Dear Joseph,

In responding to a woman whose husband was mean to her because she was overweight, you wrote that "one of life's unfair aspects is that women tend to be more tolerant of physical imperfections in men than men are of physical imperfections in women." It seems to me that there is a big implication to what you are saying, that women--by not judging men by their looks the way men judge women--are deeper and morally superior to men. I don't have the sense that you're a big feminist, so what do you say to that?

--Women are Kinder

Dear Women are Kinder,

If this were the only issue distinguishing men and women, then you'd be right: greater female openness to men who are not physically attractive would show women to be emotionally and morally deeper than men.

The problem is that while women are more tolerant than men in the area of looks, women tend, like men, to have their own areas of shallowness, specifically, money and professional success. Thus, if you were trying to fix up a man with a woman and told him, "She's gorgeous, bright, and very kind, but she's not that motivated professionally. I don't think she'll ever be a big earner," most men I know would think: "If she's gorgeous, bright, and very kind, I really want to meet her. I can make peace with the fact that she won't bring home a fat paycheck."

On the other hand, if you told most (though obviously not all) women, "There's a guy to whom I want to introduce you. He's really good looking, bright and kind, but not all that successful professionally," I suspect that a far higher percentage of middle-class women (the group I know best), would think, "Well, it's very nice that he's so good looking, bright and kind, but this lack of ambition and low-earning abilities sounds worrisome. I think I'll pass on this one."

A number of women to whom I've outlined this scenario acknowledge that what I've written is pretty much true, but insist that such reasoning does not reflect badly on their sex. As one friend put it: "When a woman looks at a man, she's thinking of building a family with him, and she wants to know that he'll be motivated to support her and their children. There's nothing shallow about that. Security is a more serious consideration than looks."

Perhaps, but I'm only saying that your argument doesn't convince me that women are morally superior to men. In fact, I've long suspected that for many women, money plays the role that looks play for men (enough certainly to earn one a first date, and maybe more). That's why when we hear of an older man married to a much younger woman, we generally assume that he's rich and she's pretty (on the other hand, whether it's fair or unfair, when people hear of a young man with a much older woman, they often assume he has a need for a mother figure). When was the last time you saw a 30-year-old woman on the arm of a man living off his social security check?

In truth, it's a bad idea to turn this into a "who's better?" issue, because life is more complex than that. The attraction of many women to wealth (and there are no shortage of men who are attracted to wealth as well) is, in part, motivated by a desire to have a safe environment for their future family, and by their attraction to the ambitiousness and vitality of a man who's made himself rich (obviously, this would not necessarily follow if the man's wealth was inherited).

Still, what about the tremendous emphasis that many men put on women's looks? What does that say about them? I see it as largely, though not exclusively, due to males possessing a sexual organ that responds involuntarily. In contrast, many women when they meet a man to whom they are not initially attracted, find that as they become increasingly friendly, the man often becomes more physically attractive to them.

The average man, on the other hand, if he is not physically attracted to a woman upon their first meeting, still will not feel physically attracted to her, even if he becomes friendlier with her, and even if he becomes convinced that she is the kindest and most nurturing of people. It is because the male sex organ has a mind of its own and responds involuntarily that looks have come to play so important--I'll acknowledge, too important--a role in how men determine which women to date and to marry. (I've even heard men try to articulate a moral rationale justifying their pursuit only of women they regard as beautiful: "If I marry a woman who has a great character, but to whom I'm not very attracted, I'll probably find myself lusting after other women, and end up committing adultery.")

There are some fortunate mitigating factors. Most important, tastes in attractiveness hardly are uniform: I've noticed plenty of married women who don't meet Western standards of beauty. Similarly, I have heard men wax poetic about their wives, specifically focusing on their great beauty, when I suspect that few other males would share their assessment. "Beauty," as has been drummed into our heads since childhood, "is in the eyes of the beholder."

But having said that, if I make it to the afterworld, and am given the opportunity to pose some questions to the Almighty, I definitely plan to ask God both why He chose to make men so attracted to women's looks (as opposed to character, for example), and why he made some people physically unattractive.

Finally, do I think women are better than men? No, rather I'm inclined to agree with the assessment of Golda Meir, Israel's late and extraordinarily common-sensical prime minister: "Whether women are better than men, I don't know. But they're certainly not worse."

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