Homo homini rodentius est

What the Average Looking Guy Taught Me

Often when I walk down the street I find myself falling into line behind another person heading in the same direction and letting them do the work of setting the pace and dividing a path through the on-coming crowd. It allows me to relax, look around at the scenery and let my mind wander. One day I noticed that the person I was using as a pace car was behaving a bit oddly: he was checking his appearance obsessively in every available reflective surface that he passed. It’s something we all do, of course, often without noticing or being noticed — so universal is the impulse to reassure ourselves of our comeliness. With this little fellow, though, I noticed something. I was struck by the fact that he was not particularly unattractive — which would have made his checking behavior make some sense (someone who grew up unconventional looking would probably be self-conscious of their appearance) — nor was he particularly attractive, so his behavior couldn’t be dismissed as run of the mill narcissism. He looked average. Passable. Attractive enough. And that is what got my attention and led to a rather interesting insight.

“All the checking in the world is not going to make him look any better,” I thought, and suddenly saw the bizarre futility of the kind of obsessive self-regard that the little man was engaged in and that the rest of us do as a matter of course. What he had forgotten (or never learned) was the corollary of the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (i.e., not the beheld): when it comes to assessing one’s attractiveness to others it doesn’t matter — at all — what one thinks of oneself. Read that last line again. How many times have we looked on in comic horror at someone who left the house clearly not intending to imitate a clown but who succeeded nonetheless? Now ‘fess up — how many times have you been the clown?

This may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but consider its implication: not only does it not matter what you think of your own appearance in assessing your attractiveness to others, the only opinions that matter are those of others (the self-esteem mavens wouldn’t like that — but it’s true). When it’s important to you to know if you are attractive, beautiful, pleasant to others — don’t look at yourself, look at them. Read their reaction to you. If they like what they see, you’re attractive; if they don’t, you’re not. And you can’t predict what any individual will find appealing. In a large city like New York, where you meet hundreds or thousands of people in a day on the street it is obvious just how random these judgments can be. What you’re really looking for is a general consensus: a trend among the faces facing you. And, keeping the statistical theme going, you only need to take a sample. On any given day it should be obvious early in the day how successful you’ll be. Once you know, you can stop checking. Completely. This leads to lots less work. If only my average looking little friend had known.

Since the incident with the average looking guy I have practically stopped regarding myself in public. I get ready for the day by doing basic preparation (shower, shave, make sure the hair is heading in one direction, don reasonable clothing) and then wait for the world to tell me how successful I was… today. Some days I can tell I’m not very attractive because I get no reaction or odd reactions to something I’m wearing. I feel no pang at this because I know now how random attraction is and there’s a good chance I’ll be attractive again, tomorrow.

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