Perpetual Fashion Victims
One of the delightful traits of our species is the lengths we go to in order to appeal to potential mates. There appears to be no limit to the disfigurements we are willing to undergo and no limit to the damage we are prepared to inflict on ourselves in our desperate pursuit of attention.
This is because attracting a mate is of supreme importance to all animals. Unless we can secure mating opportunities we won’t pass on our genes, and consequently our genes ensure that we are driven to often quite extreme measures in order that others may perceive us as being a valid option. This is true even if, in our conscious minds, we feel no particular urgency to create tiny mewling babies of our own.
In most animal species it is primarily one gender doing the attracting and the other gender doing the choosing, determined by which of the two will bring the most significant resources to bear. This is especially true where a small number of dominant males will create harems around them or where females contribute nearly everything required to bring up their young. In yet other species, temporary or permanent pair-bonds may be established because both participants bring resources of nearly equal value.
We humans, however, adapt to our circumstances. For the most part males have to compete for females because gestation and post-partum nurturing are incredibly expensive compared to the cost of some semen. In violent societies therefore men display their attractiveness by means of tokens of lethality such as shrunken heads (the unsubtle message: “I can keep you and our children safe”) and in societies where sheer resilience is a benefit, men display scarification to show they can endure pain (the message: “no matter how hard it gets, I will hang in there”).
Yet in our quasi-monogamous species women also must compete for the most attractive males. Given a choice between George Clooney and Billy the Brush Salesman, few women would happily opt for the latter if they had even a small chance of securing the former.
As individuals we attempt to attract the best-possible partner, which sadly often means aspiring to people who are unlikely to find us sufficiently attractive in our pure state. Whereas most animals, being limited by genetics, can’t do much to alter their value as mates, we humans can utilize exogenous resources to disguise our flaws and pretend to characteristics we don’t truly possess.
This is the biological basis of fashion.
Fashion is the means whereby we attempt to improve our chances in the competition for mating opportunities through false display. To adapt von Clausewitz’s famous dictum, fashion is the continuation of (genetic) war by other means.
That is why certain African women distend their necks with copper hoops or stretch out their earlobes or put enormous wooden plates in their lower lips. It’s why men used to wear calf-pads, codpieces, and still wear shoulder-pads in business suits. It’s why men wear large hats and why women totter precariously on spine-crippling foot-deforming high heeled shoes. It’s why everyone got a tattoo and why so many women now pump collagen into their lips and paint hilariously ugly silent-movie style eyebrows onto themselves. It’s why women used to pay for absurd breast implants.
This litany of fashion disasters reveals a trend: men in general rarely resort to purely physical displays of value while women primarily do so. This is because, despite all Politically Correct protestations to the contrary and despite all endless whining about the supposed arbitrary effects of something called The Patriarchy, we are hardwired that way. Males seek youth and signifiers of both good genes and good nurturing while females seek signifiers of available resources that can be utilized to ensure that both they and their potential offspring will fare well into the future.
Every society at every place and in every time has conformed to these simple exigencies. Despite endless sociological fantasizing to the contrary, this is the inevitable consequence of how our species has evolved. It is literally impossible to imagine an alternative evolutionary outcome without requiring that many other aspects of the human condition are altered beyond all recognition.
So we’re left with fashion.
If women mostly display in order to exaggerate their physical attractiveness, why is it that at some points in history men have also paraded like idle popinjays? Surely this is a flaw in the argument?
In fact it supports the core thesis once we understand one important thing: men attract primarily through displays of social status. In violent societies status conveyed by overt signifiers of lethality such as the shrunken heads we mentioned above. In more wealthy societies status is conveyed by a much wider range of signifiers. Today, men who wish to appear as wealthy pose in front of large houses or perched on the front of an expensive sports car or at the helm of a large boat. But not so long ago, before photography and InstaSnap, men most easily displayed status by parading around in bright silks and cottons, showing that they had both the assets necessary to purchase what were then luxury items and also the leisure time in which to display them ostentatiously. In other words, devotees of Beau Brummell were trying to signal possession of assets beyond the aspirations of the common man. They were not primarily disguising physical deficiencies (though this certainly played a role: the calf-pads, the wigs, the makeup) but were primarily laying claim to a desirable social status.
Women, meanwhile, have perpetually padded their bosoms, used makeup to camouflage skin flaws, worn wigs to compensate for less-than-lustrous natural endowment, worn high-heeled shoes to feign helplessness and push out both bust and buttocks, and worn devices that exaggerate the slenderness of their waist. Women remain trapped in a game they must always ultimately lose.
Whereas in theory a man can become more desirable with age if he can accumulate greater wealth and status, women are stuck in a perpetual beauty contest in which the passing of each year inexorably diminishes their appeal. It doesn’t matter how much Political Correctness one swallows. Regardless of one’s views on the desirability of natural body hair, the importance of the person inside, or the obvious fact that men and women should have equal opportunities, the harsh truth remains that nature has no interest in Political Correctness. Evolution is a process that has no teleological goal and no concept of “fairness.” Anyone with even an iota of knowledge about the natural realm can have no illusions regarding this fact. Only those who never stray beyond the confines of Disney can retain any illusions about “the harmony of nature” or “the natural balance of things.”
Nature is an amoral promoter of whatever works best on average for a species. That’s the only benchmark. Transiently fashionable human values are irrelevant.
And so we will continue to be fashion victims, endlessly trying to keep up with the latest trends. We will continue to perform absurd self-harm in order to be perceived as “trendy” or “cool” or whatever happens to be the trite term of the day. We will disfigure ourselves and make ourselves ridiculous because that will be what everyone around us is also doing. Women will remain the primary victims, but in our affluent Western world men too will increasingly take the same set of options. A couple of decades ago the term for such men was metrosexual; more recently terms such as hipster have gained prominence. But whatever we call them, these men will continue to adopt female strategies and no doubt this will force females to adopt ever-more-radical ways to differentiate themselves from this new breed of casual popinjay.
As the world grows more and more obese, increasingly drastic solutions to the problem of feigning attractiveness will appear on the scene. No doubt glitter tattoos will make several entrepreneurs very wealthy, while bizarre headpieces will attempt to distract from the wobbly blubber beneath. Peripherals like hands and feet will be emphasized, again in order to draw attention away from whale-like bodies. Perhaps extreme solutions will also appear, such as a large titanium bolt through the cranium or an iron rod passing through one’s shoulder.
Whatever the fashions yet to appear, we can be sure of one thing: we humans will always do whatever we can to appear attractive to potential mates and this will usually result in us rendering ourselves utterly risible.