The Demandingness of Youth for Women: Why Women Are Most ‘Desirable’ at 18 and Men at 50

In a recent study, researchers Bruch and Newman (2018: 1-6) investigated the ‘desirability’ of both male and female online dating users. Bruch and Newman determined, through analysing over 200,000 messages between online dating users, that women’s sexual desirability is at its highest at age 18 whilst men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50. After these two ages, desirability declines for both groups. Why is this the case? One explanation offered by Bruch and Newman is that desirability varies with educational level (Bruch and Newman 2018: 2). For instance, highly educated men are perceived by women to be highly desirable. However, the same is not true of women. According to the study, women are most attractive to men when they are educated to undergraduate level, but their desirability decreases as they reach postgraduate levels of study (Bruch and Newman 2018: 2).

This research has sparked a considerable amount of debate, all seeking to answer why average desirability varies with age so greatly for men and women. One answer put forward by Lily Peschardt (2018) is that ‘An 18-year-old woman comes at you without the history or a solid idea of how much of herself she’s willing to compromise, to shrink, to change – after all, it’s the job of the younger woman to be malleable.’ She continues that women have to be perceived by their male counterparts as, ‘willing to learn, but not actually know too much.’ Peschardt believes this to be the case given that women start to become less desirable the more they pursue postgraduate higher education (Bruch and Newman 2018: 2). She closes her explanation of the researchers' findings by considering how the media sexualizes girlhood and how doing so perpetuates the problem (Peschardt 2018).

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)
Another answer to this question comes in the form of Heather Widdows' work on beauty as an ethical ideal (Widdows 2018: 25). In her book, Widdows argues that there are four main components of the dominant beauty ideal: women have to be young, thin, firm, and smooth (Widdows 2018: 26). If the beauty ideal is perceived to be desirable, then it is no wonder that women who are unable to appear youthful lose their appeal. As Widdows herself nicely puts it, the dominant ideal is ‘not old, aging, pockmarked, pot-bellied, muffin-topped, wobbly, wrinkly, bumpy, saggy, hairy, ill, decaying, or dying’ (Widdows 2018: 26). 

With these ideals being so prominent for women, it is unsurprising that the sexual desirability of women is as low as 18, as the above study indicates. However, there is still something morally repugnant about this recent finding by Bruch and Newman. Perhaps it is because it shows not only that youth is a core component of the dominant beauty ideal but also because it illustrates precisely how demanding this criterion is for women in comparison to men. Women are considered more attractive at 18 because being 18 is to be youthful. You are not saggy or ageing or the antithesis to the beauty ideal. You don’t have what is commonly referred to as a “mom bod”. However, if not conforming to the beauty ideal is considered a failure for women, why are “dad bods” accepted and celebrated? Why are men considered more attractive and desirable at 50 than women?

This fact gives us reason to doubt the idea that the beauty ideal is as dominant for men as it is for women. A double-standard exists whereby men can age, giving them at least half of their lives to be viewed as desirable before it decreases, whereas women have merely 18 years before this is the case. It is also morally repugnant because it shows the damaging effect the over-sexualisation of girls in the media has on wider society. It highlights that this perception of young girls as easily influenced, and therefore desirable, has changed the way that young women are perceived by their male counterparts. 

Given this, it appears that Widdows' claim, that youth is a core component of the beauty ideal, is supported by recent findings concerning the desirability of male and female online users of dating sites, and this aspect of the beauty ideal is more demanding to women that we originally thought. In order to tackle this, we need to stop sexualising girls in the media, realize that women get saggy at the same rate as men and challenge why it is okay for men’s bodies to be viewed as desirable up to the age of 50 if women’s are not.  

Shannon Oates is a masters student studying Religion, Politics and Society at the University of Birmingham. She is currently working as the Project Administrator for the Beauty Demands network, and Research Assistant for Professor Heather Widdows. 

Em Walsh is a PhD student at McGill University, who primarily researches philosophy of psychiatry, clinical practice and applied ethics. 

Bibliography 

American Psychological Association (2007), Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls [online] http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf [Accessed 26th August 2018]
Bruch, E. and Newman, M. E. J (2018) Aspirational Pursuit of Mates in Online Dating Markets, Advance Sciences, 4, 1-6.
Peschardt, L. (2018) Women are Their Most Desirable at 18, [online] https://www.the-pool.com/news-views/opinion/2018/33/dating-age-gap-women-most-desirable-18 [Accessed 26th August 2018)
Widdows, H. (2018) Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. Princeton University Press: Princeton.




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