Looking through articles on ‘what makes men attractive to women’ primarily achieves one thing: a messed-up search algorithm for three weeks. Such selfless sacrifice mostly provided me with confirmation of what I had assumed, namely that rather traditional ideas of heterosexual masculinity are still touted as hallmarks of physical attractiveness. One academic study out of Florida Atlantic University identifies that ‘good genes’ (“more masculine”, “physically fit”) and ‘investment ability’ (“college graduate, “income potential”) are key tenets of a Type A hot dude, while a Newcastle University paper discussed the importance of “a body shape indicative of physical strength”. Online magazines for straight male audiences – and I safely assumed this target demographic based purely off names like Dialed In Men and The Gentleman’s Journal – list the expected traits such as height, being older, a hairy chest, playing extreme sports, having scars and presenting as high status. A slight surprise arose from Tools of Men, a grooming and fashion focused publication that listed qualities such as shyness and emotional presence: “vulnerability is a very attractive trait that can really help to snag a woman.” If it wasn’t for the thinly veiled, predatory undertone of this sentence, I would consider being impressed. Maybe.
Cosmopolitan pulled through with the by-line “Forearms, forearms, making a killer breakfast, forearms”, proving once again that it truly is the ultimate authority on what women want. However, these suffocatingly heteronormative peer reviewed journals and shiny lifestyle magazines are predominantly written and read by over twenty-fives. Thus, they are unable to collect meaningful data or feedback from the most powerful sector of society when it comes to defining beauty trends and pop culture obsessions: teenage girls and young women. A little-known fact is that the collective noun of ‘girls’ is actually ‘The Driving Force of Entire Media Industries and the Cultural Norms They Influence’ (see also: ‘The Beatles are very popular’). So to discover what academia and edited publications in about twenty years will have to say on the topic of ‘what women find attractive in men’, I entered the think-tank where those answers are currently being created. TikTok.
Unsurprisingly, a five o’clock shadow and ability to protect an ovulating woman from physical danger do not feature as particularly important factors in a man’s attractiveness according to the millions of pop culture experts on TikTok. Much more significant is the simple characteristic of being Timothee Chalamet. A video with 300 thousand likes to the song You Make Me Feel by Cobra Starship is captioned “curly brown haired white boys who could run me over with a bus and I’d say thankyou[sic]”, and features Harry Styles and Chalamet in the accompanying montage. In fact, the top six results for the tag ‘timothee’ all have between 1 and 3 million likes. Harry Styles’ immense presence on the app is such that his cardigan has its own trending tag. To my delight, my For You Page has been proffering up estrogen fuelled content featuring the very beautiful star of Netflix show The Umbrella Academy Robert Sheehan, with captions such as “hahahaha, rail me” and “your[sic] welcome” overlaying photomontages of his face.
These three men have a few things in common (quite succinctly summed up in the statement ‘curly brown haired white boys who could run me over with a bus and I’d say thank you’), but what I think is most interesting is their public rejection of traditional male beauty standards. Styles’ androgynous ensemble for the 2019 Met Gala, coming out as bisexual, and release of a music video with 85 million views exclusively about pleasuring clitorises consolidated his public image in opposition to traditional masculinity. Chalamet’s incredibly tender performance as a young, queer boy in the gay love story Call Me By Your Name and feminine dress suits similarly present a masculinity that appears to have very little to do with the ‘muscles’ and ‘scars’ that Science Alert listed as indicators of heterosexual male attractiveness. And again, Robert Sheehan’s Umbrella Academy character Klaus – a pill-popping, queer man who dresses in sideless leggings, crop tops and eyeliner – is gorgeous in every way Cosmopolitan assumes he would not be.
If The Gentleman’s Journal had chosen to conduct field research amongst today’s young women, their list would likely consist of ‘undermining gendered fashion, ‘a good skincare routine’, ‘presenting as queer/questioning’, and ‘an androgynous body’. But my conclusion on up-and-coming male beauty standards goes slightly deeper than a normalisation of gender and sexual diversity.
I think that the girls and women of 2020 are tired of being scared and hurt by men. The MeToo movement came and went with women still fearing for their lives before daring to speak up about sexual assault. The United States President is still a misogynistic predator, and COVID lockdown laws have caused a horrifying spike in domestic violence. And I think we are starting to recognise that these damaging aspects of patriarchy are in many ways coded into traditional standards of heteronormative, masculine aesthetic. A muscular, G.I. Joe body is simultaneously deemed ‘attractive’, and is the thing that enables a man to physically dominate another person. Scars are both ‘hot’ and indicators that a man can withstand pain and endure bodily damage. A beard is coded ‘sexy’ as well as emulating the historic image of philosopher, politician, and leader. In fact, most of the academic and editorial conclusions on male attractiveness featured aspects of masculinity that are linked to violence, sexual dominance and social authority.
Gen Z and young Millennial women have clearly had enough with being told to crave swooning into muscled arms, admiring well-tailored suits and Rolex watches, or being pinned against a wall. Men like Styles, Chalamet, and Sheehan are passionately desired because they are so beautifully non-threatening. By presenting as femme, these men are not just wearing cool makeup and skirts but are rejecting the aesthetic that codes them as dangerous to women. There is an exhilarating freshness in romanticising the thin frames, soft curls and painted nails of men who do not use fear as an aphrodisiac. Femininity is a safe place for nervous, young girls, and I think it is incredibly positive that male cultural icons are entering that world with outstretched hands to invite their impressionable fans to explore love and lust in a comfortable space.