A journey through aesthetic attraction

Let me tell a personal story without any particular point to it.

Many people, when they first discover they are ace, have a lot of anxiety over perceived difference between themselves and the rest of the ace community.  Does this one difference mean that I don’t fit in?  For me, I felt that way about aesthetic attraction.

I didn’t experience aesthetic attraction at all.  For some reason, I perceived that almost everyone else in the community did.  Not sure where I got that idea, and not sure why I was anxious about it.  It sure seems unreasonable in retrospect.  I think people who didn’t experience aesthetic attraction just didn’t talk about it much, a bit like how people who are repulsed tend not to talk about it.

Anyway, I was more or less unable to determine when people looked attractive.  The idea had no meaning to me, except in reference to what other people think looks attractive.  When I was experiencing doubt, it often took the form of scanning people in the street to see if I could see anything that looked attractive to me.  At first I scanned women; later I gave up and scanned men.  This was a major component of my asexual experience, so perhaps that’s why I was bothered by all the other asexuals experiencing aesthetic attraction, even though that’s clearly allowable within the definition.

The weird thing is, after months and months of crowd-scanning, I found what I was looking for.  Sometimes I experience aesthetic attraction.  I don’t think I used to, but I do now.  I honestly believe that I experienced fluidity, changing attraction over time.  It started as a mere glimmer, and became more and more unmistakeable.  But even now, it seems like my aesthetic attraction comes and goes over periods of weeks.  Or maybe it has to do with how much I’m paying attention that particular week, I’m not sure.

It turned out that my lack of aesthetic attraction wasn’t that essential to my asexual experience after all.  Experiencing aesthetic attraction doesn’t really change things for me.  Mostly, aesthetic attraction is just bizarre.  It doesn’t seem to lead to anything.  It doesn’t make me want to meet any of these people.  It just highlights some people in a crowd.  These people here!  These people are… well they don’t seem to be anything in particular.  But look!

It follows some predictable patterns.  It’s usually conventionally attractive young men with a bit of facial hair.  Except that apparently I have a “thing” for men who are a little overweight.  And maybe medium-dark skin (eg Middle Eastern, Filipino).

Remarkably, there is absolutely no overlap between the targets of my aesthetic attraction, and the targets of any other thing resembling attraction.  There isn’t even any overlap between aesthetic attraction and friendship.  In the few cases where I later get to know the person, the aesthetic attraction invariably evaporates.  I have never been aesthetically attracted to my boyfriend, or to any of my ex-boyfriends, even though some of their physical characteristics match my “type”.

What is the point of this thing, this aesthetic attraction?  I’ve concluded that there is no point.  It is useless and absurd, although occasionally entertaining.

Have you ever experienced a pattern of attraction that was just strange and pointless?

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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20 Responses to A journey through aesthetic attraction

  1. queenieofaces says:

    Oh my gosh, I have so many feelings about this I’m afraid I’m going to wind up writing an essay in the comments.

    One of the things that threw me off for a really long time was that I don’t find conventionally attractive people (i.e. “hot people”) aesthetically attractive, especially women. I was really confused for a really long time, because I’m (romantically) attracted to women, but when I look at female celebrities (who are supposedly mind-blowingly beautiful), I get a “meh” at best. (I get an aesthetic “meh” from most male celebrities as well, but there are at least some that I find somewhat interesting to look at. It’s probably that there’s a wider variety of facial structures/aesthetics that are considered “attractive” among men than women–I’ve been told that my aesthetic tastes in men tend toward “odd.”) But then occasionally I’d have female friends where I’d be like, “WHOA, YOUR FACE, I WANT TO LOOK AT IT,” so obviously I experienced aesthetic attraction to women–just not women who were considered “beautiful.” My “aha” moment was when Effi sent me a photo tumblr of butch women and I was like, “Oh. OH.” Apparently women who present in a traditionally feminine manner just don’t catch my eye…which would be why female celebrities get a “meh” from me. Although I’ve found some more femme-y women who I consider aesthetically attractive, but they tend to be IN YOUR FACE QUEER (their words, not mine), which probably doesn’t fall under “traditionally feminine.” (And then there are weird ones, like Katee Sackhoff, who I think is GORGEOUS as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, but when I see pictures of her on the red carpet gets a solid “ehhhhhhhh.” I have a whole list of “gorgeous in specific roles/situations, ehhhhh on the red carpet” actresses at this point.)

