The Counterpart to Beauty

The complementarity of women and men is sometimes characterised as being between beauty and strength. Are these the relevant opposites? What is the counterpart to beauty?

Beauty as Symbol of the Feminine

We have become so used to the idea of beauty as emblematic of the feminine that we hardly stop to think about it. Of course we admit that a man can be beautiful too, in various ways. Yet if we mean he is good looking we would say 'handsome' rather than beautiful. If you hear a woman say "He is such a beautiful man" she would usually not be referring to looks but to something about his manner or character.

In any case, women have basically got the market cornered on beauty as symbol. So what would the counterpart be for men?

Fill in the blank: 'Beauty is to woman' what '_________ is to man'?

One answer that is commonly given is 'strength'. Yet that seems to be only an indirect counterpart rather than a direct parallel. This becomes more apparent when you consider the attraction between the sexes, especially if you were wanting to recommend what each sex could do to be more attractive to the other.

The beauty of women correlates fairly directly with sexual attraction, so that if a woman asked, "What should I do to become more attractive to men?" the reply would normally be "Try to make yourself more beautiful". But if a man asked, "What should I do to become more attractive to women" the reply would not usually be "Try to make yourself stronger". Although there might be some metaphorical sense in that advice it is not direct or literal in the way that advising a woman to accentuate her beauty would be. If a man went out and started lifting weights it would in no way be directly comparable to a woman putting on makeup and wearing a sexy outfit.

Strength as Symbol of the Masculine

In what sense then is strength symbolic of the masculine? To clarify we need to make a distinction between masculinity as sexual and masculinity as paternal-familial. It makes sense to symbolise men's paternal-familial role as strength. A man is expected to protect and provide, and strength is an apt symbol of what it takes to do this. It involves courage, endurance and strength of character to be a good father and provider for a family.

Having made this distinction we can also clarify something about the symbolism of the feminine. We could identify the maternal-familial dimension as nurture, and the sexual dimension as beauty.

So strength would be the counterpart to nurture, not to beauty.

This helps us to identify more clearly what we are seeking. We now have two pairs of symbols, not just one.





In order to give men more guidance in the area of sexual attraction we need a clearer concept of what the counterpart to beauty is. The waters are muddied a bit by the fact that the notion of strength has already been commonly used as an analogy for its opposite. So men are urged to be gentle and tender, and these have been proposed as examples of strength. Yet they are opposites. They are not contradictory opposites but they are complementary opposites. Strength is the ability to apply force strongly. By contrast there are situations where 'force' has to be applied gently, even delicately. It confuses the issue to simply equate them.

Attentiveness as the Counterpart to Beauty

I would propose that the counterpart to beauty is attentiveness. What is it that makes a man more attractive to women? That is, what can a man do directly and immediately to be perceived as more attractive? We are not speaking here of the background conditions that makes a man seem masculine in general. We are considering what a man might do in an encounter with a woman, as a parallel to a woman accentuating her beauty. What should a man accentuate?

Generally speaking women are looking for men to be more attentive.

This means making a woman the centre of attention, being more gentle and considerate in manner towards her, not being off-handed or casual but careful of her sensibilities, not speaking roughly, seeking her opinion first, asking her about herself. In brief, to make her the centre of his attention, and to do so in a considerate and refined manner.

But isn't being attentive the opposite of what men usually do? It depends what you mean. Men's emotionality is primarily patterned by attentiveness to the physical world and the world of ideas. They pay close attention to things, to what they look like, to how they work. They typically develop types of work or hobbies involving detailed attention to some field of interest. Some focus mainly on physical things, while others focus more on ideas. Either way it is a quality of paying objective rather than subjective attention.

When it comes to matters of sexual attraction, men pay close attention to women. They look closely at them and feel significance in what they see. Their sexual feelings are mediated to a significant degree visually. This is why women's key tactic in trying to be attractive to men is to enhance their physical beauty. Men are fine-tuned for that sort of cue.

From Outer to Inner

It is common when speaking of women's beauty to contrast 'outer beauty' and 'inner beauty'. A woman who only accentuates her outer beauty will soon come to seem a bit superficial. Men are more perceptive than they are often given credit for. Sure, they appreciate visual beauty, but they hope it will be a sign of inner beauty, of goodness, and also of some refinement of sensibility. Men know they tend to be 'rougher' than women, so they are looking for a contrast. They look for a beautiful quality of presence in women.

In a similar way, men's attentiveness needs to develop so that it does not stay focused only on outer beauty, but actively seeks inner beauty. A man's outer attentiveness needs to become more refined so that he can effectively convey the delicacy of his appreciation. His attention needs to become less objective and more personal. This doesn't mean that he no longer perceives outer beauty but he is able to see what it is that a woman is hoping for from him.

For men, 'attentiveness is a virtue'.

This might seem at first like a recommendation for men to become more like women. But neither men nor women want this. Women are not looking for wimps but for strong men who know how to pay the right kind of attention to a woman. There is more 'emotional value' in a strong man being tender and attentive than the same behaviour from a weak, passive or effeminate man. The contrast accentuates the attraction.

Now we can see how strength can relate also to the symbolisation of masculine sexuality. It provides the background, the context against which attentiveness stands out by contrast. Women are quite open to a highly masculine strength that gives context to a man's refined attentiveness, and even to some playful evocations of unrefined masculinity. But as a guiding concept in men's formation in sexual relationship, attentiveness is more helpful as the main focus.