In his book The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, David Buss cites a study claiming that, by and large, men find women who wear make-up more attractive, but women find men who wear make-up (even to cover up pimples or scars) less attractive. This discrepancy is often cited as evidence that men are more superficial than women, and that men expect their ideal female partner to look perfect while women are more likely to accept superficial flaws in their ideal partner. This is not fully true. Other studies cited in Buss’s book show that women do have superficial preferences, listed as “deal-breakers” for many, such as preferring tall men over short men, men with hair over bald men, or muscular men over chubby or scrawny men.

So for a “George Costanza” type–a short, bald, stocky man–is the answer is to enhance your appearance with high-heeled shoes, a hair piece, and Spanx, just as women enhance their appearance with make-up? Unfortunately, no, because when women see George Constanza in heels and a wig, they don’t see a tall man with good hair; they see an insecure man who feels the need to compensate for his short stature and hairless head.

When men say they find women more attractive in make-up, they aren’t saying they prefer superficial perfection over superficial flaws, they are saying they prefer women who acknowledge they have flaws, because it shows vulnerability and shows a need for male validation. I realize this is not the actual reason women wear make-up, but men often think it is, and that’s what we react to when we feel attracted to it.

On the other hand, if men show a need for female validation, most women consider this a turn-off, and that’s what they’re reacting to when they see a short man wearing lifts or a bald man wearing a wig. Even if he’s able to fool her into believing he’s taller and that his fake hair is real, he can only keep up the facade for so long. What happens if they sleep together? Surely she will see him barefoot and realize how short he is. What if they live together? Surely the wig will have to come off at some point, and when it does, she will realize that he is an insecure liar, too desperate for her approval to any longer be considered attractive.

The male “enhancement” women do find attractive, however, is machismo: not arrogance, but the superficial impression that a man is 100% confident in himself. Of course, none of us actually are. We all have insecurities, just as women do, but we feel pressure to hide them in order to attract a mate, the same way women feel pressure to hide their blemishes and wrinkles.

Like make-up on women, too much machismo is a turn-off, but a complete absence of it is a turn-off, as well.

It would be one thing if we only felt this pressure when trying to get a date, but unfortunately, we feel it all the time, and that is a problem. Women feel pressure to wear make-up every day, at work, at school, or even at home, and while many women like wearing make-up, they still want to see it as a choice rather than a social obligation. The same is true with men and machismo: we feel pressure to act “macho” every day, at work, at school, and even at home. Many of us enjoy acting “macho,” but we still want to see it as a choice rather than a social obligation. If we feel like crying, we should be allowed to cry in any situation where it would be socially acceptable for a woman to cry, but the social obligation to act “macho” at all times prevents us from doing so. Our machismo is valued not just in romantic relationships, but in our families, our careers, our education, and even in our friendships with other men. We have to exude it at all times, and it’s exhausting.

Men who act “macho” are not necessarily being fake, but they are only giving you a portion of who they are, just as a woman’s superficial appearance, with make-up or without it, is only a portion of who she is. Men use machismo to express themselves, women use make-up to express themselves, and it’s only when they overdo it that it can truly be called “fake.”

The difference is nobody actually believes there is a woman out there with darkly outlined eyes and glossy hot-pink lips, whereas we all seem to believe there are men out there with no insecurities, no doubts, and no fears. We call these men “real men” and tell the men who acknowledge their insecurities to “man up.” We tell men that confidence is key, but are men who refuse to acknowledge insecurities really “confident,” or are they just “macho”? Doesn’t it take far more confidence for a man to publicly acknowledge his flaws and allow the world to judge him, especially when he knows many of those judgments will be negative?

This is the problem with “machismo.” It perpetuates the idea that manliness should mean the same thing to all men, and that any man who doesn’t meet that standard is “less of a man.” Of course, the expression “less of a man” means nothing unless we buy into the idea that all men should ideally be exactly the same. You can’t quantify the degree to which someone “is a man.” Yet we do, based on machismo.

The irony is that truly “macho” men are just as much a fantasy as the Photoshopped images of women we see on magazine covers. The people typically regarded as “man’s men” (Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Harrison Ford) are regarded as such because of the characters they play, not because of who they really are. Each of these actors’ uber-masculine characters (Dirty Harry, James Bond, Indiana Jones) shares two distinctive qualities: in combat, they are a lone wolf who always triumphs over a group of men, and in romance, they are a lone wolf who cannot be tied down to a single woman. Our love of these fictitious men reminds us of the evolutionary mating instincts described in The Evolution of Desire. All men fight over women, but a “man’s man” will triumph over all other men, and consequently, women will fight over him.

It’s a fun fantasy, but when we hold men to this standard in real life, the results can be dangerous. We idealize men who are cold and emotionally unavailable while stigmatizing men who display basic emotions like fear and sorrow. We tell the George Costanza type that if he acts like James Bond, he will be treated like James Bond: feared by men and desired by women, but he knows that isn’t true, and perhaps he would like to vent about his fears and insecurities without being told to “man up.”

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