    Aesthetic attraction is entirely disconnected from any other kind of attraction for me. It’s a bit like, “Oh, your face is nice; I’d like to look at you a bit,” but it’s not like I want to meet the person or talk to them just ’cause their face is interesting to look at. Also, most of the people I’ve been romantically attracted to I haven’t been strongly aesthetically attracted to. Like, if I was given a random sample size of the population, I’d rank most of my crushes in the upper half (and some of them definitely in the top quarter), but I don’t think any of them would top my list. Generally, people become more aesthetically attractive to me when I get crushes on them, but I think it’s more of a “hey, I have feelings for you, and thus your face is nice” sort of attraction, which isn’t exactly the same as independent aesthetic attraction? I don’t know.

    Basically, aesthetic attraction: IT’S CONFUSING.

    • Siggy says:

      I used to be bothered by people responding to my anxieties by talking about how they were aesthetically attracted to unconventional looking people. I was frustrated by the return of the discussion to people who do experiences aesthetic attraction, and also by the implication that the only reason I couldn’t find anyone aesthetically attractive was that I was only expecting to find it in conventionally attractive people.

      But now I see more of the appeal. It’s just really weird how aesthetic attraction is targetted in this direction or that one. I wonder if this is what people mean by having “types”. To what extend are our “types” informed by what is conventionally attractive, and to what extent is it accidental?

  2. Eponine says:

    When I first learned about aesthetic attraction, I thought, “Sure, I have this.” But later I realized what I experience is aesthetic recognition most of the time, i.e., I recognize someone as good-looking, but don’t feel a pull toward them. I don’t even look at them for a long time. A common analogy for aesthetic attraction is you look at an attractive person just like you look at a nice painting. But I definitely stare at nice paintings for way longer than I stare at random attractive people!

    I’m not interested in checking out attractive strangers or looking at photos of random attractive people (including celebrities I’m not familiar with). For me to really experience aesthetic attraction, I need to know and like *something* about the person besides looks. For example, if a singer I like has a cute face, I can experience quite strong aesthetic attraction toward them. But if I look at the same singer’s photos without having listened to their singing, I’d be like “Okay, s/he is good-looking, but whatever.”

    I also don’t necessarily need aesthetic attraction to experience romantic attraction. Even after developing feelings for them or establishing a relationship with someone, I still don’t necessarily see them as aesthetically attractive. I will stare at their face, sure, but it’s more of an attraction to the whole person than just aesthetic attraction.

    • Siggy says:

      Sometimes I think it’s strange how my aesthetic attraction apparently has no relation to any other form of attraction I experience. But then it strikes me anew how strange it is that for many people aesthetic attraction is enhanced by knowledge of their person. They actually look better for reasons that have nothing to do with looks. Perception is strange.

  3. Sciatrix says:

    This is also basically my feeling on aesthetic attraction, to be honest. Except I’ve always felt it, inasmuch as I have always had aesthetic preferences about human beings. It adds nothing to my ace experience and has zero correlation with any of my relationship patterns. In fact, generally it’s more useful to me as a subset of my aesthetic preferences (along with the types of structure I like in dogs, landscapes, and major household appliances) than it is as a major component of my sexuality.

    Generally it’s only interesting in that it gives me something to say when people are going on about how attractive celebrities are–especially, for some reason, male celebrities where I have somewhat stronger opinions. Unfortunately the bulk of those opinions seem to be unpopular–like preferring well-set cheekbones to high ones–so that doesn’t generally give me a lot to bond with people over.

    • Siggy says:

      The comparison to aesthetic preferences in people to preferences in objects/animals/landscapes is interesting to me. And I know that one of the traditional ways to explain aesthetic attraction is like enjoying a painting.

      But to me they feel like different things. My taste in art is decidedly modern, abstract, and mathematical. It’s why I like modular origami. It’s hard for me to imagine applying this to people. For example, if someone wore clothes that were aesthetically pleasing in the abstract way, it would feel completely different to me than if they were aesthetically attractive the other way.

      • Sciatrix says:

        Well, I’m actually quite deliberately not comparing people to paintings, because my taste in art is something else again–I’m generally interested in color and light in art, not shapes. (I like impressionists.) Landscapes are probably the least appropriate comparison in my list, tell you the truth–one discarded response was “interior design,” and that probably comes closer to how I think about aesthetic attraction with humans. I have aesthetic preferences, but they largely stem from my feelings on the kind of function I’m primarily interested in.

        So for example my taste in dogs is for short hair, square builds, low tail set, short backs, necks not too long–the sort of structure that makes a dog good at being fast at a sprint, but also very good at turning quickly. (An example.) I like the look, but I like that look partly because I associate it with a particular athletic ability–I am for example not as fond of dogs with high-set, long necks like this Greyhound, because I associate that structure with a dog that can maybe move quickly in one direction but is limited in how fast it can turn.

