Sex or Society: the pressure to be attractive (an experiment)

A few weeks ago I decided to conduct a spot of impromptu social research (albeit badly thought-out and implemented research). I had been thinking about how for a while, I was feeling a lot of pressure to dress attractively and sexily, so that people would perhaps be interested in me. However, since identifying as asexual, I’ve felt far less pressure to do so, because I now realise that I don’t actually want or need people to be attracted to me or think of me as “hot.” I’m actually rather uncomfortable with people doing so (and always have been – but previously felt the need to push it aside.)

So I wondered if there were other asexual people who felt the same way, thinking specifically of people who are aromantic as well as asexual. So often we hear people saying that feeling pressure to be seen as attractive or sexy is “natural” and “based on biology,” because we’re all searching for partners, right? I decided to find out whether that’s all there is: whether it is just a desire for relationships and sex that drives people, particularly women, to agonise so much about their attractiveness, or whether there is something deeper behind it.

Methodology

My methodology was simple (well, too simple). I made up a quick, six-question survey and posted it to AVEN, so that I would get responses from the asexual community there. I asked for gender, identity, romantic identity (if applicable). I then asked three questions:

  1. Do you feel comfortable about your appearance? This could include body shape and size, facial features, clothing and sense of style, etc.
  2. Do you feel pressure to look “sexy” or “attractive”?
  3. Do you feel that being asexual influences how much pressure you put on yourself to look “sexy” or “attractive”?

I then asked for explanations of the answer to the last question. Obviously there are a lot of things I didn’t think about, or that weren’t clear enough. Originally I wanted to find out if asexual people had less body image issues than sexual people, but I didn’t frame the questions well enough or ask in enough detail. Most of the focus came to rest on the last two questions. Even there, the questions could have been more clear and detailed.Sadly, surveymonkey did not allow me to cross-analyse the results: so I couldn’t see if there was a difference in responses between, for example, aromantic people and romantic people.

Results

Here’s a quick breakdown of respondents (52 in total):

Gender: 14% male, 75% female, 10% trans*/intersex. 3 people identified as other.

Orientation: 75% asexual, 6% demisexual, 19% grey-a.

Romantic orientation: 27% aromantic, 17% homoromantic, 34% heteroromantic, 9% biromantic, 15% panromantic. 10 people identified as other.

Results for the multiple choice questions were pretty ambiguous, and not being able to look at the breakdown of responses for individual orientations was frustrating. The most common response to question one was “yes, most of the time” (42%) followed by “sometimes” and “rarely” (each at 21%) and “yes, always” (at 15%). Responses to question two were actually skewed towards “no,” with most people answering “no, not at all” (34%), then “no, not often” (28%), then “yes, sometimes” (26%) and “yes, very often” (at 9%).Of course, I didn’t have a sexual group to compare these results to, so their relevance is a bit limited.

When it came to the last question, comments indicated that many repondents may have interpreted the question differently. The vast majority (78%) said that being asexual didn’t affect their answers to the previous two questions. The comments were what made this question interesting though, as there was a large range of responses. These are probably more valuable than any of the stats, so I’m going to include a selection that (in my opinion) reflects the range of opinions and experiences.

Some comments said that they didn’t care about their appearance to others, but that it had nothing to do with being asexual*:

I am not looking to inspire attraction, but rather avoid revulsion or avoidance.

I just like to look… good. Cool. In my own eyes though, not based on any social or other standard that isn’t mine.

I do like to look attractive, but not for anyone else’s benefit, but for mine. Personally, dressing attractively can be as much about your own preference in style as it can be about pleasing others.

I decided very early on (think, 12/13) that I wouldn’t let myself feel like I had to wear something. It helps that my mum has the same attitude. Therefore, my lack of caring about ‘sexy’ doesn’t stem from being asexual.

I put the highest premium on feeling well in my own skin regardless of fashion and/or gender stereotypes, and I can’t imagine this would change if I was sexual.

Others also didn’t care about being attractive to others because they were asexual.

I didn’t realize I was grey-A until recently, so I didn’t think being asexual influences how much I care to be sexy. I thought I didn’t care much about my appearance just because I wasn’t interested in fitting in the feminine stereotype. But now that I’ve learned about asexuality, I think it may also play a part.

I think it does have an influence, because being asexual I don’t seek to appear sexually attractive to other people. I just want to look normal, not funny nor disgusting. I don’t care if I look attractive, I even rather not.

As I am asexual I try NOT to look ‘sexy’, as I would feel very uncomfortable if somebody were to find the way I dress provocative. I would prefer people to see me as cute than sexy.

I don’t usually think about my asexuality when dressing up. However, it could influence me anyway as I dress very modestly compared to other girls my age. Perhaps because I am not seeking attention.

I have my fleeting suspicions that my asexuality detaches me from feeling a pressure from others, but I’m also a starkly independent, non-conformist minded person so it could very much be rooted in that instead/too.

I’d say that because I currently ID as asexual I really don’t care if anyone finds me sexy or attractive – in other words, I’m not out to impress anyone.

