On women “competing for male attention”

A whole thread on LP about the social insecurities that lead to the cosmetic surgery makeover culture has been derailed by some men who are insisting on reframing it as women’s individual sexual insecurities about their looks, and how if women could only understand that the men in their personal lives don’t care whether they have surgery or not then the problem would go away. There was also a lamentable zeroing in on fringe procedures such as labioplasty with an obvious sexual relations component instead of the most common procedures such as breast enhancements and face-lifts, which are rather more complex.

There was a growing tone of Those silly women! They just can’t get it through their heads what men really want, so they waste their money on unnecessary surgery!

Now, I’m as big an opponent of the cosmetic surgery industry as the next feminist, so don’t take this as in any way defending or supporting makeover surgery in principle, nonetheless I do want to defend the women undertaking cosmetic surgery from the accusations that their decision is (a) pure consumerism, (b) solely based on personal vanity, and (the big one) (c) stupidly misunderstanding what males want from their personal sexual partners.

There is a fundamental disconnect on (c). If the women are getting surgery even when the men in their personal lives don’t want them to, then perhaps, oh just perhaps, the reason they want surgery has nothing to do with their personal relationships and everything to do with other aspects of their lives. Fancy, women have goals in life beyond their personal sexual relationships!

As to (a) and (b): the sad fact is, for women, especially young women, social status and “looks” go hand in hand. “Sexy” gains social attention, women who aren’t “sexy” (whether naturally or deliberately) are socially invisible, unless they have a powerful husband/father/patron. (A very few exceptional women prove this rule – have some fun in comments naming the ones you know.)

As our society rewards people largely based on whether men pay attention to them or not, this means that women feel compelled to include “looking sexy” in their social calculus: being overlooked and ignored is social (and most crucially, socioeconomic) death. Actual sexual relationships are only a minor consideration. Yet way too many men persist in believing that female competition for male attention is primarily a sexual competition based on individual anxieties about finding/keeping a man.

I reproduce my comment (responding to a rant responding to an exasperated critique from another poster) on LP below:

you seem to be extrapolating an awful lot of extra baggage from PC pointing out that your proffered panacea of “sensitive partnering” to make a large-breasted woman forgo surgery for a condition that causes chronic pain is condescending crap, and that there are indeed many ways that women view their breasts that have nothing to do with men. I also don’t see where PC is defending the conspicuous consumption aspects of cosmetic surgery – it’s possible to have a negative view of both the cosmetic surgery industry and of your comments in this thread.

If you don’t want to get challenged for writing condescending crap, then don’t write it.

Looking good, looking “sexy” even, is not all about women doing it for the menz, or about actual sex. Indeed, as many other men say, many/most of you certainly don’t demand that women surgically alter their bodies. The problem is that this disconnect gets framed as women being confused about what men really want (the silly dears) – do you guys really think that women don’t understand that the actual men who like them personally don’t really want them to go under the knife? More condescending crap.

From the book review that Kim urged everybody to go and read:

And more and more, plastic surgery is viewed by both surgeons and patients as an investment in the future, a way of keeping one’s major asset in the new global and flexible economy: one’s youthful look. Looking tired, showing one’s advancing age does not play well in the new labor market. Experience no longer matters as much as it used to. However, what matters is being flexible, being able to embrace change positively (Who moved my cheese!!). One is more likely to convey such notions through surgically enhanced looks. After [all], we all know since Goffman, that impression management is a crucial interactional dynamic.

The celebrity culture has made a certain youthful look socially desirable (verging on mandatory), and if one doesn’t attempt to look sexy in middle and even old age one is denigrated for letting oneself go, no matter whether one wants to attract the opposite sex or not. Women over 25 know this well: if one don’t groom oneself to look at least a little “sexy” then one will be ignored entirely by most men in a room, even in a workplace situation, even when one is the team-leader. That’s not a very good way to get a further promotion, even if one wouldn’t want to shag one of those male co-workers for a million bucks. (This mandatory youthfulness is starting to hit men now, too).

It would be really nice if we could lift the focus above alleged purely sexual insecurities and look instead at the social insecurities that Kim emphasised in the post.

