Women Rule! So Why Do They Tart Themselves Up?

February 6th, 2009

I've always wondered: why do women go in for elaborate clothing, makeup, and all those other things that (along with certain innate characteristics) make them so alluring to us males, while men dress relatively drably? It's not universal, of course, but it's the rule throughout much of the world.

Among pre-agricultural peoples, primates, almost every mammal, and most animals in general, it's almost always males that go in for the elaborate decoration and displays to attract and convince mates.

The evolutionary reasons for males' displays are fairly simple: sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive. So females are more choosy about who gets to inseminate their valuable eggs. And in species where females carry or care for children, their investment is even higher. Now add: female humans–uniquely among primates at least–face an extraordinarily high chance of dying in childbirth.

Women have every reason to be choosy–to pick men who have good genes and/or can be relied on to stick around and take good care of them and their children. And males have every reason to engage in displays and competitions to overcome that choosiness, convincing women to mate with them. And women have reason to encourage that display and competition–so they can choose more effectively.

So why are women the flamboyant displayers (at least regarding physical appearance)?

I have a theory–one that I haven't found articulated despite quite a lot of reading about evolutionary psychology.

But first, the thing that got me thinking about this today:

As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force. Peter DaSilva for The New York Times. With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history… a full 82 percent of the job losses have befallen men

This is profound. Add the fact that 60% of college students (and graduates) are women, and they're predominating in many graduate and professional programs, and what we're seeing is not just an ameliorization, but an overturning of the social structure that has prevailed for ten thousand years of "civilization." (Taking place over just a century, and primarily over three or four decades.)

Put aside the many related issues. (Women have to work, families need two incomes, etc.) In the competition for success in the modern job market, women are winning. (At least when it comes to getting jobs, still not always getting paid as well.)

So here's my theory: women are innately just plain better at modern society. Now that the discrimination powered by men's direct and indirect physical coercion has been greatly tamed, that superiority is showing itself.

So when women dress up to attract men, they're doing it because there aren't enough good men–men who can thrive in decidedly non-savanna, non-hunter/gatherer conditions–and women have to compete for them.

As the father of two rather spectacular teenage girls (one of whom just got into University of Chicago early admission, despite the damnable gender imbalance in applicants, and despite the most competitive year–largest high-school graduating class ever–before or ensuing), I'm quite fond of this theory. I'd love to hear if it's been discussed elsewhere (undoubtedly in terms far more cogent and knowledgeable than mine).

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