Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology, Aging, Beauty, and the Baby Dreams

When I was 19, I started having recurring baby dreams. The typical plot was something like this: I’d be at an important event and would look in my purse, finding a thumb-sized baby. I’d close the purse and then feel guilty about doing so, and would open up the purse and I’d realize I’d lost the baby the way you might lose a pack of chewing gum. Sometimes the baby would reemerge at my feet, throwing tiny knives at my ankles, but more often than not I’d just have lost the baby.

It makes sense that my body might have been sending me some primordial signals around that time: At 19, I was at the dawn of my most fertile years, and indeed the dreams continued for a couple of years, dwindling around 21. But let’s also pay attention to the content of those dreams: The tiny babies found their way into my possession through no will of my own, and then they kept getting lost, and occasionally attempted to harm me. Which is to say: My body may have been wanting to play house, but the rest of me in no way wanted a child.

This struggle between biological destiny and human will illustrates one of the greater flaws of evolutionary psychology as applied to beauty. The idea behind the evo-psych line of thinking is that we apply cosmetics to highlight or mimic the traits a woman has at her most fertile: We use skin creams to appear youthful, blush to capture the “rosy glow” of youth, and so on. And as I’ve said before, I don’t entirely discount evolutionary psychology. But it’s only one part of the beauty equation. Human will is a crucial element of what we find attractive; the ability to go beyond the basics of what’s required for our species’ survival is part of what makes us human. (Do we truly think that we as a species can invent karaoke but are limited to having sexual impulses toward people who look like they’re 19?) The reason anyone lusted after Mrs. Robinson wasn’t that she looked 19; it was that she didn’t.

There’s a picture somewhere out there of me at age 20, getting ready to go out with a bunch of friends. One of us was wearing a high-low combination of a sequined dress and flat leather sandals. I was wearing a velour T-shirt, velvet heels, and hot pants over black control top pantyhose, and only in looking at the photo did I realize that the “control top” was below the hem of the shorts. My friend who looked classiest of all of us—truly—was wearing jeans and a bra with an open white button-down tied between her breasts, exposing her midriff. When I looked at the picture only a few years later, I couldn’t believe how ridiculous we looked: We were all reasonably good-looking girls, and we had no clue how to act sexy. Whatever sexiness we had came from being 20 and daring and able to stay up all night with no consequence and just being young and in love with independence, life, ourselves, each other. Our appeal didn’t come from culture or comportment, and it certainly didn’t come from styling.

Today, I’m still not the most cultured creature alive, and the only reason anyone would think I have style is because I’ve learned how to fake it on occasion. But it took me years to learn that: How to figure out not only what pieces emphasized my best features, but what my best features even were. How to maximize my beauty labor to get the most bang for the buck. How to find a balance between Clothes That Are "Flattering" and Clothes That I Can Breathe In; how to detect when a situation is worth your effort, and when it isn’t. Part of this was becoming more skilled in artifice—including the sort of artifice that makes us seem younger, livelier, and, yes, more fertile. (And certainly there are plenty of young women who know how to present themselves well—I don't mean to imply that people under a certain age are bedraggled kittens.) But also allow me to mention the obvious: Like most people, I am more cultured, more informed, less self-absorbed, more seasoned, and a better conversationalist than I was when my fertility was at its peak—and therefore, by evo-psych standards, when I was most attractive. All of these things come together to make me more attractive than I was back then, and today when I see my college friends, I see this truth multiplied. I am more attractive at 35 than I was at 20 not because I’m mimicking youth, but because I’ve grown into myself in a way I couldn’t have in that youth.

I’m not denying that there’s a unique, intangible charm to women—and men—at 20. I see the dewiness, I see the zest, I see the shiny enthusiasm that seems to come naturally, and there’s no doubt it’s attractive. And as I write this, I can feel that my facial skin is no longer as soft as it was 10 years ago. I see stretch marks that weren’t there before, and not long ago I was vexed by a stray hair laying across my forehead that wouldn’t budge—only to find that it was a wrinkle. Cynics might tell me I am writing this post mainly to feel better about myself—and hell, maybe they’re right.

Yet when I look at that photo of myself, beaming but trembling in velvet high heels and a pair of hot pants, I am so relieved not to be her anymore. I wasn’t unhappy at 20, or unattractive. There’s an attractiveness I had then that I’ll never have again. And there’s an attractiveness I have now that I definitely didn’t have then. Evo-psych still has a role here too, I think: Consider the instinctual repulsion we feel when we see an older person who takes drastic measure to look young. I’m not talking skin cream; I’m talking injectables and rearranging—the sort of thing that makes us ridicule older women for trying to look young. From a feminist standpoint, we can say we recoil from that look because women are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. But knowing the shudder I personally feel when I’m on certain stretches of the Upper East Side, I think it’s more because that rejection of the natural order of things—preserving youth at all costs—feels far more unnatural to me than the God-given attractiveness of a woman past her childbearing years who has aged, as they say, gracefully.

When I turned 30, I wrote a letter to a friend of mine who was in her late 40s. I told her of my excitement for the upcoming decade: I’d left a bad relationship, was excelling at my job, had a tight circle of friends, and looked better than I ever had. I was more verbose than that, but the point was, Man, my thirties are going to be the best. Which made her response, presented here in its entirety, all the more delicious: “Happy birthday! Thirties are good...forties are even better. You’ll see.”


This post is a part of the monthly Feminist Fashion Bloggers roundup. This month’s prompt: youth and aging. To read other FFB posts on the prompt, click here.


