Can an Unattractive Person Be Attractive?
all kinds of bodies can be attractive, but not all bodies can be attractive
We have a new controversy of a kind that crops up more and more often. It’s the kind that seems incredibly tired right from the beginning, where the various players take their places and dutifully recite their parts. The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which in defiance of all logic still exists, has chosen new cover models. One of them is Yumi Nu, a fuller-figured model, someone who once would not have been considered viable for that venue. Some conservatives, predictably, are big mad about it, including Jordan Peterson. Inevitably, and with a real sense of the eternal recurrence of modern political cycles, the body positivity crowd has rushed to Nu’s defense.
Personally, I think Nu is attractive, and there’s also going to be conventionally hot and thin models in that magazine, and Sports Illustrated is a fucking relic anyway and who cares. You’d think the Google Image search would have immediately mooted the swimsuit issue, but apparently not. Anyway, I can’t imagine occupying the headspace where I got mad about which unobtainable model is on the cover of a magazine, even if I didn’t think Nu was good-looking. (Then again, the people attacking Peterson are also playing right into his game.) What I do think this argument shows is a certain confused manner of thinking about attractiveness which has cropped up since we decided that literally every arena in human experience needs to be “socially just.”
Consider Ashley Graham, another full-figured model who has posed for the swimsuit issue. (Whether Graham qualifies as a plus-sized model or not is apparently a matter of controversy, and I’m staying away.) While Graham is heavier than most models traditionally have been, she’s also very beautiful. I love her body, but even aside from the elasticity of what’s attractive in a women’s body she has the face of… well, of an internationally-celebrated model, which she is. I’m certainly not the first to make this point, but that’s not any more “realistic” than a wafer-thin model is. It’s not any more approachable. It’s not any more achievable, for the average woman. And so the question is, what is the feminist value of this supposed embrace of different body types if you’re still highlighting women whose looks are unachievable for almost everyone? How is “you should judge yourself against Ashley Graham’s beautiful face and perfect skin and nice tits” any more humane than “you should be as thin as Kate Moss”?
Key to the recent ideology about fat acceptance and body positivity is the notion that our weight is not chosen, that we can’t control it. I don’t want to get into the empirical dimensions of that claim. I’m consistently depressed about that conversation, as it tends to veer between two unhealthy extremes - you can change your weight to whatever you desire if you just want it enough, or total nihilism about how fat we are. Germane to my point here, though… is the bone structure of your face chosen? Can you choose to have a perfect nose? Is your eye color somehow under your control in a way your weight isn’t? Sure, we can radically change our appearances with surgery and all manner of other techniques, but the self-acceptance philosophy that’s core to Instagram feminism suggests that we shouldn’t feel any pressure to do that stuff. And spotlighting the expectation to be skinny while ignoring all of the other difficult standards of conventional beauty seems very odd to me. The hallmarks of appearing attractive are not in any sense fairer than body fat standards, yet nobody is giving up on the idea of more or less attractive people.
And here’s the point: the question that supposedely gets raised by these periodic controversies, which of course Sports Illustrated and other magazines actively court, is “can fat women be sexy?” The answer to that is of course. But they’re sexy because of human attributes that are no more egalitarian or fair than body fat percentage is. A fat person can be beautiful, and people of all races can be beautiful, and trans and cis people can be beautiful, and disabled people can be as well. But ugly people can’t be beautiful, and how is that any less of an “injustice”? The reality is that physical attraction is not equitable, just, or fair, as it operates under a visceral logic that’s immune to the intellectualized politics of what we intend, and who we get horny for is in large measure part of our evolutionary endowment as an animal species. That which is not genetically conditioned is still powered by psychological animal spirits that are beyond our understanding or control. And what I don’t understand is why this circumstance is perceived to be any fairer or in line with social justice than someone only being into thin women. Why will you get canceled, in certain spaces, for saying that you’re not attracted to fat women but not if you say that you’re not attracted to unattractive women? It’s not remotely internally consistent.
I have brought this up before, usually to howls of anger, but…. I’ve spent my adult life in lefty spaces (media, academia, and activism), and have been surrounded by people who embrace non-traditional masculinity and endlessly critique the traditional form. And those gay men and straight women among them? Yeah, they almost inevitably liked traditionally masculine men when it came to sex and romance. The mind conceives but the body desires. I’d go to academic conferences and see women give impassioned presentations about how conventional masculinity is rape culture, but then later that night at the mixer they weren’t exactly rushing to flirt with the sensitive 5’7 guys. Because you don’t choose who you’re attracted to.
I’m all for diversifying the bodies we see in media, but we have to always bear in mind that no one can control who they’re attracted to and there’s nothing deficient about a man who isn’t attracted to a particular fat woman. I think it’s great to highlight different kinds of bodies, but it’s great because bodies are attractive in different ways - we’re still bowing to the god of being hot, who will never be woke. Widening concepts of sexiness represent progress, but not feminist progress. It’s not some blow struck against patriarchy or whatever. (I assure you that patriarchy is not threatened by sad guys jacking off to heavier models than they used to.) And it’s a symptom of a broader cultural addiction to trying to shoehorn every last development in human society into some reductive social justice frame that doesn’t fit. “There’s more ways to be attractive than our society has traditionally recognized, and actually a lot of guys find some fat women very hot” is a perfectly progressive and coherent message, a good one. Far better, anyway, than the mental gymnastics that people try to perform to somehow make hotness subject to the demand for equality and justice.
As you know, I’m someone who believes that, for example, some lucky people are born inclined to be smart, or good at making music, or with an artist’s temperament. Some people deeply disagree. But nobody I’m aware of doubts that some people are just born beautiful, and life for the beautiful is not the same as life for the rest of us. We’re all dealt a hand, and we play it. Why can’t we accept that simple wisdom?