        A lot of my aesthetic preferences in humans also follow structures that are really functional. I like short, compact, muscular people, typically–which is a pretty similar body type to the one I like in canids! People who can move in a balanced, measured way. The last time I had a moment of intense, “oh beautiful!” aesthetic attraction was actually at a ballroom dance exhibition, to a woman who was moving in a gorgeous way. And of course there are exceptions to this–I like particular head and face shapes on dogs and humans alike that don’t have anything to do with motion, for example, but those are less important to me than what bodies are doing.

        All of this has fuck-all to do with the people I actually want to hang out with or interact with. After all, “balanced with a low center of gravity” is not really a useful trait in determining whether I can have interesting discussions with someone, or enjoy their company, or whatever. And in fact I do have a physical “type” for people I associate with personality traits that do have those qualities, oddly enough, and occasionally use that “type” as a shorthand for checking to see if new people are interesting and worth making friends with. It’s just not the thing that occasionally makes me stop and go “Oh wow that is super pretty.” (It is also way more centered around grooming and the way people carry themselves than it is their physical structure, interestingly enough.)

  4. Victrix says:

    Whilst not really addressing your questions directly I did just put up a post on almost this exact subject yesterday and would probably end up repeating myself to add anything, so I might just leave a link: http://reflectiveace.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/what-is-attractive/

  5. Norah says:

    I experience aesthetic attraction too. I wouldn’t say it’s pointless, like I don’t consider it pointless that I like looking at certain drawings and paintings, or certain plants, or certain statues, etc. And I also wouldn’t link the attraction to people to my attraction to art: what paintings I like also doesn’t seem to have much to do with what trees I like, for example, or what music I like (though that last one is different from the visual). It’s just a comparison of the type of attraction. But yeah: I like looking at nice-looking things (or people) :P, so yeah, not pointless to me (I don’t hang posters on my walls for no reason either). No immediate social goal though. It’s not relevant to me when it comes to any kind of relationship. I’m not aesthetically attracted to my partner either, though I’ve come to appreciate many of his features in other ways over time (they have become endearing to me in many ways, for example, and it is much more socially relevant: it’s similar to the way I feel when looking at babies and young animals, as an example; again, to compare types, not that the feelings are really all that similar).

    For a long time, when people called other people hot, I thought they felt the same way I did, that they meant this type of attraction. Now I know they (usually) did not. And while I knew that visual attraction was relevant to other people when it came to casual sexual encounters, relationships, even friendships, for a long time I did underestimate *how much* it mattered to some people (it doesn’t seem to matter equally much to everyone in any case, sexuality aside). I did boggle a bit when I figured that out. I can’t say I get it now, but I know that it is so.

    It was, however, also quite easy for me to figure out what the mainstream standards for ‘hot’ are, and to tell when someone is. My aesthetic attraction sometimes overlaps with those standards, sometimes not at all, sometimes in part. Sometimes very wildly not at all. On the other hand, I can find people very visually unappealing when (most) others don’t.

    • Siggy says:

      Yes, you could think of aesthetic attraction as an end to itself and then it wouldn’t matter if it ever connects to anything else. That’s perfectly reasonable, and describes the way I feel about art and music. But I also like my own absurdist outlook 😛

  6. Eugh, I wish allosexuals talked about this sort of stuff.

    I reckon my aesthetic attraction works more like society assumes aesthetic attraction does. It only seems to happen towards men (to women, I can get a strong aesthetic appreciation, but it’s based in whatever fashion/presentation choices they make), and it largely seems to be a precondition for sexual attraction, although that often just leaves me confused when I invariably end up with non-sexual aesthetic attraction and I’m like “What am I even meant to DO with this feeling?!” And then most of the time there’s no clear line anyway, and I have no idea which is which. I guess that might actually be why aesthetic attraction is something only aces really talk about, because maybe a lot of allos really don’t distinguish it as seperate?

    • Siggy says:

      The conflation of aesthetic attraction and sexual attraction is definitely widespread. Ask people what sexual attraction is like, and many will describe aesthetic attraction. I guess this is the most striking aspect to those people.

      It’s also why I spent a long time scanning crowds for aesthetic attraction. If most people experience aesthetic and sexual together, it was reasonable for me to think I might experience them together too, if at all.

  7. Kat says:

    I should probably write a more detailed response to this at some point, but here’s the central idea. while I can experience the “standard” form of aesthetic attraction, it’s typically subordinate to a second type of aesthetic attraction (which is either non-standard or one that everyone else is super coy and reticent about, since other people don’t seem to mention it). In essence, I experience graphical and ideographical aesthetic attractions. I can find people attractive in and of themselves, but I can also find ideas/Platonic abstract concepts attractive and thereby be attracted to individuals who represent or instantiate these ideas. For example, I can be aesthetically attracted to an aesthetic (or aesthetics in general). This can be because the aesthetic looks nice or interesting, but it can also be because the aesthetic denotes a sense of self which is attractive (both because a sense of self is attractive and because the self that is denoted is attractive). Experiencing aesthetics as a signifier means that I’ve had literally Platonic aesthetic attraction to a wide variety of aesthetics/appearances. At one time or another I’ve been attracted to people possessing most any aesthetic. At least two steps from normative is sufficient – I’m rarely attracted to conventionally attractive people/aesthetics as I don’t get as clear a sense of identity in that case.

