What’s better than sex? Maybe writing about sex. Sex and Our City is a special week-long series that looks for questions and answers about love and sex in our city.
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Before heading out for a night of dancing at El Convento Rico, a friend shared two things: a bottle of wine and a story about his high school days. Years ago, a male schoolmate had got into trouble with the girls when he had mentioned his fondness for blonde women with large breasts. The girls were furious that he was perpetuating a negative stereotype of what made a woman attractive. The friend—also male—defended his schoolmate because he believed that it was the boy’s choice whom he found attractive: it wasn’t that other types of women were unattractive, but that buxom blondes were his type.
Although you can’t fault someone for being attracted to one thing or another—aren’t we all—it’s easy to see the point of the women. They were afraid that attraction was too narrowly and unrealistically defined, shutting out the majority of women.
It’s well noted that our tastes have changed over the decades. While a more curvy woman like Marilyn Monroe was—and still is—a sex symbol, our tastes now run thinner. (You could probably fit both Posh and Brit in Marilyn, but neither in her shoes.) It’s got so bad that Dove has profited stupendously with Campaign For Real Beauty, which featured flawless women of different ages, races, and sizes. If a marketing campaign is trying to shape our definition of beauty, then how much leeway is there to overwrite who we like? Attraction: nature or nurture?
Science has tried to figure out the numbers behind attraction. One measure of attractiveness can be the waist-hip ratio (WHR), the ratio between the circumferences of the waist and the hip. WHRs of 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men have been suggested to be a proxy for health and fertility. In addition to body shape, facial symmetry has also been studied as a key to attractiveness, potentially as a sign of a high quality genetics.
Photo by lamkevin from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
What science probably won’t figure out is the long list of things that we are individually attracted or not attracted to. One person’s dream can be another person’s nightmare. It’s perfect then to use personal ads as a petri dish for our desires. People are constantly being asked what their ideal is and who they want to meet. Given how picky people can be with their coffees, you can imagine what people are like online. It’s usually some variation of “I’m not picky, but all I really want is someone my age who is funny, smart, fit, stable, over six feet, handsome, and with freckles that are in the shape of Jesus from afar.” To be fair, those are the rules of the game: to be as choosy or not choosy as you’d like. No one says he or she is out there, but you’re free to hope for him or her.
But all is not right in the land of Winks and Smiles. Imagine the surprise when a small percentage of profiles (in men looking for men) listed what they didn’t want: no fatties, no baldies, and no Asians. Huh? You can lose some weight and get some plugs, but how can someone change his or her race? The words sat on the profile page and was a reminder of a phrase so outdated, who would have figured it to reappear: no coloureds. We can claim many features as attractive or unattractive, but can we consider a whole race unattractive?
In bars, it’s easy to overhear judgements all the time: we judge a person’s height, weight, hair colour, clothing, and, yes, sometimes people dismiss a whole race: “She doesn’t date black guys” or “He would never go out with an Asian girl.” And it’s not always a “us versus them” scenario: some people tend to exclusively date outside of their race as a rebellion to their childhood. Science can explain body shape and facial features that are appealing, but can it explain a whole race being unattractive?
Photo by William Self from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
A study done in the United Kingdom suggests that babies are unable to differentiate between race from birth, but by three-months-old start to recognize their own race more. The authors note, however, that a baby continually exposed to different races loses the other-race bias. Could the fact that minorities are, well, minorities then play into their lessened inherent attractiveness? If so, at what point does preference become prejudice?
When asked, a friend who had basically dated everyone out of a Benetton ad thought it was more of a nurture thing as well. He credited not being raised to think of other races as different in a negative way, which led him to not think of race when dating. In the end, he said, what attracted him were specific personality traits in people rather than skin colour. A bonus for him was getting to know about their heritages and the different backgrounds they came from—isn’t that part of the advantage of living in a city as diverse as Toronto?
We may not be able to explain all the nuances of why we are attracted to certain people, but how we pursue that attraction is more important. It may all come down to a state of mind: there’s a big difference between a mention of whom we like rather than an emphasis on whom we dislike. (It’s impossible to state that you will never find someone of a particular race attractive.) While it’s obvious that who we are attracted to reveals a lot about ourselves, sometimes what we uncover isn’t so attractive.