The social insecurities are of course fostered, nurtured and exacerbated by those who make money selling products to fix those flaws which are holding one back from social success (only part of which is about getting laid). There’s of course a wide range of threads to untangle there, but the framework on which it is all laid is social approval, and whose social approval has the cachet to convey broader social acceptance when it is seen to be conferred.

Which leads me to the following –

Proposition: women seeking male attention socially is often less to do with attracting a potential sexual mate than it has to do with avoiding the social humiliation of being entirely ignored by men.


Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, media, medicine, technology

Tags: , , , , ,

36 replies

  1. Very interesting post! This perspective from the whole “looking sexy” topic is almost never presented, so I really appreciate it.
    As a sidenote, there is a tendency to frame social problems as mere “individual choices”, but this would be going a bit too far with the discussion.
    Mary Tracy9s last blog post..Your Ego!

  2. As a sidenote, there is a tendency to frame social problems as mere “individual choices”, but this would be going a bit too far with the discussion.

    I dunno, reckon that’s a crucial part of the failure of a lot of what passes for gender role analysis.

  3. I love you I love you I love you!!! Struck momentarily mute by my admiration…more later

  4. “Individual choices” my hat. What about the well-documented phenomenon of men buying their wives/girlfriends breast implants as a “gift”?

  5. The individual choice analysis meshes with those ingroup/outgroup distinctions people make whereby my/our behaviour is seen more as a response to situational factors whereas your/their behaviour is seen as largely determined by intrinsic factors. Having made that distinction you can then ignore the social determiners and proceed straight to woman blaming, yay!. If only women weren’t so vain/consumerist/understood want men really want/just lost some weight….ad infinitum. Rinse, repeat for breastfeeding ‘choices’ and anywhere where women are simultaneously chided for doing it wrong while living in a society which punishes them no matter what they ‘choose’.

  6. Yes! And to identify how the social humiliation works: the attention given by men to women establishes ranking systems among women in the eyes not only of men but women, including individual friendships.
    I remember at high school having a ‘friend’ tell me in a faux ‘you-poor-thing’ tone that the sociallly dominant male in our friends group had declared he hoped he wasn’t in my class because I was hard to talk to. This wasn’t exactly surprising given that while most of the girls in the group flirted with him and (appeared to) agree with everything he said, I didn’t flirt and frequently voiced disagreement. To her, this was clearly social death and for a few moments I too felt a bit bereft, until I suddenly remembered ‘hang on, that guy’s a jerk!’. But even as she communicated I should feel bad about it, there was a palpable sense of relief/pleasure that she wasn’t in ‘my position’. Furthermore, it was very clear that because he didn’t approve of me, she no longer approved of me either.

  7. Your post is great, and I love its focus on the commodification of the human body, but the thing that really stood out for me was that someone can use “prove the rule” correctly! You rock!

  8. My perspective on cosmetic surgery has changed significantly as I’ve gotten older. Now that I’m a 40-something with sagging breasts and a few wrinkles I’m starting to feel the pressure to appear “youthful” myself. While no one has actually said to me that I should get a boob lift or botox injections, every time I hear or read mockery of the appearance of celebrities, that’s part of the message. Every time a group of dude starts talking about the hotness of a young 20-something, that’s part of the message. Every time I turn on the TV and get bombarded with commercials telling me how much younger and sexier I should make myself, that’s part of the message. When people pay more attention to me when I’m made up and wearing “flattering” clothing, that’s part of the message. And I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that some men who are actively part of a culture that glorifies younger women are disgusted by women who go beyond cosmetics and get surgery, but it does piss me off. Because the ultimate message seems to be that no matter what, unless you are young and “naturally” attractive you are doing it wrong.
    Peggys last blog post..Ice Stories

  9. Yeah, gotta love that part. Whether the preference is for the long-legged “boyish” body type, the “real woman” curves or the stereotypical exaggerated hourglass, the expectation is a body that is unusual to impossible – but natural, of course, or you’re reviled for being pathetic cutting yourself up. Hell, women should be made up and coiffed but not spend too long in the bathroom, wear lovely clothes but able to play around with the boys (oh yeah, that often works in stereotypically feminine clothing), and best of all be slim but eat shit food. God I’m glad I’ve pretty much avoided that in my personal life.
    The objections to breast reduction always made me see red, and the breakdown of how ridiculous it is to frame beauty ideals and surgery as an individual problem is something I’ve never thought about until you spelt it out. Thanks for that, it’s a really good point – another one of those things that make you uncomfortable without being able to articulate why in my case.

