Adjusting Our Contrast
Poor Michael Levine. Ever since his article “Why I Hate Beauty” appeared on Alternet, he’s been the subject of snide remarks and derision in certain circles.
In essence, he claims that because of a mix of his job in public relations, his home in L.A., mass media and what’s called the contrast effect, he’s unable to be attracted to the kind of ordinary, attainable women who might a. give him the time of day and b. actually care about him over the long run.
Is he right?
He might be. The contrast effect is well known in advertising, which makes piles of money for itself and its clients by creating a basis for comparison designed to make Joe and Josephine Average insecure enough to buy stuff they don’t need. That’s pretty much what it boils down to. Large chunks of our economy run on the contrast effect.
So yes, seeing five hot, nubile women for every average women is likely to throw a man’s internal thermostat off somewhat, and it’s likely to be worse the more such women he’s around. Levine has a point. Living in L.A. is going to skew your perceptions, whether it’s cars, houses, clothing or mates. Even not living in L.A. but watching its residents on television has skewed the perceptions of the those who develop body dysmorphic disorders and eating disorders. What Levine is talking about is the same phenomenon, just from a different angle.
Is this really biology? Only kind of. Sure, if you skew your exposure toward the hottest, most beautiful women, average women are going to look a little drab by comparison. It’s also possible, though, to change our own context. Making average look ugly is, according to Levine’s own article, a matter of watching Charlie’s Angels before a date. Probably not a good move if you want to be predisposed to like the girl.
But you can also make average look attractive by decreasing exposure to the exceptional. Again, as Levine himself points out, putting an average-looking woman in a room full of women less attractive than she increases her perceived desirability. It’s all about adjusting your contrast.
If Levine’s theory holds, and if he changes his environment to increase the ratio of ordinary to hot, his sexual attraction should eventually shift to the sort who are more likely to say yes if he asks them out. At the very least, he’ll have more women to choose from, as far more are ordinary than hot.
Will he do it? That’s where it gets interesting, because of course this isn’t just about personal sexual preference. It’s also about what our partner says about us to the world at large. The woman on a man’s arm speaks volumes about the kind of man he is, and while there’s a lot good to be said about a 50-year-old who is still stepping out with his 50-year-old wife, it’s not going to be along the lines of “Wow, he’s still got it!”
It’s the desire to be a wow that holds us back, and the whole thing reminds me very much of eugenics. It, too, relied heavily on various misinterpretations of biology and evolution, and it was ruthless in drawing the line between the superior and inferior man. According to Alexis Carrel, mentor to Charles Lindbergh and a vocal proponent of eugenics, the world was “already encumbered by those who should be dead: the weak, the diseased and the fools.” Also known as the masses, the hoi polloi and the common folks.
So who wants to be in that group? Show of hands? Maybe not? But what if you’re an otherwise ordinary person, the kind of guy who works for models, actors and rich folks instead of being one? How can you stand apart?
By being attracted only to the very best, whether it’s reciprocated or not. He’s not average; his “type” of woman proves it. Why should he settle, especially if his sense of self-worth is derived mostly from his tastes?
This, actually, is the very impulse that keeps us watching the commercial, buying the magazines and otherwise participating in this. We don’t want to be at the middle of the heap. It looks so much better at the top, and the job of the advertisers is to convince us that if we buy certain products or engage in certain behaviors, we can get close enough so that it counts. Peppering the ads with the hottest members of the opposite sex is the bait. Pssst! Hey! Want sex with guys like this? Buy our mascara! It’s a kind of self-inflicted emotional eugenics, both as seductive and dangerous as a succubus. Or incubus. Neither sex is immune.
The actions involved in changing our comparison pool are relatively simple and can even save us piles of money, and people don’t do them, because to do them is to condemn ourselves to mediocrity. Angelina Jolie? Who’s that? No, we got Mabel Smith, that girl down the street who could best be called cute, and everyone who knows us will know that that was all we thought we were worth. Boy, we still got it, eh?
