Why men are afraid of being invisible

Shirtless man one arm handstand pose

Commenters on the Hollaback harassment video aren’t entirely wrong when they say that men are just asking for validation.

When I wrote about the Hollaback Project’s street harassment video, the comments section was deluged with men insisting that they’d love to be harassed like that. I was willing to disregard these complaints—after all, most men who talk about how they’d like to be cat-called change their tune when other men are doing the holla’ing—until something unusual happened a few days ago.

I was headed to the gym, same as I’d done for years. Only this time, one of the women working the front desk looked up after taking my keys and said, “Wow, I really like what you did with your hair!”

It was the first time she’d ever made a comment about my appearance in all the years I’d been going to the gym. Her tone of voice made it clear that this was sincere. I was surprised—as far as I was concerned, the only thing I’d done differently was dye my hair for Halloween and it hadn’t faded yet—but I wasn’t going to take someone’s appreciation of my looks for granted.

What struck me, though, was how that little moment of validation stuck with me through most of the day. A compliment—especially an attractive stranger spontaneously telling me I looked good—is rare outside of my relationships. That feeling of novelty and strangeness drove home just why so many men long for similar acknowledgement—we live in a society where male beauty is only barely acknowledged and rarely celebrated to the level that women’s is. Many men feel sexually invisible by virtue of being male—they sincerely feel that male sexuality is worth less than women’s because society encourages a celebration of female sexuality while many men long for similar attention.

Many, many men crave the feeling of being desired and valued sexually, and they aren’t getting it.

The Invisible Men

“You see someone trying to intimidate and harass women. I see someone crying out: ‘Notice me! Pay attention to me! I exist!’”

This was a sampling of one of the many comments I received on my article about the Hollaback street harassment video. Men claimed that because they are so invisible—culturally, socially and sexually—they resort to seemingly desperate measures in order to be noticed at all. And while equating street harassment to someone desperately wanting someone to acknowledge them is ridiculous on its face, it’s a very real anxiety that many men feel. I hear it over and over again in the letters I get from readers. I see it in complaints people leave on dating advice subreddits, in discussions about online dating—men insisting over and over again that society has so devalued male sexuality and masculine attractiveness that they feel functionally invisible.

It’s tempting to disregard these complaints and the idea that male sexuality is worth less than female sexuality when you take even the most cursory look at society. The Western world is a literal celebration of (cisgender, heterosexual) masculine sexual desire. Almost everywhere you look, heterosexual men—and their penises—are being catered to, with women being served up over and over again for masculine gratification. Appealing to male sexual desire is the go-to marketing technique when Madison Avenue wants to put a product in men’s hands—even when the sexualization of the product makes no goddamn sense.

But when you drill right down to it, the complaint that these men have isn’t that society is ignoring male sexuality, it’s that they feel excluded from it. They may be surrounded by celebrations of sexually powerful men and their conquests, but they’re unable to partake; like Tantalus, they may be surrounded by a culture that tells men that they’re sexually valid, but it recedes from them whenever they try to join in.

Over on my Facebook page, I tossed out the invitation to my readers to talk about why they felt sexually invisible and what that meant to them—and they delivered in spades. It served as a fascinating cross-section of anxieties that men feel when it comes to sexual desirability. Many feel that they are undesirable by definition—that masculine beauty simply doesn’t exist. Others feel that they’re incapable of being seen as a sexual being because of factors beyond their control—their race, their height or their body type. 

In fact, I’ve heard from many Southeast Asian and Indian men that they’re unsexy by definition—stereotypes abound about penis size, sexual immaturity and social obtuseness. Still more feel that their entire identity as men is wrapped up in what they can provide—that women will simply use them for material gain while seeking sexual fulfillment elsewhere. Others feel excluded because they don’t meet hyper-masculine standards. And of course, one of the most common complaints is simply that women don’t respond to men the way that men do to women—that men have to do the approaching and hope they pass muster.

It’s tempting to wave it away, to tell them that they’re just whining or feeling entitled to women’s attentions. After all, plenty of women also receive little to no wanted sexual attention and are told to meet unbelievably restrictive standards in order to be seen as desirable.

However, rather than simply being a case of men complaining that they’re not receiving the attention that they “deserve,” it’s becoming increasingly clear that more and more men are getting caught in the same traps that have ensnared women for generations and have fewer resources for getting that validation.

The Desire To Be Desirable

It’s not terribly surprising that there are few “acceptable” outlets for the appreciation of desirable men. For decades, the male gaze has been the presumed default of the audience, even if the audience is presumed to be mixed genders. Women are presented as something to be consumed while men—even good looking, shirtless men—are aspirational figures rather than as objects of desire. 

Of course, much of this belief is rooted in the fact that for the last 200 years, we’ve been trying to convince women that they don’t have sexual desires and the ones who did were defective or insane. Proponents of evolutionary psychology attempt to rationalize confirmation bias surrounding female sexual desire into science—the classic “sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive” argument, insisting that women choose sexual partners based not on lust but on cold economics. Men didn’t need to be desirable; the slovenly man could get, perhaps deserves to get, the hot wife or girlfriend—an idea reinforced repeatedly in pop culture.

