Beauty in the eye of… somebody

A friend of mine (yes, a real friend, not the “so I have a friend who has this problem...” kind of “friend”) has been updating his online dating profile and asked his friends to help him choose among several pictures. The friends generally agreed, but were always at odds with the dater himself. We said, “you look happy in this one;” he said, “but my mouth is open and my beard is unkempt.” He said, “how about this one from grad school graduation?” we said, “you look stiff and your sister's smile is better than yours.” And so it went for a few rounds.

One problem I think my friend was having was that in a way, he didn't really see himself they way others do. I think most of us who are not professional models or actors have some degree of this problem. We are familiar with our faces as reflected in the mirror, but the faces we make in the mirror are not necessarily the faces we make interacting with others. You might smile at yourself in the mirror, but it's probably not quite the same smile you show when unselfconsciously happy in the company of others. As I put it to my friend, “you don't spend much time laughing at yourself in the mirror, but you do laugh with (at?) your friends, so we are used to seeing you that way.”

Doffing my pop psychology hat for my marketing and economics hat (the MIT one), I then pointed out that what we think is attractive about ourselves might not be the things that are attractive to our target market, in this case, smart attractive single women on Internet dating sites. In a cold and calculating way, these personls are in fact advertising. (“personal” like “classified” used to have “ads” appended all the time, “personal ads” “classified ads”) So how is my friend to guess what's attractive to his potential mates? Probably not by asking his male or married friends. I sent him to speed dating with a camera, we'll see what happens...

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