I’ve been following the various and sundry reactions on feminist blogs to the now-infamous Dove “real women” ads, and have been waiting for someone to raise the question, to me obvious, about how advertising and beauty culture affects not just the self-image of women, but also the way in which straight men relate to, understand, experience and express their own desires for women. That conversation seems to have begun….
But personal absence aside, I think I can speak for the general male experience insofar as I still have a “sense” of what’s supposed to be attractive, even if I tend to experience it negatively through a sense of “Huh. That doesn’t work for me at all”. This is what I can tell you, truly- men, especially younger men, will lie to you. They will lie their asses off, because the lies they tell about what they want is part of how they keep their sense of masculinity together. If women feel forced into a tiny range of appearance to feel desirable, then men feel forced into desiring only that small range. In public, bullshitting in a group- especially a mixed group, or a stereotypically masculinized one like a locker room- men will sing you the balled of the 18 year old blonde anorexic cheerleader, as often as not. Those who do not will think themselves daring for professing a liking for women with curves, or else will talk up one of the well-known and accepted kinks of desire- “Goth Chicks” is an old favorite.
Now you take that man out of the locker room or away from a large group of his friends, or you let him age 10 years or so in a lot of cases, you buy him some beer and you ask him again. What he will likely tell you, if he’s lucky and hasn’t totally internalized what he’s heard, is that the women he actually finds attractive are a good bit different, or at least more widespread, then the American cultural norms. Britney Spears, back before things got real bad over there, was someone most guys could agree on. Someone like that becomes the public face of male desire, the only one that can be talked about in a general sense. The public discourse on what men want becomes either the recitation of the unreachable idea of the moment, or else becomes channeled into the arid landscape of “fetish” discussion. Goth Chicks, MILF, etc. The guy you’re talking to now might have a thing for his slightly overweight, glasses-wearing coworker with that cute-as-a-button nose , who can name every episode of his favorite television show and shares his secret, shameful passion for televised rodeo. Good luck getting him to talk about THAT in front of his friends. Or a researcher. Or an advertising exec.