I have a complicated relationship with physical attractiveness.
Growing up a shy nerd, I’ve historically had all of the usual insecurities about my looks, and it’s only been over the past year or two I’ve come to the realization that I haven’t done as badly as I thought in the lottery of conventional attractiveness.
And yet I have mixed feelings about the idea of being attractive to someone on account of my physical appearance. My physical appearance doesn’t have all that much to do with me, really. Being with someone who’s conventionally attractive is like being with someone who has an awesome car—it can be thrilling, it can add a certain charge, at least initially, but ultimately if you’re on a road trip with someone the important thing is whether their driving is any good. I want people to be interested in my driving, not my vehicle. That’s the bit that’s really me.
When you get down to it, I don’t really understand why complimenting someone on physical appearance alone is taken any different from saying, “I find you attractive because you look like my ex”—a phrase which I imagine very few people would see as flattering. In my experience, attractiveness is all about association. We find certain body types attractive because we learn to associate them with romance and sex and fun. We’re generally more attracted to media-standard attractive people because their body types are the ones we always see in contexts that are romantic or sexy or fun.
When we see someone conventionally attractive, all those years and years of romance/sexiness/fun associations pour into our brain. By the same token, we’re often attracted to people who have similar physical types to our exes because we had time to develop those lovey/sexy associations with *their* body types. Again by the same token, we often become more and more attracted to people we know and love as time passes and we learn to make those associations with *them*. We’re attracted to body types based on the feelings we associate them with. A principle which, unfortunately, does not reflect the fact that body type and genuine romantic or sexual compatibility have basically nothing to do with each other.
I’m glad that attractiveness is also based on personality, and insomuch as it is, I really appreciate being told I’m attractive. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the reason I’ve gotten more compliments on my attractiveness lately were because I have been growing increasingly self-confident over the past few years. That bit I like. The rest, well, I won’t say I mind being told I’m physically attractive, exactly—I just mind the times when I get the impression that it’s the primary thing causing me to be attractive to someone. Because that means it’s not really about me.
Permit me a science geek moment: physical attraction is like an enzyme: it affects the activation energy of a reaction between two people, but it doesn’t have any influence on how (thermodynamically) favorable the product is. When lack of physical attraction ends up being a barrier to otherwise favorable chemistry, physical attractiveness associations are a barrier to happiness. By the same token, when extreme physical attractiveness catalyzes the sticking-your-dick-in-the-crazy reaction, physical attractiveness associations are *also* a barrier to happiness.
Fuck that noise.