  10. Really interesting “proposition”: I have no complaints.
    It also encapsulates the idea that oftentimes women don’t do it for a partner, but for her marketability (as you mention…investing in their future–gross). Women know that usually their partners don’t care that they fit any oppressive beauty ideal, but know how much their social value is indeed tied up in their appearance.
    I’ve said before that women don’t do these things because they’re stupid, thay’re actually all too smart about the way society thinks of women.

  11. The thread at LP has now exploded. Pointing out that women might just not be stupid and whorish for (a) noticing that men scorn them if they are not “sexy” not just as potential partners, but in all aspects of life, and (b) deciding that surgical enhancement is a valid way to decrease the scorn? Well, this makes the feminists on that thread the Leftist-ideals-betraying fascist vanguard of consumerism and capitalist exploitation of the proletariat.
    Of course we’d rather that women rejected the oppression of the unrealistic beauty ideal instead, but they’re not letting us get to that point because they’re so busy calling women stupid for even thinking that there is an oppressive beauty ideal.

  12. Great comments tigtog.
    Reading the rest of that thread makes me despair. Don’t know if some of the commenters can’t or won’t get it but clearly a couple have left good-faith argument behind and are just being entitled jerks.
    I especially like the guy whose idea of an argument is ‘my girlfriend snerk snerk sneer’, holding her views up as universal while at the same time rejecting those of female commenters on ‘it’s just your opinion’ grounds.

  13. You have distilled this perfectly. Your proposition is the perfect synthesis of what I see as the valid constative statements made on that thread – mostly made by female commenters from a feminist perspective, I should add.
    As I suggested on the thread, I think the other side of this is that stating an androcentric position – even to ostensibly reflect on ‘how it is’ in a male-dominated society – can also be performative, it can create the very situation it purports to ‘describe’.

  14. Perfect post, perfect comments. Absolute pleasure to read.

  15. If ‘sensitive partnering’ was the panacea to women’s body image issues, very few women would be getting the ‘mom job’ post baby surgery that apparently all the rage at the moment.
    Normally I like to post at LP and this thread would be right up my alley, but its waaaaay out of hand so I have just been reading and shaking my head, but credos to you Tigtog for continuing to fight the good fight even in the face of being accused of ‘Leftist-ideals-betraying fascist vanguard of consumerism and capitalist exploitation of the proletariat'(!)

  16. (when I say ‘post’ at LP I am refering to posting comments)

  17. Your proposition is right on. As Su noted, though, you’re fucked no matter what you “choose”. If you’re not ignored by men for being unnattractive, you’re dismissed as unprofessional for being attractive. Not only is there no real choice (particularly if you naturally fall outside of the ever-changing, conflicting beauty standards by, say, being too poor to afford them, too brown, too disabled, too fat, etc, etc), the “choices” are presented as individual when they are actually required for every woman.

  18. I have just read the thread again and its now up to 164 comments. And Tigtog you are still being patient with those who seem to be wilfully misreading your comments. BTW I thought that your ‘rant’ at 100 was reasonable under very trying circumstances.

  19. Thanks, Rayedish. I’m glad I had a very busy day yesterday which largely kept me away from that thread.

  20. As Su noted, though, you’re fucked no matter what you “choose”. If you’re not ignored by men for being unnattractive, you’re dismissed as unprofessional for being attractive.

    Too true, redblossom. There hasn’t been the opportunity to get to discussing that side of the coin, but that’s another large part of why some women want breast reductions – because if one has large breasts one is simply not taken seriously in any way, as if they’ve only grown that large through feeding on one’s brain-cells. I’ve lived that before my own reduction surgery.

  21. I think maybe it was somewhere on the LP thread that a guy said no-one talks more about breasts than women – he’s heard his girlfriend and her friends…but wow. I have large breasts, and they’re the first thing to enter a room and I’ve spent my life since 17 pasting a polite smile to my face while they’re discussed in group settings, drooled over, commented on, leered at, compared in size and shape to other breasts etc, make me the butt of jokes/ the basis of all kinds of assumptions, referred to vaguely in work settings, at home, by friends and family and strangers. At nearly 32 my breasts are mentioned to me frequently and are still a topic of conversation on at least a weekly basis as well as being the reason I can’t fit into all kinds of clothes. Is it surprising then that I would feel a need to think about them/ponder them/discuss them? Does that mean that I can’t have an issue with other people’s fixation on them? That if I discuss them I don’t get to object when the standard pick up line I hear is “nice tits”?? That if I end up concerned about them after a lifetime of experiencing them being the thing people notice about me more than anything else I am somehow *enabling* this obsession?
    I also think it’s cool of you to mention your own reduction. It’s something I’ve thought about but the potential pain/lack of sensation fear has stopped me contemplating it too seriously…is it a decision you’ve been happy with?

  22. Certainly from the point of view of no more constant pain between the shoulder blades! My breasts were heavy enough that my sensation had already been compromised by the stretching tissues, but my surgeon used a technique that kept the nerves intact and retained what sensation I still had left. My back pain was drastically alleviated as soon as I awoke from surgery, despite the pain from the incisions (which was significant, but painkillers were my friends). The surgery is though, as Pavlov’s Cat mentioned over at LP, sheer butchery and the convalescence time is significant – no driving for six weeks, not even with power steering, no lifting of anything heavier than a plate or cup for the same period.
    I have a diary of my reduction over at my Older Writings archive.

  23. P.S. it was basically my fear of premature osteoarthritis due to the weight of my breasts distorting my spine that eventually moved me to surgery. I’d almost blanked out the chronic pain, and the day I booked the surgery there was a huge surge, as if I suddenly allowed myself to feel just how much it really did hurt and how much it had hurt for a long time. Also I’d had/nursed my kids already, so the prospect of losing that ability didn’t faze me (although the intact pedicle surgery I underwent means that it should have still been possible, actually).

  24. Great post. Very clear. Quite a bit of the time on the LP post I’ve found myself annoyed by certain male commentators, but also with a tiny amount of sympathy, because I haven’t understood what Kim and some of the other women have been saying. That does not at all justify the responses of course.
    However, this is abundantly clear and quite helpful.

  25. Thanks, FS. I thought your post asked some good questions, too.

  26. G’day Tigtog and all, i missed the lp thread mentioned as i avoid all mention of BB as far as possible, i plead working in residential units with adolecsents in its early years.
    i will have a go at your proposition tho.
    why does it hae to have any thing to do with social humiliation, aoiding it or otherwise. granted many groups of men will resond to the presence of women in a manner that will appear ostrasizing, but i think that that response has a lot to do with their own self esteem and uncertainty regarding the roles available to them in the modern world. i think that men often turn to sex, both the act and the conversational mannerisms, as it is one of the few clear roles that they have left.
    it wouldn’t surprise me that some women seek to aviod social humiliation by socialising with men, ’cause lots of people male and female do so, i wouldn’t back it as a desirable strategy tho.
    Most masculine purpose as it was explianed to me as a young boy in the sixties consisted of, grow up strong so as to be a good provider, ready to fight for your land and flag, prepare yourself for the double act of being respectful of God’s Police and damning of the whore. these roles do not exist any more. If i can paraphrase Nora Ephron, from somewhere about 72 or 3, most boys now could do a much better job of looking like girl than Huck Finn, the way we sit, throw, catch, even look at our nails has in so many ways converged.
    oh and i’m not aiming brick batts at “feminism” for the loss of those certainties and roles, I’d much rather give credit to Capitalism in both its market and state forms.
    I got to go, the Hbomb is awake. interesting after 18 months of being the carer, she still calls for mum, when she wakes.

