Fact: women are too often judged solely on their appearance, and treated differently based on how they measure up to men’s ideas of what they should look like. This much is obvious, and I’m sure the majority of us here applaud the women who stood up and continue to stand up to this offensive treatment that reduces women to just one aspect of who they are, while ignoring their many other strengths. But—there had to be a “but”—women should acknowledge that they often do the same thing to men—not based on looks as much as on our jobs, careers, and success.
Not to excuse this kind of treatment on the part of men or women, but to a certain extent it is a natural part of our evolutionary programming. Men seek out women who look well-suited to bearing and raising children, and women seek out men with wealth and power to ensure the children will prosper. Of course, we don’t think of it like this: men and women each interpret their mating preferences in terms of attractiveness. In addition, each person desires a unique combination of traits in another person, conscious preferences which may, on occasion, overwhelm our subconscious evolved desires. But those basic desires are always there and can cause problems when we think we’ve evolved socially beyond them—such as when women desire successful men even after they’ve achieved success themselves.
Want some examples? OK, I’m “happy” to oblige—one woman I was with, very successful by any measure, actively belittled and ridiculed me through most of our relationship because I didn’t make as much money as she did. (We’ll talk of her no longer. Who? That’s right. Moving on now.) Another woman I was with, also very successful, made no secret of her admiration of my accomplishments. Naturally, this was flattering at first, especially since it came after the one with she-who-shall-not-be-discussed. She would even brag to her friends—and exes—about my success and report back to me that they “approved” of me because of it—even the exes.
However, during one of my all-too-frequent periods of doubt concerning my path in life and how my job fit into it, I asked her if her feelings would change if I decided to cut back on work, perhaps to change careers altogether. There was an uncomfortable silence, after which she said, “Let me think about it for a minute.” Nnnnnh, wrong answer, thanks for playing—but it did let me know that she placed far too much value on my career and success and not enough on the characteristics for which I wanted to be valued.
It was as if I told this woman that I wouldn’t love her if she lost her incredible beauty or her wonderful figure. Such a statement would have wrongfully reduced her to just her looks, neglecting all her other positive qualities (including her own success)—just as her statement reduced me to my job title and my publication record. In time, that relationship ended, and only much later did I realize how much pressure she had put on me regarding my job; even though, to be fair, she may have sincerely thought she was being encouraging and supportive.
I would even hazard a guess—actually, a well-considered theory, but I’m not one to brag—that this problem intensifies as a woman becomes more successful. Bear with me, please; in no way do I mean to begrudge women the success in the workplace for which they have fought so hard for decades. Most of the women with whom I have been involved have been successful, intelligent, and confident, and I was more than willing to acknowledge and celebrate this. But that never seemed enough—they also needed me to succeed as well, even to surpass their own success.
To give them the benefit of the doubt, this was likely not a conscious reaction; their unconscious evolutionary programming told them to find a more successful man even though they were successful and independent themselves. Some professional women simply don’t realize the effect this has on the men they’re with, so they don’t know to fight their evolved preference, recently made redundant by their own increasing status in the workplace.
I freely admit, I’m one of them; I’ve had many crushes on women who work in restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, you name it. Many professional women I’ve known—including the ex I mention above—seem offended that the men with whom they work would be attracted to “average” women when there were many more accomplished women all around them. They seem to imply that successful women have “earned” a greater claim to men’s attentions than the less successful women have.
They suspect—in some cases correctly, I’m sure—that these men are intimidated by strong women who might challenge them, or that they cling to outmoded gender roles by which they have to be the primary if not sole providers. But that misses the greater point—two of them, in fact. First, men don’t really care how successful a woman is; we’re primed to seek out physically attractive women, and although we may consciously seek out other things (such as kindness and intelligence), wealth and power are not high up on the list. So successful women don’t have any extra appeal for us—much less a greater “claim” on our attention—by virtue of their success.
Second, working class women aren’t as concerned with our success as their professional counterparts are, as long as we make decent money and can support them (and any kids that come along). And since they focus less on our careers and success, working class women can be more concerned with who we really are, which can be tremendously gratifying. They’re more interested in our character—will we treat them well, be faithful to them, and help raise their children. Successful jobs help, of course, but as long as a man does well enough, they’re satisfied, and they can turn their attention to more valuable things. And that can be a huge relief, especially to men who face enough career pressure at work, and dream of coming home to a woman who won’t add to it.
As men, we don’t discount the appeal of professional women out of insecurity or jealousy—believe me, most of us admire women who fought tremendous odds to succeed—but because of how they often see us. Just as women rightly want to be valued for more than their looks, we men want to be appreciated for more than our job titles, resumes, or salaries—and many of us feel that working women are more likely to see us for who we are, not for what we’ve done or how much we make.
Even the most successful man wants a woman to see him as a good man first.
This essay was originally posted on The Good Men Project.
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