Of course, it was only relatively recently that society was willing to admit that the female gaze even existed, never mind became willing to cater to it. In fact, there is still considerable resistance to the idea that women are visually aroused, the same way men are.

But with the increasing acceptance of women’s desire came a perverse consequence: The sudden and sharp rise of body dysmorphic disorders in men.

There’s a certain bitter irony to this predicament; for generations, women have been measured against absurd standards of beauty—even impossible ones. Now men are increasingly feeling the pressure to measure up against their idols, as Hollywood’s leading men become more bulky and cut. James Bond used to be played by range of body types from the “passably fit” Sean Connery to the “doughy” Roger Moore, but he was never a sex symbol until Daniel Craig’s abs strutted out of the ocean in tiny shorts. Men’s magazines are festooned with covers extolling the story of how Chris Pratt went from chunk to hunk, exercise regimens to give you the body of 300’s King Leonidas and Joe Manganiello’s diet secrets. And those builds are becoming ever more extreme; consider the difference in Hugh Jackman’s cinematic build in 2000 and 2013.

Of course, these physiques are virtually impossible to achieve as well, created with extreme diets, HGH, diuretics and more than a little trickery. But women respond to these builds—a little time exploring Tumblr will show plenty of women enjoying Chris Hemsworth parading around without his shirt or Idris Elba in a tight tee and jeans. More and more men feel as though they can’t match up. They can’t evoke similar cries of delight and end up feeling isolated, made invisible as it were, but in many ways, they’re the ones holding themselves back.

The Boundaries of Toxic Masculinity

The fact that there are few paths to greater desire comes from rigid adherence to traditional gender and sexual roles. One of the common complaints from men who feel sexually invisible is that women don’t take the initiative or express themselves as openly as men do. And yet, it’s men who discourage them from doing so. According to traditional gender roles, male sexuality is predatory and aggressive while female sexuality is submissive and receptive. Women do signal interest—in fact, much of the effort they put in goes unnoticed by men. They are are taught to do so passively, sending approach invitations and making themselves available to be approached rather than approaching themselves. 

Women who flip the script and flaunt gender roles by being the approacher often make men uneasy. Many men react badly—overestimating her level of investment (“She came to me. She must really want my dick!”) or even upset or nervous. And if she should not be attractive to him, well, he may actively get hostile at her presumption.

Moreover, what few want to acknowledge is that it’s men who set these standards; men are the gender police, who reinforce what is and isn’t considered acceptable or desirable. As a result, we’re held hostage by our own stereotypes of male sexuality. By continually propping up a very specific ideal of attractive looks and behavior, we marginalize those who don’t conform to that narrow definition. 

Asian men, for example, are frequently emasculated by the media, portrayed as asexual at best or feminine at worst, which contributes to the idea that Asian men are sexually invisible. Yes, Bruce Lee, Andy Lau or Donnie Yen may kick ass and take names, but they’re not a product of Western pop culture. The fact that Steven Yeun’s character Glen is allowed to be an ass-kicking survivor at the same level as Rick and Daryl on The Walking Dead—not to mention have a romantic and sexual relationship with Maggie—is a notable exception; in many other shows, he’d be the comic relief or the perpetual victim. 

Similarly, larger, burly men are rarely portrayed as being desirable, even though many women love them some chubby manflesh. Seth Rogen can be the humorous sidekick, but rarely the romantic lead; when he is, the movie revels in how weird it is that he got laid at all, especially by someone who’s so presumably out of his league.

What makes this so frustrating is that the adherence to toxic masculine ideals and gender roles blinds us to what women actually find desirable. We present our idea of what women find desirable as the norm, whether women truly like it or not. To give an example, let’s compare these two photos of very attractive men:

Dr. Nerdlove

Dr. Nerdlove

Above, we have Matt Bomer, below, Chris Evans. On the surface, these photos seem similar, with a focus on their chiseled torsos and other masculine features. However, while they show roughly equivalent amounts of flesh, they have strikingly different effects on the viewer.

Matt Bomer—despite looking like he’s getting ready to perform a sexy car-wash—is posed in a typical “masculine” way. He’s facing the camera head on, even as he pours the water on himself. By looking the viewer directly in the eye, he’s assuming a very challenging, even dominant pose: “Look at me. Are you not entertained?“

Chris Evans, on the other hand, despite being unquestionably masculine, is posed in a much more feminine manner. He’ s posed in a flirty, submissive posture: Angled away from the viewer, looking up through his lashes and peeking out from behind his shirt.

Of the two, it’s unquestionable that Evans’ photo is hotter. Other photos from that shoot continue the theme: He’s posed like a pin-up model, in a more vulnerable manner. In short, he’s posed the way a woman might be in a similar shoot.

