing is also profoundly important to us. Over human history, I imagine this circle has expanded from the immediate family, to the tribe, to the nation, to the entire race. It is still expanding, and I imagine that in the future it will encompass all beings with awareness, and maybe eventually all life. (Things will get fun if and when we encounter other species with our level of consciousness.)

My anti-value, the thing I most abhor philosophically, is the dehumanizing of others. To me this comes from narrowing the circle of tribal identification, saying “these people I care about, those I don’t.” Most militant ideologies have a way of dehumanizing their opponents, demoting them from the circle of “worthwhile, important, people we care about.” It happens in religious and secular movements alike, and it is one of the most evil tendencies I know of.

I am writing all this out because I am trying to place myself in the ideosphere. It is the first and fundamental part of my expression of what I believe, what I value, and what I’d like to do in the world. There will be more.