What women see (and men don't)
Ever wondered why a man can look at an ad with a six-pack and laugh, while a woman might see a photo of female perfection and fall to pieces? William Leith thinks he might, finally, have resolved that most vexed of issues...
Plenty of guys have told me this story. The guy in question is preparing to go to a party with his girlfriend. She is trying on shoes and dresses. He is telling her how good she looks.
She tries on more shoes, more dresses. And then: the sudden, inexplicable meltdown. Something is horribly wrong. Now the party is out of the question.
The guy sits down. He hugs her. What's the problem? "Do you know what it was?" the guy will ask his friends later. "She said she 'didn't look right'. She felt ... I don't know. Fat. Or she was the wrong shape.
"It's all about her body," he goes on. "I told her she looked great. Which she does, right?"
At this point the other guys will say, "Yeah, she looks great", and, "I saw her the other day, wearing those shorts", and, "She is hot".
Then the first guy will say: "That's what I kept telling her. And that's when she got really upset. She said, 'You just don't understand'."
It's true: men, by and large, do not understand. In her book The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf made this point very powerfully. When a woman has a crisis of confidence about the way she looks there is nothing a man can do to console her. "Whatever he says hurts her more," says Wolf. "If he comforts her by calling the issue trivial, he doesn't understand. It isn't trivial at all.
"If he agrees with her that it's serious, even worse: he can't possibly love her, he thinks she's fat and ugly."
But it doesn't stop there, says Wolf. What if the man were to say he loves the woman just as she is -- that he loves her for her? An absolute no-no, of course, because then "he doesn't think she's beautiful". Worse still, he says he loves her because he thinks she's beautiful. There's no way out.
It seems to be, in Wolf's words, "an uninhabitable territory between the sexes". So why don't men understand? And, given a bit of education, can the situation be improved?
Well, I'm a man so let's see. When it comes to their bodies, men have a completely different attitude. I'm not saying they don't think about their bodies, or worry about them, because they do. But men relate to their bodies in a simple way. A man's body is either fine, or it's not fine. For a man, the body is a practical object.
It's a machine. Sometimes it works well, other times it needs fixing. Some guys know how to fix it, by taking up a sport or cutting down on the carbs. Some don't and go to seed.
Men see their bodies as machines because, for most of their time on this earth, they have defined themselves as hunters and protectors. They equate being attractive with being strong, fast and muscled. That's a simple concept, isn't it? And that simplicity is hard-wired into the male brain.
When his girlfriend has a meltdown and says she hates her body, that is not a simple concept. Unlike men, women do not have a simple relationship with their bodies. This is what men often don't understand.
When it comes to their bodies, women are extremely vulnerable -- and lots of people take advantage of that. This makes the situation worse. Men don't have to contend with this: the hair people, the make-up people, the fashion people, the shoe people, the bra people, the nail people, the eyelash people, the Botox people, the cosmetic surgery people, the perfume people, and the hair-removal people.
Oh, and the diet people.
Men are not at the mercy of corporate manipulation on remotely this scale. Sure, there are six-packs creeping into our field of vision every so often. And sure, this is making us feel insecure. I know -- I was fat, and it's no fun being fat, especially with all those pictures of Brad Pitt nagging away.
And then there are the adverts for Lynx, and the Reebok advert in which a man is chased around town by a big fat hairy belly.
But for men the message is very direct: buy some running shoes; go to the gym; cut down on the carbs. There is no mystery behind the veil of the adverts. You either tackle the situation or become a fat slob. End of story.
For men, the holy grail is within reach -- you just need to get fit and then you'll be fine. But the messages aimed at women are much more complex and confusing.
As American social commentator Warren Farrell has pointed out, women's magazines often contain articles about being Superwoman next to adverts about being Cinderella. That is, the words tell women how to be independent and in control, but the adverts -- where the money is -- tell them they have to be beautiful.
Farrell said this more than two decades ago, and nothing has changed. There's a solid pulse running through everything our culture aims at women: be beautiful, be beautiful, be beautiful.
