Perhaps the popular magazines say it all. Allure, a beauty magazine aimed at women, ran an appreciation last month of three beauty icons: Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At the same time, Esquire ("The Magazine for Men") touted a feature called "Women We Love" with a cover photo of Madonna in black-leather underwear and a diamond dog collar and chain.
Call it the difference between a man's woman and a woman's woman. If women tend to admire cool, even icy, beauty, men are drawn to flesh and warmth.
Just ask men, for example, who they'd rather have gone out with, Marilyn Monroe or Jackie Kennedy? A few men said Jackie for reasons ethereal, but more typical is the response of Rick Sivulich, a building contractor from Yonkers, N.Y.
"Monroe!" he said, seeming stunned even at the suggestion that Jackie was beautiful. "Are you serious? I hate to talk about her because she passed away. [But] she didn't have a gorgeous body and didn't have a gorgeous face. . . . Why would you say she's beautiful?"
Tell that to all the women comparing their wide-rimmed sunglasses and brushing off their Chanel look-alike suits in the weeks after Jackie died.
No accounting for taste
Even experts will say when it comes to physical attraction, there's no accounting for taste. "We work in a tremendously subjective industry," says Billy Serow, a partner in the New York firm Godlove, Serow and Sindlinger, which casts commercials. "And the more I've done over the years it's almost like the less I know."
But he offers a personal opinion of how men and women differ: "If somebody is a little trashy, more like something forbidden, lusty, sensual, that's something a man is absolutely drawn to and I think a woman might be more reserved in her judgment of someone who looks like that."
Consider, says Mr. Serow, Anna Nicole Smith, the jeans model and Playboy Playmate who recently made news by marrying an 89-year-old oil baron who uses a wheelchair. "I would guarantee you, if you ask 10 women on the street, what do you think of her looks they'd answer, 'She's cheap, disgusting,' " he says. "Ask the men and I would say if they're normal, red-blooded, heterosexual men, nine of out of 10 men would have an intense desire to have sex with this woman."
Date or mate?
OK, so few men get choices anything like this in the everyday world of dating. And there may be a distinction between the type of woman a man says he wants to date, and the woman he will marry. There may also be distinctions between what is attractive to a man in his 20s or his 30s or his 40s.
Still, as a rule, there is a strong perception among men that a woman cannot be trusted to assess another woman's looks. When they are fixed up, for example, men will tell you they trust their men friends to tell them who's attractive, but when a woman fixes them up, until the door opens, there is, as one single man says, a "heavy cloud of suspicion."
"I get an awful lot of 'She's really cute,' " says Steven Usdan, a 33-year-old self-employed manufacturer and importer in New York. "And then she turns out to be really not cute."
Sean Galvin, a 42-year-old college administrator and folklorist, says, "You can always see what it was. Your careers are similar. Your interests are similar. But she's a little overweight, or a little not cute but a girlfriend has seen beyond that . . . I'm not going to say it's an innate kind of thing, but I think . . . there's a lingua franca in terms of a guy talking to another guy. I would definitely say the women are looking into the person and men are going by bare bones measurements."
The differences can reach amusing proportions. Mr. Usdan
recalls a conversation with a woman friend about Holly Hunter's performance in the movie "The Piano." He found her "very sensuous." "Not classically beautiful," he says. "But there was something going on." His woman friend said she found Ms. Hunter annoying and irritating. "I can't stand her," she told him. "I hate her voice." Little matter that, as Mr. Usdan points out, Ms. Hunter doesn't speak through the film.
But who wouldn't be confused? What attracts any one person to another is probably one of the defining mysteries of life. What's at work here may be the idea expressed by one 39-year-old single man. People react to each other with head, heart and, well, loins -- but not necessarily in that order.
To be sure, most men will look to physical attributes first although few probably go as far as one man who says his friends have refined their rating system into the decimal points. But probe deeper about what's attractive and what men seem to want is what anyone would want, a package. Looks plus personality. Intelligence and warmth. And availability, sexual and otherwise. "Someone who is just too perfect can really be a turnoff," says Andrew Jarmus, who is 42 and a psychotherapist in New York.
Zest for life
"But someone who just exudes a certain zest for life is someone I would be interested in looking at and possibly striking up a conversation with, someone who seems approachable, not distant or pretentious."
Mr. Usdan says he's not stuck on any specific physical type although he chose "the young Jackie" in our survey. "It doesn't matter," he says. "I just really like women."
So, the bottom line is to be yourself and hope it's a match.
"It just works or it doesn't," says Mr. Usdan. "You go on and meet and have to basically ignore everyone's packaging. You have to take a chance because nobody gets it right."