However, that vulnerability is contradicted by traditional masculine roles; it feminizes Evans, and that’s something to be avoided at all costs. After all, real men are dominant at all times, lest they have their manly credentials taken away from them.

Ironically enough, while men are craving validation from women—acknowledgement that they’re attractive and desirable—they may well be looking in the wrong place. Because, cold hard truth time: Yes, we all want to feel sexy. We all want to feel desirable. But often the fear of being invisible means less about being explicitly told that we’re hot and more to do with getting women to notice us.

Male Intimacy and The Desire For Validation

Let’s go back to the cat-calling video for a moment and the argument that men were simply seeking acknowledgement. Many people argued that the men calling out to the model were “just being polite” or “just saying hi” or simply “Notice me!” This Week In BlacknessElon James White pointed out the absurdity of this argument by creating the hashtag #DudesGreetingDudes, framing the cat-calls as being from (hetero) men to (hetero) men.

It’s farcical on its face because straight men don’t seek (or give) attention from other men, especially not this way. If men were really craving acknowledgement, why wouldn’t they be seeking the validation of other men?

Because men aren’t allowed to seek comfort or affirmation from men, only from women. In fact, women are the only socially acceptable source of validation and emotional intimacy. The tenets of hypermasculinity state very clearly that men are not allowed to show weakness or vulnerability; violating those gender roles is a crime that needs to be punished. This goes doubly so when it comes to seeking reassurance from other men about whether someone is desirable or attractive. Being willing to gauge someone’s sexual attractiveness veers too close to admitting being attracted to them for most people’s comfort. Small wonder that the vast majority of style advisors on television from Carson Kressley to Tim Gunn are gay; it’s paradoxically easier for straight men to accept advice (and validation) from openly gay men than from ones who are ostensibly straight.

However, as much as men seek validation and reassurance from women, it seems that the best thing they could do is to learn to emulate them. Because women aren’t socially hemmed in by the strict dogma of hypermasculinity, they’re allowed to learn how to make more empathic connections, to give and receive emotional support from one another without bringing fears of judgement or rejection. Women on the whole are freer to acknowledge and reaffirm each other’s attractiveness and desirability—to support one another—without the fear of being punished for violating strict gender roles. Doing so isn’t a comment about their sexual orientation but simply a way of providing intimacy and reassurance.

In many ways, that’s what these invisible men are seeking and are prevented from receiving. We end up in a toxic double-bind. Homophobic masculine gender roles get in the way of intimate male friendships, cutting us off from a vital source of intimacy, support and validation. At the same time however, the insistent belief that men and women can’t be friends because men want sex above all else limits our relationships with the only people we are permitted to open up to and seek validation from.

Becoming Visible

The fear of being “invisible,” of being undesirable, is at its core a need for validation. To be sure, we all want to be desired, especially by the people we desire in turn. But the expression of that desire—to have other people reaffirm our sexiness—is a form of external validation. It’s a way of confirming that yes, we exist, that we have value, that others want us. While I talk a lot about the need for internal validation, it’s not wrong to seek validation from others—we need that balance in our lives. But in the end, when we focus solely on external validation, we end up putting our self-worth in the hands of strangers, and that means subjecting ourselves to a system that invalidates and marginalizes those who don’t fit that narrow cultural definition of “attractive” and restricts our access to intimacy.

In order to find the acknowledgement that we’re looking for—the belief that we are desirable—it becomes incumbent to break out of the system.

And it’s not easy. It’s incredibly difficult to be willing to look in the mirror and say “I am hot as fuck” when you feel like the world tells you that you’re not.

It’s hard to make yourself vulnerable to people you aren’t “allowed” to be vulnerable to, or to reach out for a deeper emotional connection. You have to consciously reject the idea that only X is attractive and men who are A, B, C or Y or Z are unmanly and undesirable. Don’t force yourself into a narrow, ill-fitting model or chasing after a look that is literally impossible to achieve. Spend some time exploring the wonder and attractiveness of other body types and builds that aren’t the hypermasculine “ideal”. If you need the validation of women making a move, then learn how to make yourself more approachable.

And you have to learn to do things that make you feel good, even attractive and desirable. Dress up sharp: The clothes you wear directly affect how you act and feel about yourself. Adjust how you carry yourself: Your body language will change your self-perception. Find and foster those emotional connections, those intimate relationships, as they’ll be the ones to support you when you need it, to provide the care and acknowledgment you crave.

Taking care of yourself is a key to being desirable. Desperation and neediness is the anti-sex; when you feel good, when you love yourself, and people respond. Attractiveness isn’t about looks, it’s about presence. By bucking the system that marginalizes you and blazing your own path you’ll find  that people will notice. You’ll start to attract the people who will desire you. And you won’t be invisible any longer.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Nerdlove and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo via GreggMP/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Harris O'Malley

Harris O'Malley

Harris O’Malley is a dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove, the Dr. NerdLove podcast, and the Good Men Project.