    Being aesthetically attracted to attitudes or ideas means that I can find aesthetic attraction informative for (or more often, strongly correlated with) other types of attraction, particularly intellectual attraction. This is not the case for material aesthetic attraction, since that is often the product of chance (genetics, circumstance, etc.). Conversely, Platonic aesthetic attraction is often the product of introspection and identity.

    Essentially, I don’t conceive of attraction (aesthetic or otherwise) as a purely physical, material sense, but encompassing a broader range of metaphysical schema.

    • Siggy says:

      Do you experience these two kinds of aesthetic attractions as similar to each other? If you had asked me why I never mention the other kind of aesthetic attraction is that to me it seems so dissimilar so as not to be in the same category.

      • Kat says:

        So given that both types relate to perceived beauty, they both seem aesthetic to me. I’d say I probably experience the two similarly, which is about as accurate an inference as I can make at this time. Given that you experience something similar, what would you call it? Because if you perceive these as two dichotomous forms of attraction while I perceive them as similar, that means one of several possible things: (1) I have two types of aesthetic attraction, you have one type of aesthetic attraction and one other, Platonic type that I don’t have/distinguish (which I’ll call Platonic until you tell me a better term for your experience), (2) I have two types of non-aesthetic attraction that are similar to your Platonic attraction, (3) we are using the different words to describe identical experiences, or (4) we have completely different experiences and WhatDoWordsEvenMean? Nihilism Nihilism Nihilism.

        In the defense of these two senses of attraction being related in how they’re experienced, let me add the following. Given how information-laden perception is, it will inevitably carry significance beyond a purely physical report. This means that my Platonic and material aesthetic attractions often coincide. It’s only in cases where one is lacking or after comparing different instances of attraction where the two forms of attraction become distinct. This is why I mentioned the example of multiple aesthetics. It took multiple instances of practically identical attraction to utterly dissimilar individuals before I even started to think of these as distinguishable categories of attraction. I also find it interesting that so many people, when talking about aesthetic attraction will make analogies to pieces of art or music – that is physical experiences of beauty – when we also frequently talk of beauty in maths or science without needing any physical source (i.e. Platonic aesthetics). Both the intellectual and sensory perceptions of beauty are still grouped under the same umbrella of beauty, even though they may appear dissimilar.

        • Siggy says:

          Up thread I was talking about this with Sciatrix. I would say of my aesthetic taste in art that it doesn’t really seem to be a thing; that is, I couldn’t definitively say at any point that I am or am not “experiencing” it, and it doesn’t even feel right to call it an experience. Aesthetic attraction, on the other hand, is quite definitive.

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  9. identitey says:

    I’m really excited at all these posts about asexuality in my reader! Gosh. *flustered*

    I think I must experience aesthetic attraction, because I like looking at nice-looking things, although the word ‘attraction’ always makes me think of being grabbed by the lapels and having LOOK AT THIS PERSON shoved in my face :p

    In my first year of university I met a friend who set the bar for my understanding of ‘attraction’: whenever she was in the room, I could. not. stop. looking. at. her. When she was in my field of vision I felt like I wanted to absorb as much as I could of…what, exactly I’m not sure. But I wanted to drink her in, and although the experience was distinctly visual, it was different from the feeling of appreciating art or a beautiful person. I’ve identified two types of visual attraction for myself: there’s the usual ‘looking at a painting’ type of aesthetic attraction, which I feel towards people who look rarefied/elegant/have glowing skin etc, but also a separate ‘wowie this person is cute’ which I’m not sure how to think about, because since I only feel it towards people who I wouldn’t describe as beautiful, it doesn’t seem so much an aesthetic experience as a visual one. ‘Cuteness’ can be an acquired taste – I feel more attracted towards people who have similar visual characteristics to my first love; my standards of beauty are much more constant over time.

    Cuteness definitely has its uses for me – mainly as social lubrication. I’m friendlier and more tolerant of the company of people who I find cute. Sometimes I get crushes on people who I find cute, but those invariably Do Not Work Out because I’m overwhelmingly conscious of the fact that I’m only attracted to the people because of the cute and little else. Being attracted to beautiful things seems a bit more pointless, but I suppose it has its uses for me as an artist – maybe paying more attention to beautiful things means I can reproduce them better afterwards when I draw, or something.

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