This doesn’t mean, of course, that slender women aren’t attractive, or that all of men’s sexual preferences are simply about trying to win approval from other guys. Yet as Alice Randall, Joe Tex, and Sir Mix-a-Lot all remind us, what men want has at least as much to do with culture as with biology. In the black community, Randall suggests, those expectations about male desire have encouraged female obesity; among middle-class whites, expectations about what men want play at least a strong supporting role in women’s destructive pursuit of thinness. No, it’s not all “men’s fault.” But men are hardly innocent bystanders either. As the anecdote about Jennifer Fink’s six year-old makes painfully clear, what guys are taught to find attractive drives their desire at least as much as does their evolutionary hardwiring.
I remember it vividly: I was standing in Spencer’s Gifts with a couple friends, all of us maybe seventeen or eighteen, flipping through the Iron Maiden and Metallica posters. Brian S. stopped on a poster of some swimsuit model with an appreciative “Oooh!” and a leer. I chimed in with my guttural agreement. And right there, at that second, I had a weird feeling of self-consciousness, a clear realization that I didn’t, in fact, think that the scantily-clad blonde bimbo was attractive at all. I was just playing a role I’d learned to play, not even one that had ever been explicitly taught to me. It was more like something you absorb through cultural osmosis.
I went to a club, you know, a “boom, boom, boom,” like a club. And I’m standing there, looking at all the people, and there are the hot chicks. The hot girl at the bar. You know, when you see them, she’s a hot girl at the bar. She’s got the shirt and the skirt and the boots, those three lines, just like some perfect ratio that they hit with those three lines, and you– [frustrated grunt] And they’re all standing there like that.
And I used to look at somebody like that and, “Wow, she’s an angel. What could I ever say to make her like me?” Now I look at her, and I’m like, “What is that? Is that even a person? What the fuck kind of person is that? Is that an identity, even? Who would want to be that?”
I have two daughters. I pray they don’t grow up to be the, “ehh,” the hot girl at the bar. What kind of–“Hey, what do you do?” “Uhh, people wanna fuck me!”
— Louis C.K.
Maybe I’d seen enough music videos, commercials and movies to have internalized what a “sexy” woman looked like, and how guys were expected to react when they saw her. I probably saw older, cooler guys at school act a certain way toward girls who fit the profile. And, of course, it’s understood that only a fag wouldn’t thump his chest while howling and gibbering at a sexy girl. You’re not a fag, are you, kid? You like girls, doncha?
So of course a lot of what guys profess to find sexy is nothing but their habitual response to Pavlovian bells. “Sexy” images are associated with acceptance as much as fulfilled desire.