Dear Mixed Feelings,
A good friend of mine is head over heels for a woman he met on Tinder, and I am so angry about this relationship I can’t even bring myself to speak to him. The relationship started with a late night hookup: she came to his house for sex and two weeks later she is still there. He is the sole parent of two children who are young (but not so young that they don’t understand what is going on) and a teenager who comes on the weekends. He has told his kids he’s having a sexual relationship with this woman, which probably was obvious since she seems to spend most of her days in his bed.
The source my anger over this relationship has nothing to do with how they met or that she has seemingly moved into his house. My problem with the arrangement is that while my friend is almost fifty, the woman he now claims is his soulmate is twenty-one, only three years older than his oldest son.
I have a spent a lot of time trying to unpack why this age difference makes me so angry. I am not prone to moralizing and I genuinely believe that what people do in their own relationships is none of my business. I know that society at large wants to tell me that I am jealous. That competition is the basis of all relationships between women. That I am now of an age when I am on the losing end of this competition, whereas this woman has just started winning. But the one thing I know is that my feelings on this have nothing to do with me, or how I feel about myself as a sexual being. My feelings about this relationship don’t even seem to have much to do with the two people in the relationship. I am angry at the world.
This woman will likely be gone from my friend’s life in a matter of weeks. I will stop being angry at him. We will continue to be good friends. He is, when all is said and done, a lovely person who has his own struggles. But I know in my heart that the way that I feel about this situation right now is not going to go away any time soon. I feel that if anyone can help me understand this, Mixed Feelings, it’s you!
December–May Not Okay
Maybe you heard the story circulating last month about the French author Yann Moix. In an interview with Marie Claire, Moix admitted that he, a fifty-year-old man, found himself “incapable” of loving women his own age, adding that women over fifty were basically “invisible” to him. Instead, he prefers the bodies of twenty-five-year-olds.
Of course readers responded with outrage. Twitter users began posting images of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston. See, their posts said, Fifty can still be hot. Some women responded that they were glad to be invisible to men like Moix. Others sent him photos of their breasts and butts in an attempt to make a point about what exactly he was missing. In hopes of defending himself, Moix argued that his preference in women could not be helped: “I like who I like and I do not have to answer to the court of taste.”
As your letter suggests, Moix is far from alone in his preferences. A study by OkCupid found that as women age, their preferred partner ages along with them. But as men age, their preferences do not change. In fact, one pretty disturbing chart shows that men from age twenty to fifty are, on average, primarily attracted to women between twenty and twenty-two. Even our movies seem to suggest that an older man with a significantly younger woman is a normal pairing. Female leads are rarely older than their male counterparts—unless the plot is explicitly about a creepy older woman seducing an innocent younger man.
A lot of folks buy into Moix’s idea that our sense of what’s attractive is purely biological and beyond individual control. In a 1989 survey, researcher David Buss found that men preferred to marry younger women (by an average of 2.66 years) across thirty-seven different cultures. Buss argued that this was evidence of evolutionary forces causing men to seek women who are younger and thus more fertile. Of course, one might also read this data as evidence that patriarchal norms persist across cultures, norms suggesting that women are most valued for their sexuality, along with their willingness to subvert their own ambitions to help a man achieve his. A study published a decade later found that as gender equality increased in a given country, “men decreased their interest in choosing mates for their skill as domestic workers” and “expressed less preference for younger women.” Researchers Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood concluded that “sex differences in age preferences reflect a sex-differentiated division of labor.” In other words, heterosexual relationships with big age gaps are more likely to include traditionally gendered roles—man as breadwinner, woman as caregiver. There are tons of other studies on this subject, suggesting that either biological or social forces are responsible for the seemingly persistent fact that men prefer younger women.
To be honest, I don’t actually care whether Moix’s preferences are socially constructed or biologically determined. The problem with biological determinism is that is suggests that such preferences are “normal,” which also kind of implies that they’re totally okay and should never be challenged. But there are all kinds of evolutionarily determined preferences that don’t work very well in our modern lives. For example, research suggests that we’ve evolved to love the taste of sugar and fat, but most of us don’t go around eating birthday cake for every meal; we make rational choices that prioritize our health and well-being all the time. So whether the message comes from our genes or our culture, the fact remains that the world we live in fetishizes youth as the key to a woman’s beauty, desirability, and social relevance.
My point is, of course you’re angry at a world bent on delineating your increasing irrelevance. I am, too! Anger is, in many ways, an appropriate response to your friend’s situation. You can be sex positive and still think that what he’s doing is problematic. You can avoid moralizing about the way his sexuality impacts his children and still care that he’s reinforcing tired sexist attitudes in his own home.
We’re justified in our anger, but still I keep wondering: Rather than accept that this version of desire is “normal” or inevitable, rather than pointing out that Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry are easily as hot as most twenty-five-year-olds, how might we respond differently?
I’m thirty-seven, still a ways from invisibility in Yann Moix’s eyes, but thus far I can say with total sincerity that I have loved aging. For every difficulty that has come with getting older (and here I’m counting some genuinely hard stuff like chronic pain and infertility), so much about my life has gotten better over time. I don’t struggle with the social anxiety that characterized my teens or the uncertainty that shaped my twenties. Now, after a bunch of attempts and mistakes, I’m finally making a life I love. Things aren’t always easy or straightforward but I trust myself to navigate the hard parts in ways I never could when I was younger.
Honestly, I can’t be bothered to prove to a fifty-year-old man that older women are still hot. What I’d really like to do is just give up on male standards of value altogether. Because when I look around at the women I love and admire, I feel genuinely excited about my future. Some of my best friends are hitting it out of the park in their forties and fifties. They are writing books and giving talks, mentoring high schoolers, housing refugees, parenting, gardening, dancing, and running marathons. And they’re gorgeous—not like Jennifer Aniston, but like real, wise, self-actualized humans. My mom just turned sixty and she spends her days refinishing old furniture and making ice cream. She’s surrounded herself with the people and things she loves and she doesn’t worry about the rest of it. It’s aspirational. To me, this version of beauty is so much more durable, so much more valuable than the fragile, flimsy beauty Yann Moix is looking for.
As we age—you, me, Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, and even your friend’s new girlfriend—the world will continue to tell us that we are invisible. This is more or less guaranteed. And as I see it, we have two choices: we can strain to approximate a conventional standard of beauty for as long as possible—whether through cosmetics or Botox or fad diets or plastic surgery—or we can completely reimagine what’s valuable in a human being.
Last year, I was lucky enough to get invited to the All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House. Not only was it basically the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me, it was master class in the power and beauty of womxn. I sat in on so many great talks that weekend, but my favorite was from Rebecca Walker—on the subject of beauty as a mode of resistance. Walker urges us to reimagine beauty, turning it from something that’s defined for us by culture (and sold to us by corporations) into something we cultivate within ourselves:
I’m suggesting that we begin to take note, both viscerally and intellectually, of what makes us feel strong, safe, connected, loved, interested, and inspired. I’m suggesting we use those feelings as our measurement of what is beautiful.
Before hearing Walker speak, it had never occurred to me that beauty could be a source of power—not sexual power over men or the social power of looking like Halle Berry in a bikini, but a deeper, more innate kind of power. As she concludes (and really, you should watch the entire talk), Walker suggests that we “truly examine the ideas we hold sacred” by asking ourselves if those ideas “bring a sense of peace, ease, and compassion, curiosity, and delight.” I don’t know about you, but the thought of my impending social and sexual invisibility doesn’t bring delight, much less compassion or curiosity. Why are we holding so tightly to the notion that a toned butt and an advanced skincare regime is the only way to stay relevant in the world?
Letting go of these ideas about a woman’s value feels like the obvious thing to do, but it’s really hard. I notice the lines on my forehead every time I look in the mirror. And while I doubt Yann Moix is using Vitamin C serum before bed every night, I know I am.
Walker cites Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of the Erotic,” wherein she defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” If I’d read this essay a few years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what Lorde meant by this. Now, I get it. The erotic, as Lorde defines it, is a kind of bodily intuition, a way of noticing what feels good or right, and what doesn’t. To have erotic knowledge and power is to know and trust your senses, the messages you receive from your own body. And the beautiful thing about this knowledge is that, while it’s hard to trust your body at age twenty-five, the longer you live in that body, the easier it gets.
When you say, “I know in my heart that the way that I feel about this situation is not going to go away any time soon,” you’re speaking from the erotic—knowledge that comes from love in all its forms. You’re angry because you love your friend, because you want more from him, because you want more from the world. Lorde says, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to purse genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Your friend and Yann Moix and so many other people are caught up in this same weary drama of defining what’s beautiful in the simplest terms possible. It’s boring and predictable. It makes the world smaller and less interesting. So this Valentine’s Day, I’m writing a love letter to those who, in Walker’s words, make me feel “strong, safe, connected, loved, interested, and inspired”—to the women who have modeled for me a more beautiful way to be. This includes you, December–May Not Okay, for your compassion in the face of anger, for loving your friends, for wanting more from this world.
Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.