But being beautiful, it turns out, is a near-impossible task. It keeps getting harder. Everybody knows that it entails being slim, and every year the ideal gets slimmer. In 1960 the average model weighed 10pc less than the average woman. Now she weighs 25pc less. Soon she will weigh 30pc less. But she doesn't have the breasts of a skinny woman -- nor, as Susie Orbach has recently pointed out, the bottom. To achieve the ideal is vanishingly impossible.
And it's getting worse. Orbach believes that we are exposed on a weekly basis to several thousand images that have been digitally manipulated. And this makes more women opt for cosmetic surgery, which moves the goalposts even farther away.
When lots of people have surgery to make themselves look more beautiful it has the effect of making everybody else feel less beautiful. And this is happening on a global scale -- in 2007, people spent €10.5bn on cosmetic surgery; the vast majority of them were women.
So, men are told they should aspire to fitness and strength, and women are told they should aspire to something more nebulous. But that still does not explain, in terms a man could understand, why the female message is so much more powerful and disturbing. It doesn't explain why a tenth of women are anorexic, why a growing number are bulimic, or why almost half of women at any given time are on a diet.
It doesn't quite explain the meltdowns, and it doesn't explain why women want to be so skinny.
It doesn't explain why, when a woman's body is perfectly attractive, she often thinks it isn't. In short, it does not explain why a man can look at an advert featuring a six-pack and laugh at it, whereas a woman might look at a picture of Gisele Bündchen and feel a sense of unease that hangs around for days.
John Updike once said that the female body is the world's prime aesthetic object -- we look at it more than we look at anything else, including landscapes, gadgets, cars. In fact, cars and gadgets are often designed to resemble the female body, and landscapes can be painted to remind us of it. When we talk about 'the nude' in art we are almost certainly referring to the female nude.
I once wrote the introduction to a book of male nudes by the photographer Rankin; it was a sequel to his previous book of female nudes. One thing struck me above all: male nudes were a much, much harder thing to portray than female ones. That's because the female body carries with it a huge weight of iconic significance -- thousands of years of being looked at.
Pictures of the female body can be profound, serious and complex. For thousands of years they have been depicted with reverence.
Now imagine having one of those bodies. It puts a bit of pressure on, doesn't it?
Now I'm beginning to see why women might be so addicted to perfection. But what started this off in the first place? Why aren't there so many airbrushed pictures of men around? And why are women so much more vulnerable to pictures of perfect bodies?
In his book The Evolution of Desire, the American psychologist David Buss goes some way towards explaining why this should be so. Since the Stone Age, he explains, men and women have had different attitudes towards sex. Men can pass on their genes with very little risk -- all they need is a fertile woman. But for women, pregnancy is incredibly risky. What women need is a man who looks like a good provider -- better still, who looks like a proven provider.
So, if he's going to settle down and stop playing the field, he wants one thing above all: a woman who looks fertile, for many years to come. In other words, he might consider being a provider and protector as long as his mate looks young and unblemished.
And now consider his mate. What does she want? Not just a good hunter and a good fighter, but a man who has a track record as a hunter and fighter. In other words, an older man. And this is not only true of Stone Age couples. In a survey conducted by Buss, 10,000 people in 37 cultures were polled. "In all 37 cultures included in the international study on choosing a mate," writes Buss, "women prefer men who are older than they are."
Since prehistoric times, women have had a hard-wired link to how they look -- it could be the difference between having a protector and not having one; between life and death, even.
For men, it's not the same at all. The odd wrinkle or grey hair doesn't matter. Hell, it might even be an advantage. As long as you're good at throwing spears and building shelters, you'll be fine.
Twenty thousand years on, what has changed? Well, as Buss points out, it's unlikely that a Stone Age man would have seen "hundreds or even dozens of attractive women in that environment".
But now, when he looks at a Playboy centrefold, he is seeing a woman who has competed with thousands of other women for the part. And it's not just centrefolds, is it? Just look at newsreaders -- mostly, it's a pretty girl and a grey-haired man. Message to men: relax. Message to women: panic!
And then there are the girl groups, the short-skirted girl on Countdown, and even the characters in the Harry Potter films, where the boys are allowed to look like geeks but the girl must look like a model.
As the art critic John Berger wrote: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations of men to women, but the relation of women to themselves." It's a tough one, isn't it?
Surely guys can understand that, at least. If it happened to us, we'd have a meltdown, too.