We’ve all had it hammered into our brains. The unrealistically gorgeous women on magazine covers are collectively demoralizing females around the world. The latest issue of Glamour comes out and a fresh batch of ladies’ self-images deflate like balloons unsuccessfully tied. It’s sad, but it’s also old news.
The potential new news, courtesy of an MU researcher, is that these images might be damaging men too. According to a press release, Jennifer Aubrey, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science, has conducted an experiment, which suggests as much.
Aubrey's study divided male participants into three groups. The first group was shown photos of sexually "ideal" females. The second group was shown photos of sexually "ideal" males, and the third group looked at “appearance-neutral layouts,” such as pages filled with gadgets and film trivia.
Aubrey found the males were not made to feel self-conscious by viewing the neutral images and were, amazingly, made to feel even less self-conscious by viewing the pictures of steamy hunks. The subjects were, however, made to feel more insecure by viewing the sexy ladies.
Based on these results, Aubrey “speculated that the exposure to objectified females increased self-consciousness because men are reminded that in order to be sexually or romantically involved with a woman of similar attractiveness, they need to conform to strict appearance standards.”
It is certainly believable (and I have yet to find a male acquaintance to contradict her hypothesis) that men are made to feel more self-conscious when confronted with a gorgeous woman than a handsome gent. But we are to understand that this is because of how “strict” their appearance standards are? Poppycock. Compared to women's standards of desirability, “strict” is the last adjective we should be using to describe men’s standards.
I submit the very scientific evidence of the two magazines — Vogue and GQ — currently lying on my bathroom floor. On the front of the female fashion rag stands actress Keira Knightley, svelte and sultry with her twiggy arms and shiny clothes. On the cover of GQ stands comedic actor Seth Rogen, disarming and rather plain with his gray suit, unwieldy curly hair and chubby cheeks.
Keira Knightley topped FHM’s “100 Sexiest Women in the World” list in recent years and won a healthy 28th place in 2008. She dates models and famous actors, and the world salivates when she tosses her hair. Her place on the cover of Vogue and what that signifies about the world’s version of the ideal woman (skinny legs, pretty face, pouty lips, etc.) are fairly axiomatic.
Rogen perhaps best explains the very different situation signified by his placement on the cover of GQ in his following lines from The 40 Year Old Virgin: “Look at me: looks are not important. Really look at me. I am ugly…by traditional standards, but I get with women. Aren't you curious as to how that's possible?”
I’ll take that one.
Men have a plethora of ways to get a good-looking woman. Their potential in the dating world is governed, like our fine country, by a meritocracy. A man can fall short of "traditional standards" of attractiveness (handsome face, straight teeth, abs you could do laundry on, etc.) and still get the attentions of the most beautiful woman in the room and/or be on the cover of the world’s most fashionable men’s magazine by being hilarious or supremely intelligent or fantastically talented.
This is not to say that such success is a foregone conclusion, but it is at least possible. Indeed, it has happened enough to inspire its own pop culture terminology, presumably only used by men who are both unattractive and charmless, of “Ugly Boyfriend Syndrome." (Couples often cited as exhibiting symptoms of UBS are Christina Aguilera and Jordan Bratman, and Seal and Heidi Klum.)
The dating potential of women, alternatively, is governed by a unyielding classist hand. A lady may be born into greatness by having gorgeous genes, but there is little, if any, merit-based mobilization in the strata of pretty princesses and homely peasants. I dare someone to find me the fat, plain woman who was so funny that a male model threw himself at her feet. There is essentially one appearance standard for women; that’s what “strict” means.
This is not to suggest that one's success, in the dating world or otherwise, should be or could be entirely gauged by the aesthetic attractiveness of their partner. This is meant to suggest that women usually have a tougher time feeling good about themselves and/or their prospects because of these double standards.
But that is, alas, arguably beyond the reaches of Aubrey's study.
Perhaps the most interesting point we can take away from her experiment, wherein male subjects were made to feel more self-conscious by the equivalents of blank pieces of paper than photos of male models, is that men really and truly can’t tell whether other men are attractive. And here I always thought they were just too stubborn to admit it.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She recently moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.