Inspired by MEL's Summer Body Issues package, I got to thinking, how much do men actually care about a woman's "bikini body"?
This, of course, sent me down a rabbit hole of vanity, insecurity, Ashley Graham videos, BIKINI BODY MOMMY™ workouts, beauty standards and what really constitutes "the male gaze." Most importantly, the call I put out to my Twitter followers on the subject left me feeling deeply sad for women because by far the most common answer was: "I wish she could see herself the way I see her."
To be honest, I wasn't expecting such thoughtful, heartwarming and tender answers. (In all, 215 men responded, totaling 19,754 words, which, to give you an idea, is 34 pages of writing, single-spaced.) Instead, I expected men to behave the way they're represented in the media (i.e., as gross pigs). And so, I anticipated vapid, crass responses, my DMs overflowing with hordes of men saying things like, "Hell yeah, my wife needs to lose 15 pounds. This isn't what I signed up for."
Don't get me wrong, I got those types of messages, too, but they were in the minority. As one self-proclaimed "gym rat" tells me, "Aesthetics have always been interesting to me. I love a fit woman. Big old chubbers do nothing for me. ... Now that's not to say some soft curves on a girl with gigantic sweater puppies is off the table."
"Are you single?" I ask.
"Yes," he replies (but of course).
Another guy writes, "I care about how her body looks. That may not be the most politically correct answer, but it's true. Most men do. How her body looks isn't dispositive, but it's damn important."
These messages stuck out, however, and it got to the point where I could instantly tell if a man was either unhappily married or single just by his tone. He almost always attempted to validate his opinion by abandoning the first person singular and leaning into the group, saying things like, "I care very much about my significant other's beach body. We men are visual creatures, I'm not gonna lie!" Or: "Men are all just as douchey as I am, and anyone who says differently is lying!"
I realize now that my question might have inadvertently discouraged single men from responding by asking how much they cared about their "significant other's" beach body. I meant in general — whether they had a significant other or not — but the responses primarily came from men in long-term relationships or marriages. It's probably a good thing, though, because as one man sums up, "It makes a difference for about a week at the beginning of a relationship. After that, there's a lot more important stuff."
Obviously, it goes without saying that when you're looking for a mate, physicality matters. Attraction needs to be there before anything else, but attraction alone isn't enough to sustain a long-term relationship. This is a lesson men have a greater appreciation for with age. "In my 20s, I cared about looks," one guy explains. "I think physical attraction is an important element in relationships, even in my 30s; however, now, I appreciate a girl who can effectively communicate more than her looks." Another adds, "After giving birth to our three kids, my wife doesn't have a bikini body anymore, but I couldn't care less. To me she's hot AF. I probably don't even have a dad bod anymore, and yeah, I'm a little sensitive about it."
Other than the fact that literally everyone in America is trying to lose weight — men and women alike — the most striking thing about all of this was how not a single woman is happy with her body. Not. A. Single. One. "The range of what men find attractive about women and what women think about how they look is crazy," a guy writes, pretty much echoing a bunch of similar answers. In fact, women who are traditionally "hot" end up being the most self-obsessed, and as man after man after man reiterated, "There's nothing less sexy imo than a woman obsessed with her own body. Keyword: obsessed."
Ashley Graham, the famous "plus-size model" came up a lot, too, as an example that men truly don't GAF about the bikini body:
Some men, though, had their doubts about using her as the model for body positivity because she's still "hot" in the traditional sense. "The whole Ashley Graham movement is kinda bullshit," one man says. "Ashley Graham is obviously heavy set, but everything about her is pretty perfect. Most heavy set girls don't have all their fat build-up in all the right places, in the right proportions, with a perfect face, skin and hair. Like yeah, heavy set is 'in' if you fucking look like Ashley Graham, not Rosie O'Donnell."
But my limited, self-reported anecdotes support the idea that ultimately men care more about beauty as opposed to "hotness" than we are led to believe. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, former professors of evolutionary biology at Evergreen State College, have talked about the idea of "hotness versus beauty" on The Joe Rogan Experience. "At least for some men, it's true that beauty and hotness are almost uncorrelated," Weinstein argues. "There are people who have both traits, but I have no trouble seeing that image of the woman who is hot but not the least bit beautiful and I know lots of women who are beautiful and not hot."
I have hundreds of quotes from men expressing this sentiment, and even more importantly, recognizing the superior significance of other traits like kindness, fidelity, resilience, intellect or childbearing and -rearing in their mate. Such as:
"It's not important. There's so much that I love and appreciate about her. The biggest she got when pregnant was about 180, and even then, I was still physically attracted to her, wanted to fuck her and still cherished her as my companion. (She was carrying our child for Chrissake.) We've been through a lot together, and there's no one else I'd rather experience life's peaks and valleys with."
Or as Billy says, "For all the challenges that come with making a relationship work, the notion that their appearance in a bikini — versus myriad other ways you get to see them, publicly and privately — holds any serious importance is laughable to me. Can't speak for all men in my position, but I've never heard the culture speak for me in this regard, so that alone tells me the culture is at least partially full of shit."
I'd say the culture is completely full of shit, and it's affecting individuals and relationships in serious ways that go beyond just not liking our bodies and all the dysfunction and disorder that comes with it. For instance:
"My wife's discomfort with her body really bothers her. She battles depression over it. Our biggest issue from it is that she doesn't think I should be attracted to her, even though I am. Very much so. Would she be hotter if she got into better shape? Yeah. So would I. But I'm still always attracted to her, and if it were up to me, I wouldn't keep my hands off of her. She struggles to feel sexy, so I try to be patient and let her know that I still think she's sexy. I'm trying to make sure my daughters aren't subjected to too much of that nonsense. My wife is my best friend and my partner in this crappy world. I hope that my daughters see that and want the same for themselves."
"I don't directly care at all how she looks (seriously, not at all)," another man adds. "I do care indirectly, because the better she thinks she looks, the better she feels about herself. And the better she feels about herself, the better the odds that she'll have sex with me."
Every woman knows this man speaks the truth when he writes, "I truly don't care about anyone's beach body, but I want my gf to feel good and confident. And my experience is that my opinion doesn't actually impact women's self-perception when it comes to that kind of thing. I can truly believe and say she looks great, and she'll appreciate it, but not internalize it."
Women have all had a man tell them they thought they were hot, even when we didn't feel like it. The unrealistic body expectations aren't coming from men, they're coming from advertisers because the good men, the mature men, the men you want for mates wrote me things like this, "In the end, what matters most to me is that she's happy with herself. When she's confident and feels free to be herself, I see the woman I love."
Women can hear a man say he doesn't care. We can know he means it. But we don't believe it. And that has nothing to do with "the male gaze." Or maybe it should be rebranded as "the shallow young male gaze," because most adult men don't care if you have cellulite, spider veins or haven't shaved your vagina. They're just happy to be with you — and if you're happy, they're happy.
At least that's what man after man after man in my DMs told me over and over and over again, hundreds of times: "Honestly the pressure applied to look good in a bathing suit typically spoils the fun because she ends up bummed about her image." Or as one guy put more bluntly, "I'd rather her get into shape so I don't have to hear about it anymore."
Bridget Phetasy is a contributing writer at MEL. She last wrote about what men think about when they're trying not to cum.