  1. Great post! I think there is some truth in the idea that things that make you look healthy make you attractive, and some of that might be too do with some sort of biological shortcut to identify fertility. But as far as conscious attraction goes, I completely agree with you. The older you get, the more you grow into yourself, and that's attractive.

    I think people fancy teenagers because they're up for anything. We all look back at pictures or ourselves at that age (I did it just last week), and I don't suppose there isn't many people that don't cringe slightly. But I suppose the reason we were attractive was because we just wore stuff and did stuff and didn't worry. I like to hold onto that mindset now. I much prefer a person trying do do something different and looking ridiculous to a person looking pretty and polished but boring.

  2. I opened up a box of photos recently and found some from my early 20's. I was astounded by how much different my face looks. It didn't even look like me (now). It was full of color, full of life, full...had much more fat on it, and not a wrinkle, not a bag, not a bulge. Yet it wasn't as attractive to me as my image today is. Could part of evolution be in accepting ourselves as we age? If we really saw ourselves as unattractive as our 19 y.o selves saw, say, our unfortunate-looking female professors, wouldn't we all be saving for procedures (or suicidal)? I think that there is something that goes on in the brain as we age that helps us accept our appearance.

    You hit the nail on the head: "I am more attractive at 35 than I was at 20 not because I’m mimicking youth, but because I’ve grown into myself in a way I couldn’t have in that youth."

    Sadly, if 20 y.o's could pull their heads out of their asses long enough to think straight and get over all the drama that comes with being 20 and accept themselves, all us 35 y.o would be screwed!

  3. I loved this post! I'll be turning 30 before too long and can relate. I've had those exact same feelings looking back at photos in my college years. Sure, I might have looked cute due to my age and zest for life but you couldn't pay me enough to wear those clothes again! My bra didn't fit, none of my clothes fit my body shape well, and those shoes, yikes!

    Some of it is certainly a matter of having more money now, being more settled and also having the experience under my belt to know my body better and know where my strengths and weakness are, however, it's more than that. I'm happy to not be that naive anymore. I'm happy that I've lived life a little and know the ropes more. I've had some amazing experiences in my 20's (some not so amazing ones too), I can't wait to see what the next decade and beyond brings. :D

  4. It varies with the individual, but I think in general women are their most attractive in their early thirties or so. Sort of the sweet spot between knowing oneself/being an interesting person/having true style and the evolutionarily imposed beauty standard.

  5. I certainly feel like this is true. I like the way I look now (42) better than I ever have, I'm more secure in myself, I feel less compelled to dress, or be, any way for anyone else's benefit.

  6. One could also argue that it wasn't your body that wanted babies: bodies want sex, and respond to infants, but it's a bit of a myth that there is a hardwired desire to reproduce. baby dreams could be attributable to societal pressures -- surely there are plenty of those that tell women to have babies before it's too late, not to mention the whole biological clock thing.

    One of the main methodological issues with evolutionary psychology is that most of their studies were done in a single cultural context, so there's no way to separate biology from cultural norms. And I'm not even mentioning everything else.

  7. Last week I made out with a guy (so hard not to say "a boy") who complimented my body, telling me that I "look like a 21-year-old." I had to work not to laugh, because all I could think of was myself at 21, so awkward, so nervous, so concerned about wearing, doing, saying the right thing. I cut off all my hair, I wore a lot of overalls. I am so much happier and more confident in my body and myself. Forget looking like a 21-year-old. I am happy to look like a 36-year-old.

  8. Franca, you know, that's a good point. As self-conscious as I was when I was a teenager, I probably did take more fashion risks, trusting without realizing it that I was going to be just fine because "the bloom of youth" would carry me through. I suppose that's why they say youth is wasted on the young, right?

    Cameo, I love the idea of part of evolution being in accepting ourselves as we age. After all, our life expectancy is enormously longer than it was back in the day when we had to really worry about keeping our birth rate up. It makes sense that there could be a self-acceptance trait that evolves in order to keep us all getting along just ducky!

    June, thank you! And OMG, the bra thing--yep, I got fitted properly for the first time in my late 20s. No idea how I walked around for 10+ years with such an ill-fitting bra but I'm sure it didn't help my overall attractiveness...

    Amy H., I've heard it said that every woman has "that age" at which she felt the most attractive. Mine may have already passed, and as long as I stay engaged in the world I'm largely okay with that...I think...right?!

    Cynthia, I wonder about the intersection between simply liking the way we look and how it shows to the rest of the world. Obviously there's a lot of truth to the idea that confidence is the most beautiful trait one can have, and given that most of us get more confident as we get older--well, we have a whole evolutionary revolutionary thing going on!

    Fish Monkey, excellent and not-stated-often-enough point about how evolutionary psychology is usually done in a single cultural context. Yes, there are some things that apply across cultures, but not nearly as much as die-hard evo-psych advocates would have us believe. (As for the hardwired desire to reproduce, I didn't really believe in a biological clock until I spent an afternoon holding a newborn when I was about 30 years old, and suddenly my body went all BABY NOW. It didn't last, but it was fascinating to feel the hormones kick in. I've never wanted children except for that very brief period.)

    Monstrosity, ha! That just illustrates what we attribute to youth. Yes, there's an allure to being that age--but certainly my figure is objectively "better" than it was at that age, even with all this self-esteem talk aside. It just is! (I think.) Yes, thank god I don't look like "a 21-year-old" any longer--how funny that it's not the compliment he intended it to be.