What women want I

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

I've decided to spend a bunch of time focused on helping men understand women.

We are, it's true, a complex stew of contradictory feelings and ideas. We are mysterious and sometimes demanding. But we're also AMAZING and totally worth the effort!

So each one of these will identify something that women want, and offer some ideas about how to give it to them.

First thing women want: Women want to feel good about their bodies.

But it's really, really, really, really, really, really difficult in the face of multiple generations of pressure from the media to be thin, young and beautiful or be worthless.

"Easy!" you think to yourself. "I can compliment her!"

So let me tell you this story. A couple weeks ago I met up with a friend and his buddy at a bar. The buddy, call him Ulrich, seemed nice enough, kind of arrogant, but fine. My friend went off to get another drink, leaving me and Ulrich to chat about the Olympics, which were on TV. So I'm vaguely watching the race and blathering on about how I've had a maternal sort of affection for Apollo Anton Ono ever since he sambaed to "I Like to Move It" on Dancing with the Stars. We start talking about attractiveness and symmetry (I swear he brought it up, not me!) and he goes:

HIM: You're a very attractive woman.
ME: (eyes dart from race to Ulrich and back) Uh. Thanks.
HIM: You are. It's not a compliment, it's just a fact.
ME: (eyes now glued avoidantly on race) Uh... thank you.

And here's what that conversation sounded like in my head:

HIM: I've assessed your physical appearance and judged it to meet or exceed my minimum standards.
ME: Um, ew. I have a brain and a life.
HIM: I'm interested in your body. I'd like you to think about me in terms of how I might interact with your body.
ME: Um, Double ew! I have a brain, a life, AND standards. Fuck off forever!

The moral of the story here is that if you talk to a woman about her physical appearance, it will seem like that (and only that) is what's important to you. She will feel like an object, like a nice table lamp you're considering taking home and incorporating into your decor.

If you actually like the girl and want to get to know her better (or even if you just want a fair shot at taking her to bed), don't compliment her appearance.

How on earth, you ask, are you supposed to help a woman feel good about her body, which is where this all started? And fair enough, if you can't TELL a woman you think she looks great, what are you supposed to do? Well.

Step 1. Actually be attracted to her. If you can't do this, skip the rest of this post and go read some feminist critiques of the media.

Step 2. (The hard part) Memorize this idea: Her body is the home of the person. She lives in it every day, experiences emotions through it, has ideas in it, makes jokes with and about it. Her body is her personhood and it belongs entirely to her; it is a gift she got for being born, as yours is a gift to you and folks get to decide when and where they're interested in sharing these gifts. She's much more likely to decide to share if she believes you'll appreciate it as the literal embodiment of her personhood, even if she has a hard time appreciating that fact herself. Her body is? The home of the person, that's right.

Step 3. (The easy part) When she says, "Oh I hate my belly," you say, "I love it." When she says, "My boobs are too big/small/saggy/pointy/high/low/whatever," you say, "I love them." When she says, "My thighs are huge and gross," you say, "I love your thighs." Got it? And why do you love them? Because her body, all those parts she criticizes, are HER. Again, the key is being attracted to her as a person, and being honest about that. (Don't YOU buy into the media myths about dangerously thin mid-adolescents as the height of attractiveness. )

Remember, there is virtually no body party a woman can't feel self-conscious about. Facial features, hands, feet, fingers, knees, calves and triceps are as hateable as boobs, bellies, butts, thighs and genitals. She can hate anything and everything about herself. Have patience with her; billions of dollars are spent annually to remind her that she's ugly and that her ugliness makes her fundamentally unlovable.

Also remember that nothing you say or do will take away the decades of voices telling her how flawed she is. It's not your job to undo all that tangled knot of nonsense; your job is not to contribute. You can be a supportive "mirror" (as opposed to the "funhouse mirror" of the media), showing her the beauty you see, and gradually your vision, along with her own personal growth, will countervail the cultural messages.


And finally, the answer all men seem to need. The only correct answer to, "Do I look fat in this?" is:

"You're beautiful."

Not "You look beautiful" or "It's fine," but "You are beautiful." Got it? Okay.

More "What women want:"
Part II

Part III

Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

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