Hey Hot Stuff: On Attraction, Desirability, and "Types"
I have a thing for Vincent Price.
I don't just mean that I enjoy his body of work. I mean I feel desire for his body.
You may be asking what, exactly, my feelings for a deceased horror icon have to do with the work we do at Scarleteen. The answer is that it gets me thinking about desire and how even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened can fall into old traps when it comes to attraction.
Because I've been puzzling over why, whenever I make the above confession, I feel like the kid revealing a deep dark secret at a sleepover during a game of truth or dare. I'm an adult, and a sex educator to boot. I should know that desire is a weird, nebulous creature. So why am I sheepish about my feelings? A part of it is, I'm not just attracted to young, matinee idol Price. I'm attracted more to older Price, who often looks downright odd in his movies. But even that doesn't get at the core of the matter.
I started to think back to middle school, to the years when many of us first discover that we feel the desire to get sexy with other people. I remember the teen magazines I read, which frequently featured lists of "the 50 cutest celebrities." I would also read copies of Maxim (ironically, I did in fact read them for the articles). Those had "hot lists" as well, and while the tone was decidedly different than what you'd find in my copies of YM, they had similar goals. They were forming, in my mind and many others, an idea of what an attractive person looked like. They told us what traits made someone worth drooling over. The unspoken parts of those articles were, of course, that there were traits (or the absence of traits) that weren't drool-worthy.
Others on our site, including the marvelous Cassandra, have discussed the effects of feeling as though your race, or size, or other physical traits puts you into the category of unattractive or unlovable. So it's not unreasonable to say that constantly categorizing what's hot and what's not has real world consequences for many, many people.
As we age, frequent run-ins with lists, and shows, and goodness knows what else that divide the world into "sexy" and "ugly" means we start to treat certain traits as "naturally" more attractive than others (sometimes we use pseudo science to back these categories up with. The average evolutionary biologist bangs their head into a desk when these theories are mentioned).
But we ignore the fact that these categories are often the result of a feedback loop. We grow up seeing certain features presented as beautiful, so when it comes time for us to give our opinion about who the sexiest person alive is, we look for those features. True, there is some evolution over time about what "attractive" is, but even if we go back fifty or sixty years it isn't that different.
This brings me, in a roundabout way, to the concept of types. I find the idea of "having a type," of there being only certain traits of groups of traits that you find sexy, kind of odd. As I wrote here, lust and attraction are tricky beasts, and any attempt to corral them into an organized system strikes me as ultimately pretty pointless. And yet I frequently tease others, and poke fun at myself, about having a type. It's a playful reference to our own tendencies and quirks. Plus, I think many of us like the idea of a type because it helps us make sense out of the attractions and desires we experience.
But a big downside of types is that they all too often tip into gross territory. A classic example is white men who have "yellow fever" and find Asian women desirable because they view them as being more submissive and docile than women of other ethnicities. They define themselves as having a type (Asian women). But that categorization, aside from being founded in racist stereotypes, is based on treating Asian women as interchangeable and predictable, which is dehumanizing. It reduces them down to parts, rather than acknowledging them as people. So I am leery of an expression of desire that's "I like x person because they belong to Y group, and everyone knows Y group always behaves Z way."
There's also an aspect of types that plays into the idea of the one true beauty. We use having a type as an explanation for why our desires deviate from what's expected of us. We say we like women with glasses, we like short men, we like people with curves. And more often than not, that statement seems closer to an explanation than a declaration. Like we're justifying why we're attracted to the short, chubby, fuzzy guy rather than the blond dude with the six-pack. No one has to justify being attracted to the super-fit blond because we assume there's nothing extraordinary in finding them sexy. We understand that our desire does not fit with what's considered "normal",so we toss out a "yeah, it's weird, but hey, they're my type." Instead of owning them, we treat our types as some sort of force beyond our control, pulling us away from the natural path of desire.
This tendency is frustrating, because discussions of "types" can get at just how wonderfully varied our desires are. It offers up a counterpoint to the idea that some people are just inherently sexier than others. It reminds us that there is no one true appearance that is attractive to everybody. And, it brings in to focus the fact that everyone has something about them that makes them somebodies type, and that can be a comforting thought if you're feeling down about your body.
I ultimately believe that we should shift the conversation away from "everyone is beautiful" and towards "it doesn't matter if people think you're beautiful" I don't believe that we can solve all social ills by realizing that everyone is attractive. But most of us still like feeling desirable. It can be a confidence booster, or a balm on an otherwise bad day, and it can be damn hard to achieve if we feel as though we're outside of that "attractive" box. So many of us, especially when we're young, could stand to hear that desire and attraction are not nearly as narrow as the lists in magazines make them seem.