Sometimes it's necessary to feel ashamed of yourself.
This unpleasant epiphany came to me when I came across a Dustin Hoffman interview in which the Academy Award-winning actor discussed his experience preparing for the 1982 cross-dressing comedy Tootsie. As he described the studio's attempts to make him look like a convincing woman, he recalled his shock at being told that no matter how realistic they might make him appear, they would never be able to make him look beautiful. After all, Hoffman had assumed that if he was going to be a woman, he would naturally be an interesting woman, and as such should be as beautiful as possible. When the deeper implications of his female alter ego's inability to transcend the limitations of her physical appearance settled in, he came to an upsetting realization:
"I think I am an interesting woman when I look at myself on screen. And I know that if I met myself at a party, I would never talk to that character because she doesn’t fulfill physically the demands that we’re brought up to think women have to have in order to ask them out... There’s too many interesting women I have … not had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.”
Naturally my initial response was to be impressed with Hoffman's insight. Like most politically and socially progressive men, I strongly sympathize with the precepts of feminism, all of which revolve around the belief that women should be defined by the content of their characters rather than by the strictures of socially-imposed gender roles. Because women are taught from a young age that their social value depends on their physical attractiveness — indeed, that "hot" women are hierarchically superior to those who are only pretty or average, with unattractive women being condemned to social invisibility or the status of a walking punchline — I wasn't surprised that a renowned character actor would be so shaken upon being able to relate to his character's struggles with this issue. In a sense, Hoffman simply reinforced through his visceral experience what Mary Wollstonecraft sagely explained to the world more than two centuries ago, that "taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."
And that, normally, would have been the closing point of this article. Like every other columnist, I would have plugged all of the necessary variables into the trusty pundit's formula and then sent my piece off for publication, fully confident that I had done my own small part to advocate a cause I believed was right.
Then I had an introspective moment. A pesky, inconvenient, deeply unsettling introspective moment.
First I reflected on the women in my past and my reasons for being with them. Even as I've sneered at men who brag about their sexual conquests as if women were mere ornaments to be hung from boughs, could I honestly say that my own motivations had been that much different? How many women had I pursued primarily because I thought they were "hot" or, even worse, because my subconscious ego would be gratified by the knowledge that society had designated them as "hot"? How many had I ruled out as romantic and/or sexual partners simply because they failed to meet those aforementioned standards that Hoffman aptly referred to as society's "physical demands"? If the women I'd been with had looked like the ones I had turned down and vice versa, would I have still made the same decisions? Would those memories that I savor or cherish from my personal life lose their luster if the other party hadn't looked a certain way? Are there memories I'll never have simply because I only knew how to look and never figured out how to see?
It is tempting to excuse any potential past superficialities by arguing that it's "only human nature," but that can only go so far. While we can't control what we find physically attractive on a basic level, we can choose the extent to which we allow physical attraction to determine how we manage our personal lives. What's more, it's disingenuous to argue that the sexual ideals lauded by men today are entirely the result of their own biological programming. Given the innumerable studies which prove that women base their perceptions of their own beauty on external influences (such as mass media and peer influence), it stands to reason that men are similarly likely to deem certain types of women "attractive" and "unattractive" based less on their inherent preferences than on social pressure. Certainly the sense of social status men derive from being involved with attractive women is based far more on social norms than actual sexual inclination.
My thoughts wandered further, past the realms of love and sex which had reflexively (and tellingly) come up first when I pondered these questions. I began to think about the women with whom I interact every day as a matter of course, from complete strangers and colleagues to various professionals and even friends. How many times have I casually affixed the label of "fat woman" or "masculine woman" or "old woman" to someone - rarely using those actual words, mind you, but shuffling them into those categories nonetheless - without even realizing it? What's worse, how often have I done it while realizing it? Even when my opinions haven't been negative, how often have I reduced a woman's entire identity to a collection of her most superficial parts?
Maddeningly, I ultimately found that I was unable to come up with definitive answers to any of those questions. Like most people, I am constantly torn between the part of my ego that wishes to only think the best of myself and the part of my soul that always assumes the worst, leaving little room for objective self-assessments. My hunch is that I probably lie somewhere in the middle. I know for sure that there are women I have loved, and love, who would have captured my heart regardless of how they looked. Likewise, I know that there are women I have prejudged based on their appearance and pursued/spurned accordingly. Finally, just as I am proud of the moments when my better angels have prevailed, I am ashamed of the moments when I've succumbed to my worst instincts.
I don't think this shame is a bad thing. Indeed, I would recommend that every man who reads this article ask himself questions similar to the ones I used during my own introspective moment. Hell, even the women should try this on for size, since male objectification — while not even remotely as pervasive or devastating as female objectification — is still quite prevalent.
I don't think a single person can honestly claim to have not been guilty of the kind of superficiality Hoffman uncovered in himself. While I won't claim to know all the ways this problem can be solved, I do know that a healthy sense of shame is a good place to start. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it best, "Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit."