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What We REALLY Find Attractive


Which is more attractive: smoking, or holding an advanced degree? Based on recent studies, the answer might surprise you! Learn here why looks aren't enough to attract a potential mate.

By Jane Ganahl

was recently on a business trip to New York with two female (and single) colleagues — one who was in her late twenties, the other in her late thirties, and I'm in my (ahem) late fifties. As we got into an elevator in a skyscraper, we were joined by a mysterious man who took my breath away. He was probably in his late forties; he had shaggy graying
I gasped, "Oh my! There went my dream man!"
hair, an earring in one ear, wasn't clean-shaven, sporting a slightly paunchy middle… but with his sapphire-colored cashmere scarf wrapped around his neck, this man also looked incredibly stylish. And there was something about the devilish way his eyes twinkled when he grinned, asked us which floor we wanted, and then joked about the hellish weather outside on the ride up.

When he stepped off a few floors below us, I gasped, "Oh my! There went my dream man!" My two younger colleagues wrinkled up their noses. The youngest said, "Ewwww! He's chubby," while the other woman said, "He's a pirate, you can tell. Bad husband material."

Are we attracted to different people as our relationship goals change?
I was both incredulous… and amused. It reminded me that, during each decade of our lives, we look for different things in a romance — from someone who will share their Twinkies with us in grade school to someone who will lovingly remind us to take our meds in our Golden Years. Our differing reactions to Elevator Man made me realize that, in our twenties, women are still having fun — we're usually looking for someone who looks like Ryan Reynolds (or Scarlett Johansson) and imagining that a sexy smile and an awesome bod will make for solid companionship. And in our thirties, women get serious about finding a husband. My friend in her thirties had looked at Elevator Man, noticed his resemblance (at least in attitude) to Keith Richards, and subsequently labeled him a bad bet for either a spouse or, at minimum, a man with whom to bear a child.

I, on the other hand, actually prefer a man sporting some wrinkles and a few extra pounds (which makes it easier to ignore my own), an air of confidence, intelligence, a warm personality and an inviting grin rather than some young bad boy with six-pack abs. Although, truthfully, it wasn't always so: when I was in my twenties I married my first husband, who was a champion swimmer — gorgeous, athletic and utterly shallow. But I didn't care; so was I! And that kind of relationship worked well for us at the time. Of course, things fell apart when we both learned who we were and what we wanted — and it wasn't something that could be accomplished while we stayed married to each other.

What we've learned about attraction from online dating
The good news about being single at any age is that there are many (okay, millions) of fish in the sea. The biggest question is: how to best reel these catches in? Consider the smorgasbord of possibilities provided by the Internet. Research recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association found that 22 percent of heterosexual couples surveyed met online. No longer does it raise an eyebrow to introduce your new love interest by saying, "we met online." Where friends used to be the primary resource for meeting other eligible singles to date, researchers now believe that the Internet could soon become the number-one place for finding dates and establishing new relationships. This is why myriad studies are being made of online dating sites, which are rich with plunderable data. The goal? To discover our likes and dislikes, then use that data to analyze what attracts us to each other. Some studies appear to be the culmination of mountains of work dissecting tons of data for a result that can be summed up as: "well, obviously."

Men and women differ on defining "attractive" traits in a mate
One study coauthored by Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that men ranked a woman's attractiveness as her most important trait. Pretty superficial,
Women's ratings of what they found attractive in men were less focused on physical attributes.
right? But women are just as guilty: to them, a man's height was his most important feature. (And — contrary to one popular stereotype — income was not as important.) And what kind of physical type did men find to be the most attractive? They preferred women who were on the svelte side. Yes, the smaller the body mass index, the better. Women's ratings of what they found attractive in men were less focused on physical attributes, and their opinions diverged widely on which men were more attractive than others. It mattered not one bit if a heavier woman held advanced degrees; any education beyond a bachelor's degree did nothing to increase her desirability to men. And apparently, having fresh breath is also not a compelling factor in gauging a man's interest: a woman's smoking habit actually increases her desirability on dating sites — perhaps because men associate smoking with sexuality. Also filed under "no surprises here" is the study's data analysis showing that men tend to look for younger women to partner with, while women looked for older men; in addition, women were pickier than men were about what they were looking for in a potential mate.

Another study published in the June 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Wake Forest University psychologist Dustin Wood also found that men were very aligned in their thinking about what makes a woman attractive: a slender figure, a sense of seductiveness and projected confidence. For women, the study reinforced that assessing desirability in men is a more complex issue. Some women gave high attractiveness ratings to men whom other women said were not attractive at all. Hence, the story of Elevator Man — the one who captured my fancy, but left my two friends unimpressed. Vive le difference!

How the right photo can instantly make you seem more attractive
There are no studies that I can find about how our perceptions of attractiveness change as we age, but in some ways, online daters have quite a bit in common, regardless of their generation. Another online dating study analyzed 7,000 user photos and discovered that women get more male attention when they flirt into the camera or smile; men, on the other hand, got better responses when they looked away from the camera and didn't smile. So, I guess I'm not the only sucker for a man of mystery!


Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco's Litquake literary festival.
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