So while one element of it is biology, another element is not, and there’s evidence to suggest that biology can be changed. The brain is a remarkably dynamic organ, actually altering its structure as we learn. According to developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, in an interview in the May 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “The brain remains quite plastic until we die. We’re lifelong learners.”
Can we re-learn attraction? Again, to a large extent, we can choose our images, and we do choose our images. Our decision to go for beefcake, amateur or vintage porn is a choice. We choose our television. We choose what we do with our leisure time. We even choose where we work out, whether it’s the hottest gym or the community center. We choose what we pull off the magazine rack. These actions are how we create our context, and context is a large part of what we consider attractive.
Michael Levine, by his own admission, is hoist on his own petard here. Short of changing jobs and moving, he’s stuck with a this chronic discontent. Interestingly enough, a study he cited found that a lot of high school and college teachers are in the same boat. Surrounded by adolescents, our culture’s current apex of beauty, they are at higher risk for divorce than other teachers, and less likely to remarry.
Most of us, though, are living and working in less glamorous or pubescent settings, so our tolerances are likely to be different. Still, it’s worth considering what our tolerances are and how they’re related to our happiness. If we’re unable to get it on with anything less than a 9, the pool of potential mates has just gone down dramatically.
Some say that attraction is not a choice, and Levine seems to be hinting at that. He can’t, after all, help it. He is as he is, and given his setting, he’s screwed. His loneliness is biologically determined, and there is no cure.
For himself, he may be right, but I’ve heard differently from other men, men who have stated quite clearly that being attracted to the hottest girls was a phase they went through, and that their rational brain was able to kick in and kick them in the head, so to speak. Granted, these men weren’t living in L.A. They were, like me, from the Midwest, which isn’t exactly known as a Mecca of hotness. The contrast between the women on TV and the women at the grocery store is so great that something has to give.
Even here, though, it’s hard, because even if you do your best not to compare the opposite sex to the outrageous examples seen in mass media, you’re still aware that you yourself are being compared. Disordered eating is rampant among women, with men catching up unpleasantly fast, and people are asking questions on first dates that their parents or grandparents would never have dreamed of asking. It isn’t just looks, after all, it’s also money and status. Those visions are just as desirable and just as unrealistic.
The biology is destiny argument looks appealing, perhaps as appealing as the models and actresses that go through Levine’s PR firm, but it has its dangers. One of them is complacency. If you are what you are, why lift a finger to change?
The second, more insidious danger lies in the desire to come out the superior man. Or women. I’m using archaic language, not pointing fingers at only one sex. But defining ourselves primarily or entirely by who we’re attracted to misses the point of self-worth, never mind relationships. Is being attracted only to the hottest of the hot a real accomplishment? Um…not so much.
In case you’re wondering, I have no cable or broadcast TV. I don’t read fashion magazines, either, and this isn’t a case of snobbery so much as discomfort. I’m as susceptible to the contrast effect as anyone else, and I don’t like how I feel when it kicks in.
How does Levine feel about it? Uncomfortable? Probably, because it is. The question, though, is what we choose to do about that discomfort. Advertisers bank on us going out and buying stuff in hopes of getting ourselves into a higher bracket. The toll on our bank balance is well documented. Wrecking our health is another, equally well documented, result. Do we really want to take our sex life down, too?
Changing who we’re attracted to should be a simple process, if Levine is correct about the extent to which it’s dependent on the contrast effect. All we have to do is adjust our contrast until the real world wins out over L.A.
Wanting to, however, is another story.
© 2008 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.
About the Author: Ann Regentin was introduced to erotica at a tender age, when a raid of her mother’s bookshelves netted such gems as The Perfumed Garden and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. She started writing it during her ninth grade biology class, then dropped it for about twenty years to become a musician, a college student, a cripple, a bookstore clerk, an artist, a model, a mother, a parrot rescuer, and finally a reference writer before coming full circle back to erotica.
Her stories and articles have appeared in a variety of places both online and in print, and she is a Contributing Editor at CleanSheets.com. She lives in the Midwest with her son, two parrots, and an elderly Gibson guitar.
Visit Ann Regentin at: www.annregentin.com