The Allure of the Beautiful Woman Who Doesn’t Know She’s Beautiful

You’ve probably heard this song:

You’re insecure,
Don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
Don’t need make-up
To cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

Everyone else in the room can see it,
Everyone else but you

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see,
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know
You don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

This is “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction and it exemplifies some common attitudes about women and beauty. While this song makes it a lot more explicit than you’ll see it elsewhere (that’s why I bolded that part), this trope comes up all the time in film, television, literature, and music (is there a TVTropes page for this? There should be). Something about beautiful women who don’t realize how beautiful they are seems to appeal to many men. But why?

I think there are a few things potentially going on here:

First, being unaware of one’s beauty could be a marker for “innocence,” “purity,” or “virginity.”

A woman who doesn’t realize she’s beautiful is a woman who’s not experienced enough in love and sex to have been told otherwise. She doesn’t understand her own sex appeal. She doesn’t yet realize that her beauty can be used to control, manipulate, and ensnare men (remember, this is one of the dominant cultural narratives we have about what women’s beauty is “for”).

Of course, some inexperienced women are aware of their beauty and some experienced women are not. However, I think that insecurity is often read as innocence by many people when it comes to women and beauty (unless of course, the woman is not considered beautiful by conventional standards).

Second, for a woman, being unaware of your beauty means that you are not confident, cocky, or narcissistic.

Men and women face different pressures when it comes to communicating and performing confidence. Women must be humble and self-effacing (“Oh, me? I’m nothing special.”) while men must be confident and sure of themselves. Neither gets that good of a deal, really: while women have to perform a sort of humility that will inevitably feel fake to many, men have to perform a sort of confidence that they don’t always feel, either.

None of this means that there’s no such thing as “too humble” for a woman or “too cocky” for a man. There are. But the social costs of them differ from the social costs of being too cocky as a woman or too humble as a man. Women who are “too” confident (which often means women with a reasonable, healthy level of confidence) are disliked much more than men who are “too” confident (which is more likely to mean men who are truly unpleasantly full of themselves). Men who are “too” humble or insecure (which often means men with a reasonable, healthy level of humility or insecurity) are disliked much more than women who are “too” humble or insecure (which is more likely to mean women who are truly extremely insecure).

With beauty specifically, women end up in a weird double bind. Women must be beautiful, but they must not be confident. So they must play up their beauty while denying having done so and while claiming outwardly that they’re not actually beautiful. The subject of One Direction’s infamous song may very well know how beautiful she is, but she gives off a good enough impression of not knowing that she’s managed to attract the singer anyway.

Third, being painfully insecure makes you a damsel for the guy to ride in and save.

A woman who doesn’t realize how beautiful she is isn’t just an innocent and non-threatening partner; she’s also a project. She’s “broken” and needs to be “fixed” by making her “finally see” how beautiful she truly is.

I think many people, not just men, conceptualize relationships as a sort of mutual repair job. They think that their love will “make” their partner recover from a mental illness, stop drinking and partying so much, stop chasing others, realize they want marriage and kids after all, get a job, become more sexually open-minded, convert to the proper religion, recover from past trauma, or any number of other improvements. Although the repair job isn’t always mutual, it often is: people also want to depend on their partner to fix their faults for them in turn.

It would take another post to explain everything that I think is wrong with this approach to relationships, but I’ll just leave it at this: it’s codependent. It presumes that your partner needs you to fix them, and it abdicates responsibility for fixing yourself.

I have known many, many sweet and generous guys who have fallen into this trap with women, particularly women who were insecure, from difficult family situations, and/or suffering from mental illnesses. Although the concept of saving “damsels in distress” is certainly a patriarchal concept, that doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of the men who do it are somehow bad people. That’s just how they’ve learned to “do” relationships.

I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with helping a partner improve themselves somehow, but this has to be 1) mutually acknowledged and agreed upon by both people, 2) free of any emotional manipulation or pressure, and 3) the icing on the cake of a relationship that’s premised on something other than that–shared interests, mutual respect, great sex, similar visions for life and the future, or whatever else matters to you and sustains a relationship. If your entire relationship is based on trying to fix someone, one of two things will probably happen: 1) you’ll succeed in fixing them and realize that the only thing keeping you together was the repair job; or 2) you’ll fail at fixing them and become extremely frustrated because you premised your entire sense of self-worth as a partner on your ability to fix someone else’s problems–problems that are deep-seeded, complex, tenacious, and probably in need of attention from a mental health professional.

The type of attraction that’s going on in this One Direction song is, therefore, unlikely to lead to any healthy and mutually satisfying relationship. Most likely, the girl in the song will finally see what everyone else sees and will lose her appeal to the singer because she’ll no longer be innocent, humble, and in need of help. Relationships like this also have a huge potential for abuse, because the person doing the fixing can say, “You’re never going to find anyone who loves you like I do” or “Nobody but me could ever be attracted to you.” In fact, these are things that abusers often say. A slightly less abusive but still extremely manipulative possibility is that the person doing the fixing implies, directly or indirectly, that the person being fixed can’t do it on their own.

The qualities we admire and find attractive in people do not, in fact, appeal to us simply because of our own immutable “natural” tendencies with which we are endowed by genes or early childhood experiences, although these probably play a role. If you spend your life hearing from every possible source that confident women are unattractive while confident men are attractive, that’s probably what you’re going to think unless you challenge your own beliefs. But there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who don’t know they’re beautiful (however you define “beautiful”), and there’s nothing inherently attractive about women who do know they’re beautiful.