  27. “If i can paraphrase Nora Ephron, from somewhere about 72 or 3″
    found it
    ‘it was in pulling our own strings’ G Kaufman and MK Blakely, eds and, i kid you not, its called “a few words about breasts”
    the Huck Finn refference has been running around in my head for years. now i guess i know why.

  28. I’m not sure I understand your comments dwylah. This post is about the effects of society on women and their bodily image/their bodily choices/their bodily pressures.
    So even if men act in certain ways for certain reasons, that does not lessen the fact that women who don’t *play the fame* and perform *femininity* adequately, women who don’t conform to stereotypical *beauty* do get ignored by men. Those who do perform it well enough often have their words/ideas ignored in favour of various permutations of “I’d tap that”.
    It does not undermine the fact that the pressures on women to maintain/attain a virtually unobtainable ideal of youth and bland generic *beauty* are huge, and gendered. A woman is valued primarily for her decorative abilities, a man is valued for his: sense of humour, his uncanny restraint in not raping and murdering, his fondness of a random baby, his job, his extracurricular skills, his eyes, his haircut, his voice, his hands…yes, his looks are a *part* of it, but in v different ways – age and aging for instance is not a barrier to a male being considered sexy, and a range of different *types* of men are considered sexy and for various reasons. If a man is not conventionally attractive, he can *rescue* this and still be sexy by way of a gravelly voice/ musical ability/ being a *nice guy*/ being arrogant/ being skilled at his job/ dressing well. A conventionally unattractive woman is roundly scorned as an *ugly dog* (see discussions of stars without makeup…and this is conventionally attractive women, just not glammed to the hilt), and looks going either way a woman’s opinion is worth little, woman’s presence is ignored in business meetings, attractive women=stupid women, unattractive=disgusting and bitter so why listen anyway.
    There are massive issues with the “roles available” to men today – just as there are the “roles available” to women. Look at the media, career women=ballbreakers, hard working mums/wives=shrews, young *attractive* women=sluts (“Share one with a friend” as in the Guiness fake ad). I’m not trying to turn this into a competition…
    But feminism is trying to open up new roles, for women and for men. Feminism understands that men’s roles are damaging, TO EVERYONE, to women/men/children. They fight for changes to that. In the meantime, this stuff about body image is real, so regardless of male motivations/self esteem, it is both about feeling respected and loved and worthy and attractive to partners male and female within a society that spits you out if you are not 18, petite and utterly unblemished, and also that there are other social and economic pressures on women that are not undermined in any way by recourse to “they act that way because they’re insecure”.
    And finally (and please, I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, it’s not directed at you, but at the *self esteem* defence in general) where are the men fighting against the limitations of those roles? MRAs in general seem to be rallying to defend them to the death. It’s feminists (male and female) that are saying, look, this shit damages us all, can’t we please talk about new possibilities? And part of that is discussing the problems and pain of how things are now.

  29. Fair call fuckpolitness,
    it is not very good is it. I was trying to have a go at the proposition:-
    “Proposition: women seeking male attention socially is often less to do with attracting a potential sexual mate than it has to do with avoiding the social humiliation of being entirely ignored by men.”
    rather than discuss body image, even then . . . oh well better luck next time.
    Sorry it has taken me so long to answer, I tried to answer most of what you raised, but there was a lot. I would like to say that rather than receive plaudits for caring for random children men have been more praised for the violence that they have inflicted upon the young, from Plutarch’s lauding of Spartan pedagogy, to the obscene profits of those industrialists that have exploited child labour and even Churchill’s claim that the war was won on the playing fields of that brutal institution Eton.
    Re Body image, the thing it reminds me most of is the near obsessive approach to housework foisted upon women in the aftermath of WWII. Better commentators than me have addressed the process and effects on women of the pressure to be a good housewife. For me the most evocative is Marianne Faithful’s ballad of Lucy Jordan. Is that depiction of the treadmill of housework so different to the treadmills and exercise machines of the gym. Even the songs supposedly unattainable fantasy of the sports car is still present.

  30. I just wanted to point out that looking younger isn’t a benefit necessarily. I’m a small girl – I have a boyish frame and I think due to the fact that I’ve been vegan/vegetarian for almost half of my life and because I don’t wear make-up – my face looks very young. People do not give you respect when you look really young – in fact, they treat you rather insignificant. The descrimination I get all the time is insane! If I want to go and buy some beers (I’m 27 btw) – sometimes my legal ID is denied, just because I appear to be more like 16. It’s so humiliating to sit there, having some lady (for some reason, only women have done this to me) telling you that there is no way that your ID is real.
    I guess the only other thing I want to add is that even if a woman has higher purposes for having cosmetic surgery (and I’m not talking about transexuals or people with body dysmorphia dissorder etc – those are completely different issues) – does it change the fact that cosmetic surgery is superficial? Does it make it any better that they aren’t seeking out male attention? And, how is it a benefit to society when people go and get breast enlargements just to get a promotion? Doesn’t it only reinforce this idea that physical appearence must be important, that women, are yet again, reduced to their chest and aren’t uplifted to what their minds are capable of? Aren’t people who are doing this making it harder for the people who are happy enough to love their “imperfections”? And that is sincerely my concern – that women like me, who can’t even fit into an A – cup bra will all be getting breast implants because they think that small breasts are hideous. I mean, who decided small breasts are ugly? Certainly it wasn’t men because I’ve met and known many men who prefer small breasts (or are indifferent to breasts altogether) and I can’t help but think it’s cosmetic surgery companies that are “selling” us this idea that big boobs are better and that painted on masks are better. I mean – just the other day my sister was saying she wouldn’t breast feed her children because she’s afraid her boobs would shrink (nevermimd how she was insulting my breasts) because that’s what happened to our mother. Women are willing to give up what’s best for their children, just for vanity reasons and I will NEVER understand that perspective fully. I mean, I get it, society has brainwashed her but it still doesn’t make sense. No other species of animals would give up their childrens’ best interest over a boob or even a male of their species… And humans think they are more rational than other animals! ha!

  31. there’s ignoring and there’s ‘ignoring’, I think. I’d actually be grateful for a little of the first once in a while.So tired of assessments of how physically ‘acceptable’or ‘not acceptable’ I am to whoever I am dealing with at the time.
    I’m 42, not hugely attractive and as as sole parent I dress down – I don’t tend to spend large amounts of money on clothes, and the clothes I do buy are practical.
    I find I still get ‘attention’, but it often comes in the form of a deliberate snub. there’s an acknowledgment – a slight one – and then a turning away. To me it feels calculated, a way of informing me where my place is in the hierarchy.
    I also still get groped on the train. When does that end? At fifty? sixty? seventy? Do these men never tire of the look of disgust and distress on a woman’s face?
    – though I look at the level of attention my 18 year old gets – the majority of it unwanted – and feel grateful that it has lessened somewhat for me. She walks down the street and mouths – literally – fall open. Men drool.Shamelessly. Isn’t this just bad manners? She and I have been having a coffee together sometimes and aggressive middle-aged men that are far closer to her father’s age than hers come up and speak to her, deliberately trying to exclude me. If I speak, I get clear non verbal messages – they try and compete with me for her attention,sit or stand in a way that pushes me to one side, they interrupt when I speak, once one man even said “who asked you?” when i objected to him interrupting our time together.
    My daughter is intimidated by this and tends to go very quiet. If anyone speaks up it has to be me, and it invariably ends with a scene, which makes me feel uncomfortable.
    and yes, I’m probably adding to their pressure to pursue eternal youth. my favourite term of abuse is ‘mangy old carcase’ and I really do hope they go home in the mirror and agonise over it.
    I think of it more as a battle – between a aggressive attempt to sideline me because I’m not young and pretty, and about me (tediously) having to make myself obnoxious in order to communicate.

  32. Awesomepawsome, I have some bad news for your sister. Whether she feeds her children or not, gravity and age will still have their effects on her boobs. She should enjoy the cleavage enhancingness of breastfeeding while she can (if she would otherwise feed her children if not concerned about her breast shape that is).


  1. Friday Hoyden: Joy Nash at Hoyden About Town
  2. My week of reading « Fuck Politeness
  3. More Olympic Grumping « Fuck Politeness
%d bloggers like this: