Not a day goes by it seems when one isn’t bombarded in the media with advice about what men want in a woman or what women want in a man. This seemingly tireless pursuit only exists because it sells magazines or advertising space, one assumes, which means it must still be popular by the public. In a more recent manifestation, Upworthy ran an article based on the findings of a dating website called ‘What’s Your Price’, that found the most searched for terms by men (men? How do they know?) are:
- Blonde hair
- Blue eyes
- Slender body
- Social drinker
- Graduate degree
No surprise there you might think, (although I am rather suspect of the term ‘slender body’, who uses that way to describe the female form these days?) The terms describe a traditionally beautiful woman, that’s what all men really want right? Well, not according to my research, which admittedly was with 20 dating men and 10 Pick up Artists, so a lot less than 100,000, but as I undertook in depth 60-100 min interviews with each man, (rather than just look just at basic search terms) I was able to look more closely at what each man said, something that is paramount if you want to get past the rather predictable responses above.
When I asked men what they looked for in a woman or do describe a perfect partner, interestingly all of the 20 dating men and half of the Pick up Artists, did the complete opposite of the above study and answered in terms of personality traits they looked for. Only when prompted did these men mention looks (and they weren’t afraid in the rest of the interviews to declare their fondness of female beauty).
When asked about what physical attributes they looked for it was also interesting to see how much men varied and how few of them wanted such a stereotypical woman as described about. Lots of men liked women who were outside of the idealised woman description, and many did not in fact have a fixed favoured type of beauty they looked for at all.
So why such a difference between the two studies? Could it simply come down to the numbers of men being so much larger in the What’s Your Price study? Well, I think it is important to remember that how and who you ask questions to (or observe the behaviour of). The above site ‘s name “What’s Your Price” might give us a clue, it is a site where men bid money on dates with women, so it is fair to say, not a typical dating site in which the aim is likely to be to actually interact with women, especially in the long term. It is redolent (I haven’t had a chance to check it out in detail yet) of the culture that goes along with Pick Up Artistry (PUAs), where men learn semi-scientific tricks to try to improve their chances with women. I studied PUAs and I found the culture to be more one of homosocial than dating importance, on balance. Men were grouping themselves together in order to feel more confident about women’s power over them in the dating sphere by forming communities that (inadvertently sometimes) enable men to share their insecurities. In other words, bidding or training isn’t winning, that requires women’s consent. Note the need to bid against other men on the dating site.
What was really interesting about my study, and what I think is really key to understanding the What’s Your Price? study is that when men were asked what they thought their male friends looked for in a woman, their answers were far more stereotypical, just like the list above. This was the case regardless of whether or not they shared such tastes with them. This is because I believe, men, just like women exist in a culture where they are taught that such a traditional beauty ideal is what they ought to like and when they don’t they – importantly – see themselves at odds with other men. They are the odd one out.
This was true even though they pretty much all differed from the stereotypical taste, yet due to such a culture, did not get to learn that this was the case, especially when men are not often encouraged to discuss such things with male peers. The gap between what men see as normal masculinity and what they see themselves to be may well be huge and the discrepancy between the two, something experienced on their own.
This is another good reason not to assume men’s behaviour and words are easy to interpret and that such stereotypes (or studies based on them) truly offer any insight. If men are split in such fundamental ways, we need to talk to them in depth, not rely on data gleaned from distant and impersonal sources such as search terms. After all, does that study look at what types of men are attracted to such out of the ordinary dating sites? (They seem happy to generalise), or that their searches may be more to do with their own identity, their homosocial relations, rather than just straightforwardly about their tastes in women?
Men are actually much more interesting than that.