The answer to this one is complicated.
Some biases regarding attractiveness certainly are universal, in that they applied equally in Elizabethan England as they do today (and probably will five hundred years hence.)
Men who are tall and broad-shouldered have a natural advantage with women. Always have…probably always will.
Men have always preferred younger women, and women who have a certain hip-waist-bust ratio.
Speaking of age: In no society that I am aware of, have the elderly ever been regarded as the sexual ideal.
(Hey, I just turned fifty; so I’m not any more enthusiastic about it than you are. But it is what it is.)
The age thing probably makes sense, from an evolutionary perspective. Sexual attraction is ultimately about procreation. Older women can’t get pregnant; and a man’s ability to produce healthy offspring declines with age. If young people were naturally drawn to sexual relations with old folks, the human race would have died out eons ago.
(Twentysomething female readers who don’t wish to remain pawns of their evolutionary impulses are of course welcome to email me.)
Once you get beyond these basics, though, there is some real variation.
I watch a lot of old movies, and I’m often surprised by my reaction—or lack thereof—to female sirens of the early twentieth century.
Almost all of them, no matter how young they were when they appeared in a particular film—make me think of my grandmothers. And that’s a real libido-killer.
Consider that famous pinup of Betty Grable. You’ve seen it: the one that features Grable standing in a swimsuit with her back to the camera. She is looking mischievously over her shoulder.
It has been said that no World War II GI was without one of these. (I know that my grandfather, a World War II veteran, had a copy.)
Betty Grable was twenty-seven when she posed for that iconic shot. Put me in a time machine and take me back to 1943, and Betty Grable would consider me an old man at my present age of fifty.
And yet, the pinup photo of Grable (which so inspired men of my grandfather’s generation) does absolutely nothing for me. Even at twenty-seven, Grable strikes me as matronly.
I don’t really see much in the way of wow! feminine attractiveness until you get to the Baby Boomer generation.
This makes sense. In the early 1980s, when I was an adolescent boy discovering the existence of the opposite sex, many Baby Boomer women were still youngish, and therefore objects of fascination from afar.
(There is one group of males who are consistently attracted to older women, by the way: twelve- to fourteen year-old boys!)
I have never been prone to celebrity obsessions. By this, I don’t mean to claim that I have never been interested in women who are out of my league—but they have tended to be women in my immediate surroundings, versus women on television. When I tilt at windmills, I like the windmills to be nearby.
I do, however, recall a brief adolescent infatuation with Olivia Newton-John, one of the costars of Grease (1978). Since Olivia was a Hollywood celebrity and twenty years my senior, I recognized, even at that age, that these were foolish thoughts. But since celebrities can provide a frame of reference for discussions like this, I’ll note that I can also see some real make-my-heart-flutter beauty in Nancy Sinatra, circa 1968, and Michelle Philips, from anywhere around that time.
My ability to see attractiveness in the young versions of Baby Boomer women (versus women of the World War II generation) makes a certain amount of sense from a cultural perspective, too. My world very much overlapped with the world of the Baby Boomers. When I was an adolescent, Baby Boomers defined youth culture.
Virtually all of the celebrities of my youth were Baby Boomers. So were the female sex symbols: Farrah Fawcett, Jacklyn Smith, Bo Derek.
(I recall seeing my first copy of Playboy at the tender age of eleven, in 1979. The centerfold model of that issue would have been born in the 1950s—making her a Baby Boomer.)
Now I’m going through beauty-standard culture shock from the opposite perspective. To me, there is no aesthetic tragedy to equal the young woman who turns her body into a canvas of gaudy tattoos and ridiculous piercings.
Yes, I said “gaudy” and I said “ridiculous”. Almost all men in my age group feel the same way. For that matter, I strongly suspect that many Millennial men share this opinion, but are hesitant to openly express it.
Slightly below tattoos and piercings on the “what was she thinking?” scale are breast implants. Whenever I see a young woman with breast implants, I think of the strippers in one of the scenes from Bada Bing in The Sopranos.
Where the female body is concerned, I have an unapologetic preference for the “natural” look.
I’ve also noticed that young Millennial women tend to vary more widely in weight and physical fitness than their predecessors. When I was a young man, it was somewhat rare to see a young woman who was either super-fit or noticeably overweight. (It was the same with males, I should note.)
Generation Y, however, has both more couch potatoes and more gym rats. The result is that most Millennial women tend to strike me as either jaw-dropping, centerfold-attractive…or not very appealing at all.
I will acknowledge a certain chauvinism here in addressing only the female side of the coin. But this is a personal essay—not a broad-ranging academic paper. And so the perspective is personal.
I’m sure that what women find attractive has changed, too, since the early twentieth century. Think about this: In the mid-1980s, most male sex symbols wore mullets (though nobody called them that back then).
I’ll leave that piece for a heterosexual woman to write. As a heterosexual man, I’ve always paid a lot more attention to the distaff side of things. Please keep that in mind as you compose your hate mail.
Beauty standards will continue to change, I’m sure—even as some factors remain constant.
Looking back at my own high school yearbook, I’m struck by how much standards of feminine beauty have changed in a mere thirty-five years…
But I’m going to keep those particular observations to myself. At least a few of my former high school classmates have been known to frequent this blog.
I can handle hate mail from anonymous folks on the Internet…but not from people I’ve known for thirty-five years.