Since I’m not sexually attracted to others I don’t particularly want them to be sexually attracted to me. Sometimes it’s flattering, but more often it’s problematic, annoying, or even frightening. Comfort takes a far higher priority.

I attribute [not being concerned with appearance] mostly to the fact that I am asexual and I’m not trying to get attention of that nature. Also, being female, attracting the leers of men is, to me, dangerous. I feel like if I’m getting that kind of attention, then my chances of being harassed or assaulted are increased. I know that sounds extreme, but that’s how I feel.

Some respondents indicated that they did feel pressure, because of the way people who fit society’s narrow standards of “attractiveness” are privileged:

I don’t try to look ‘sexy’ necessarily but do worry about my appearance (i.e., Am I too skinny, does my hair look okay, etc).

I think I would feel the same amount of pressure about my appearance if I wasn’t asexual. I feel as if people evaluate my worth (sometimes) depending on my appearance, whether or not I’m asexual or whether or not I’m looking for sexual attention. Even asexuals can’t opt out of the structures that facilitate sexual culture.

I feel pressured regardless of my asexuality. People like being friends with with attractive people, so I feel like I have to meet certain expectations in order to meet new people–for any kind of relationship.

I’m a man and I want to look as attractive as I possible can (anti-aging creams, gym, better food, nice clothes, etc.). It’s not about sex, it makes me feel better about myself and facilitates imensely all human interactions, since people normally see you before knowing you.

And a couple of responses that don’t fit into the rough categories above:

It’s no secret that the media pumps us full of what the ‘ideal’ image of beauty is, but the media is also over sexualised and generally very perverse and fake. I’ve only recently started to identify as asexual but I don’t think it pressures me to aim for that ideal. There are times when I feel so disgusted by the sexual imagery we’re having forced upon us I go out of my way to look the exact opposite.

I would like to be attractive because I want asexuals a whole to be no less attractive than everyone else. That way, no one can think that asexuals are only calling themselves asexual because they cannot get any sex due to being unattractive.

I’m in a relationship, and I would at least like to look like I’m an asset to him even if my partner knows I’m not interested in sex.

Discussion

While the statistics don’t really reflect any conclusions to me due to my own dodgy methodology, the comments are telling. I find it interesting that there are many different responses. A significant number of people do seem to feel less pressure to appear attractive and sexy because they are asexual. Some even say that they consciously try not to be attractive to other people – some motivated by rebellion, but some motivated by fear of unwanted sexual advances, looks, harassment or assault. To a degree I can personally identify with this: I don’t like it when people assume me to be a sexual person because I sometimes fear those very behaviours. However, there were also a considerable number of people whose disinterest in appearing attractive doesn’t stem from their asexuality but purely from their personality. This made me happy!

It was very telling that many commenters also said that they did feel pressure to look attractive. For some people this was because they still wanted to attract a romantic partner, if not a sexual one. But some people also said that they felt this pressure for a different reason: because attractiveness in the stereotypical sense is an extremely privileged trait in society. Appearing attractive and desirable is therefore not only for the sake of attracting a partner. It’s because society pressures people to be attractive to be seen as decent human beings. And that makes me very sad and angry, because society’s standards of attractiveness are so very narrow. In particular I found it worrying that one commenter thought they needed to be attractive in order to be an “asset” to their partner, because it places so much value on physical attractiveness as the essential quality in a partner. The previous comment also showed a similar concern for the shallowness of broader society, especially when it comes to relationships.

While the survey didn’t work the way I wanted it to, I still think the results raised some interesting questions. What do you think? Does pressure to be attractive and sexy come from the desire to attract a partner? Or does it come from expectations and values much more engrained in society? I believe it’s the latter.

* I’m using asexual here (and below) to mean both asexual and demi/grey asexual, out of simplicity.

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6 thoughts on “Sex or Society: the pressure to be attractive (an experiment)

  1. Thanks for posting this/conducting this survey. It’s an interesting question that I don’t think I had really consciously thought about. In some ways I feel pressure to be attractive even if I don’t want to attract anyone, and in other situations I deliberately try to avoid being too “sexy” in case it is perceived as deceptive in some way.
    I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it more. I think there may be a lot there, as you show in the really interesting and varied answers to this survey. Would you mind if I linked to this in a potential future post?

  2. No worries! I thought it was very interesting too, although it didn’t work the way I hoped, methodologically. And please feel free to link back to this post, I would be honoured. 🙂

    I also avoid being perceived as “sexy” – it’s just not something I’m pretty with, because it has that connotation of people maybe wanting something sexual from me that I do not want to give. And that just makes me feel uncomfortable/anxious.

  3. I’ve recently started identifying myself as asexual and couldn’t help, but wonder the same thing. There was a time where I didn’t care what I looked like (12 year old goth girl lol). Then as I aged I wanted to “mature” from that. Then I started more the way I thought I “should”. Now I just want to look nice by my own standards. Thanks for writting this! I’m glad I’m not the only one who wonders these things.

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