What you find attractive says more about you than it does about the person you find attractive, because it’s an indicator of your own values and beliefs about people and how they ought to be. Should people be confident and unapologetic about who they are and what they like about themselves?

I think so.

Is All Pickup Advice Sexist?

I was reading an article that started out with the question, “Is all pickup advice sexist?” So of course I immediately started thinking about that. (I proceeded to write the following without having read the rest of the article, and when I did go back and read it, I realized that I and its author basically agree on everything. I love it when that happens.)

If you’re unfamiliar with pickup advice/pickup artists/the seduction community, it generally refers to advice targeted at straight men who would like to meet and “pick up” women for casual sex. For a less charitable explanation, see this Twitter account that collects actual quotes from pickup forums.

I don’t know if all pickup advice is sexist because I am a skeptic and I would need to either review all pickup advice or see a large representative sample of it to come to a conclusion, and that’s impossible. However, I think I can offer three reasons for why pickup advice so often tends toward sexism.

First, pickup advice is meant to be generic; i.e. “here’s how to pick up chicks” or at least “here’s how to pick up this subtype of chicks.” There’s no way to give advice on how to “pick up” an individual person because, well, people are extremely different. So pickup advice must by necessity use stereotypes and generalizations as its basis, and because all you know about your “target” is that she is a woman, the advice uses stereotypes and generalizations about women and what women like and how women’s sexuality works.

But there is no such thing as What Women Like or How Women’s Sexuality Works. Assuming that there is is sexist. And while pickup artists may still pay lip service to the fact that there are some minute differences among women, the entire thing is predicated on the notion that there are “tricks” and “techniques” you can use to “get” women.

(And that’s not even getting into the coercive and rapey elements of pickup advice.)

Second, pickup advice is, for the most part, not focused on establishing a relationship or a one-night stand or anything else that takes the needs and desires of both partners into account. Pickup advice may grant that you shouldn’t do things women explicitly say they don’t want (sometimes), but the emphasis is still on the man getting what he wants from the woman, not on having a sexual experience in which both partners have equal agency. The age-old notion of men dictating the terms and boundaries of a sexual encounter is, needless to say, also sexist.

Even when these types of advice suggest ways to please women, the emphasis tends to be on establishing yourself as Everything She Needs and a Manly Man, not on helping someone with sexual desires of her own fulfill them and feel good.

Finally, when pickup advice does center on things the guy can do to improve himself and how he comes across to others, the advice tends to center on “faking” things, exaggerating stories, and performing a certain stereotypical version of masculinity. It does not focus on genuine self-improvement, on the things that most people will tell you help make you more appealing as a partner: having real interests, being curious about the people you meet, working on developing your confidence in yourself (yes, it’s a process!), having good hygiene (guys, you wouldn’t believe how much more this matters than being “attractive”), and so on.

In this way, pickup advice is sexist because it presumes that women can be tricked into sex with cheap ruses, and because it presumes that the only way for a man to be attractive is to perform stereotypical masculinity.

Many people defend pickup advice as occasionally legitimate “self-help” for men looking to make themselves more attractive to women. I do think there are decent men in the community, and decent bits of advice. However, my take on this view is that genuine “self-help” when it comes to dating should not focus on “picking up” women; it should focus on becoming the sort of person who is ready to be a respectful, attentive, and consent-conscious partner, whether it’s just for a random one-night stand or for a serious relationship.

A big part of this that I would like to stress to any man considering pickup advice is that if everything about you screams “WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES,” I promise you that women will stay far away. Being lonely and sexually frustrated is extremely difficult, yes. It’s even more difficult to maintain a positive, open attitude both about yourself and about your potential partners when you feel this way. But it’s important to work on developing this sort of attitude before you try to find partners*.

If you become this sort of person and you put yourself in situations where you are likely to meet people who are similar enough to you to be interested in you, you will be infinitely more successful than someone who reads every single pickup guide in the galaxy and then heads out to bars and plies women with alcohol.

~~~

*That’s not to say that people with insecurities can never get laid or get into relationships, of course. But there’s a fine line between insecurity and WAHHH CHICKS NEVER WANNA FUCK ME I HATE ALL THESE FUCKING BITCHES.

*Edit* OOPS I FORGOT A REALLY IMPORTANT FOURTH REASON. Here we go.

Pickup advice is predicated on traditional gender roles; namely, that 1) that men are the pursuers and women the pursued and 2) that men want sex more than women, who must be “persuaded” into “giving it up.”

In this way, actually, pickup artists and feminists agree on one thing: many women are unwilling to have casual sex. But they take this premise in two very different directions. Feminists argue that the problem is culture and socialization: women are taught that casual sex makes them bad and dirty, but even women who escape this sort of upbringing must deal with the social consequences of having casual sex, which leads many of them to avoid it even if they do really want it.

Pickup artists, on the other hand, often couch their observations of human behavior in evolutionary-psychological terms and view their techniques as ways to circumvent the ways in which women are “wired.” Or they claim that women who say they don’t want casual sex aren’t “being honest with themselves” and that sort of B.S.. (I’m now reminding myself once again to write an article about how creepy it is when people say things like that.)