Beauty is in the Eye Of the Beholder, Unless You Write For Slate

Okay, so we’ve all had the thought: She’s gorgeous, and he’s a paunchy, middle-aged, boring, middle-management type. What in the name of little puppies are they doing together?! Or conversely, he’s as attractive as Tom Cruise was before the whole Scientology/couch jumping thing, and she’s got a face like a dish rag. Why oh why is life so cruel as to take him off the market?

One woman thinks she has the answer, and has spelled it out in a Quora piece on Slate.  I have read this piece by Gayle Laakmann McDowell more than once, and I honestly cannot decide if she’s mocking the whole question, or if she’s mind-blowingly serious. 

Her premise is that there are four ways a relationship can be made: Attractive M with attractive W, unattractive M with attractive W, unattractive M with unattractive W, or attractive M with unattractive W, and that our perception of attractive people always marrying unattractive people is a problem of, well, our perception.

If this leaves you confused, you’re not alone. First, her premise does not even approach the scientific. It is not just that she posits a world where only heterosexual marriages exist, and people are divided up simply by attractiveness and gender — it’s that she completely dismisses non-physical factors that weigh into someone’s attractiveness.  The second-to-last sentence of her article is a study in how to offend basically everyone on the planet: “In other words, either gays and polygamous people are ruining everything, attractive men just don't get married as often, OR this is all in your head / has something to do with your standards of attractiveness.” Seriously? Seriously.

I don’t entirely get the whole Quora thing, except that it seems like there’s a place for people to ask questions, and then Slate picks the questions and picks an ‘expert’ to answer them. Usually, I’ve found that these articles are interesting and informative, though they are basically puff pieces. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little puff. 

But why did this particular article get published? In order to answer the question of “Why are attractive women always marrying unattractive men?” (the title of the piece), McDowell (or really anyone with fingers and a keyboard) could have typed the final part of her second-to-last sentence: “This is all in your head/has something to do with your standards of attractiveness.” That’s it. That’s the answer. No need to come up with a confusing graph or color-coded quasi-mathematical nonsense. Attractiveness is subjective, and unless you’re the one in love, you have no way of knowing what one person sees in another.

I speak from experience. I’m not classically beautiful, or even pretty. On my best days I’m exotic, and on my worst simply odd-looking. And I’ve dated plenty of men who were odd looking, plenty of others who were gorgeous, and the one I married (and divorced) was the most physically beautiful person I’ve ever come across. They all had one thing in common: They were all brilliant. I love intelligence, and after that the rest is just window dressing. 

One reason I fight for equality is that this is a conversation best left to one’s best friends, after the breakup, over some ice cream (to activate another female stereotype). If you want to express that you don’t know what you saw in a guy, if you want to tell your friends that they could have done better, then okay, fine. But this isn’t a societal malady that needs to be fixed. It’s a personal thing that’s best kept out of the public eye. What people do with their own spouses is their own business, and if attractive women marry unattractive men, who on earth cares? If McDowell was aiming for satire, she missed, and if she was serious, then I just don’t know where to even start, except by lamenting what this world is coming to.

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Rebecca Gibson

Rebecca Gibson is graduating from Brandeis University with an MA in Women's and Gender Studies and Anthropology. Her major interests include LGBTQ rights, Victorian corsetry, osteology, archaeology, and marriage equality. She has taught, edited, and written for various university publications.

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