The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human
April 19th, 2010

Raise your hand if you’ve never primped for a date. 

Did you raise your hand?  Then you’re a liar.  We’ve all done it.  From the extensive prom night hair and makeup fiascos of our youth to the quick dab of concealer and mascara (or spritz of cologne, menfolk) prior to a casual lunch with your spouse, we’ve all spruced ourselves up for the opposite sex at some point.

I bring this up because recently I’ve been mulling over something paradoxical about primping.  When it came out a couple of years ago GAP and I got hooked on the Planet Earth nature series produced by the Discovery Channel and the BBC.  Its follow-up, Life, is currently airing. 

In watching these shows I’ve seen some incredible animals doing incredible things.  As is the case with nature, some of the more amazing scenes are of mating rituals.  A pair of water birds in Oregon essentially performs a courtship dance prior to mating.  Male species fight to the death (when necessary) over potential mates and mating territory.  And then there are the wooing techniques, which are what really stuck with me.

In nature, it is the male of each species whose physical characteristics are most striking.  Thinking of the common animals I see routinely, male cardinals are bright red and male mallards have striking green heads.  Their female counterparts are both plain brown.  Getting a bit more exotic, male lions have thick manes, and male peacocks have brilliantly colored feathers.  And in my recollection from the televised series it is the males of nearly any other species whose appearance changes most significantly during mating season to impress available female mates.

This all seems quite normal in the context of a televised nature show.  But what struck me about it is that in the human species we have evolved in quite the other direction.  Barring the metrosexual male for a moment, when have you ever known a man to routinely spend an hour getting ready for an event?  When has the man in your life (or you yourself if you’re a man) spent time blow drying, curling, or straightening your hair; or using half a dozen brushes of various sizes and shapes to apply makeup with just the right shading and blending; or routinely gone for facials, manicures, or pedicures; or gotten waxed?  These elaborate (and sometimes painful and invasive) rituals are, for the most part, exclusive to women. 

Sure, some of these things we do for ourselves (a mani/pedi – especially when I don’t smudge the polish – is one of my favorite pampering treats), but largely these beauty contortions are done for someone else.  And said contortions tend to get the most elaborate when that someone else is a romantic interest of some kind.     

So jumping back to the animal kingdom, how did our mating rituals get so mixed up?  Assuming that we humans are smarter than any other species, perhaps the animals have it all wrong.  But understanding that we are vastly outnumbered by species in which the male animal goes to great lengths to attract a mate, then perhaps we have it all wrong.  Perhaps I should have spent my college years showing up to parties in jeans, old rugby shirts, and tattered baseball caps.  And perhaps I should have expected the frat guys to spend an hour or more primping and plucking in order to woo me away from my spot against the wall so that I could invite them up to my room to “listen to this cool new CD I just got.”  Somehow, though, I suspect that such a tack might have rendered me single for the duration of my college years.

It’s not that I’m really interested in playing the part of the effortless guy in these scenarios.  Mostly I’m curious about how it is that within human populations the burden was transferred so wholly to the woman’s shoulders.  Men are eager mates.  That will never change.  Given this, when and why did women start working so hard to garner their attention?

Certainly things balance out during a courtship, wherein the man traditionally bears more of the responsibility for planning dates, impressing the woman he’s pursuing, and ultimately proving himself a worthy partner.  But when it comes to first impressions, it is the women who sport teased manes and colorful faces. 

Nevertheless, I am a product of my culture.  I like getting dolled up.  I love it when I manage to get my eye shadow to blend just so, and when my hair bounces with silky shine against my shoulders.  I love putting on a new outfit for the first time.  And I love the way small drop earrings catch the light against my neck.  Apparently my skills in this arena are respectably well-honed, because more than ten years ago I caught the attention of GAP.  But I wonder what his response to me would have been without the made-up face, painstakingly chosen outfits, and gallons of freesia-scented body spray?

I won’t ever know.  And I don’t foresee this established cultural norm changing anytime soon.  So I will continue wonder about this with the understanding that it will likely continue to perplex me for quite some time.

PS – If my title today threw you for a loop, it’s the title of a movie from the late 90′s that GAP and I once regretably rented during a snowed-in weekend in the upper midwest.  The title was the best thing about it.

11 Responses to “The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Such an interesting post. Has me wondering how much of primping is rooted in biology. Maybe it is that men and women do different things to attract mates? Many men certainly go to great lengths – think fancy and fast cars, exotic vacations, other quintessential markers of “success” – to attract women. Maybe there are many – and varied – levels of primping?

    Thanks for making me think on this Monday morning :)

    (Isn’t Life amazing?)

  2. Elaine Says:

    I may be privy to inside info….I think it was the unmade up you that caught GAP’s eye. Freckles on a clean face have a way of doing that – especially when that face has sparkly eyes and a vibrant smile.

  3. Gale Says:

    Aidan – Thanks for this comment. I hadn’t even considered these other varieties of success markers. You are right – women rarely go to these lengths when it comes to signals that are external to our personal appearance. I love blogging for the various perspectives it brings. Thanks again for making me look at this from yet another angle.

  4. Jeanna Says:

    My opinion is that primping is more for impressing other women. We want to be the prettiest and best dressed woman at the party. Guys I’ve talked to don’t usually notice if we have our nails & hair done or have makup on. I met my hubby at college, not at parties but in the classroom. Everyday I wore sweats, my hair in a ponytail and no makeup. To this day I still get the most compliments from him when I have my hair haphazardly in a ponytail … not when I think I look my best.

  5. Anne Says:

    I like Aidan’s point…men may not primp and preen the way women do, but they find other ways to try and “impress” those they want to date. Or mate. And I like Jeanna’s idea too…women often dress for other women.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Yeah, for men it’s about the car, the money, the flashy watch.

    I’m like you, though. I like being able to primp sometimes. Thank GOD I don’t have to live in a world without makeup.

    That Life series is awesome, isn’t it?

  7. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Gale, and for inspiring a series of intriguing comments. You know, like Jeanna said, my husband insists that he prefers me without make-up than with so perhaps there really is something to the idea that women make the effort for themselves or for other women, rather than for the men in their life. And if we primp for the benefit of other women, perhaps we’re marking our territory, so to speak? Sort of like saying: this is mine; stay away?

    Big fans of Life over here too. We are watching some of the episodes with Big Boy (probably should have pre-screened “Hunters” before sharing it with him – oops!).

  8. Jane Says:

    Love this post! You got me thinking about how I’m “primping” less as I get more settled in my marriage. And that’s NOT a good thing.

  9. Eva Says:

    Oh, such great comments here. Very interesting conversation!

    I love the word you use, Gale: “contortions.” True, we contort ourselves so much for the sake of beauty. Wearing high heels (however adorable they are), tight skirts, layers of makeup. And I love wearing makeup – I feel more confident when I do. But oh how I love the weekends without it!

  10. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I also think Aidan makes an interesting point. Personally, I don’t primp for other women. I put on a modicum of “stuff” when I go out. Period. If going on a date, a little differently. And when in Europe, less makeup, in fact, as I find that the amount of makeup/primping done where I live would be too much in the countries I typically visit.

    That said, I dress better (differently?) overseas. Primping of a different sort. And all of it – to me – pleasurable.

  11. Mama Needs a Brand New Bag: Scent of a Woman « Motherese Says:

    [...] on a terrific post by Gale at Ten Dollar Thoughts on primping and the interesting discussion that followed in the comments section, I got to thinking [...]