My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block

Vol. 2 #38, May 2, 1997


One of the TV news magazine shows recently reported on a survey of what men wanted in a woman. The answers were divided between beauty (48%), brains (36%) and a combination of both (16%).

Does this simpleminded survey smell like a set-up to you? One of those little set pieces designed to make you sniff and say, "Well, of course, men are jerks"?

I flat out didn't believe the survey. Given a totally open-ended question about what they want in a woman, would 500 men all come up with no more than two qualities they longed for? I doubt it.

For one thing, I know how various the things are that women find appealing in men, and they're not necessarily at all what you'd expect. Elegant, aristocratic looking Anne Bancroft married Mel Brooks, because he made her laugh. Marilyn Monroe married shy, balding Arthur Miller for his mind (and perhaps because she needed a protective daddy). I married my husband because he understood me and loved me anyway. Other women have married men because they shared a passion for sports or Shakespeare or saving the world.

I refuse to believe that men are less varied and complicated in their needs than women. It was clear to me that the TV survey got the responses it did because it was slanted, giving the men only those three options for answers. So I decided to conduct my own unscientific survey, using a totally open-ended question.

My unrandom sample was of men I know well enough, in person or by e-mail, to be comfortable asking them a fairly personal question. Which means most of the men are college professors, college students, or computer professionals (I never said life at a university library was not fairly cloistered). I got answers from 56 men, a small but interesting sample. As Spencer Tracy said of Katherine Hepburn, there isn't much meat there, but what there is is choice.

I asked these men to reflect back on the women they had cared about, and tell me what it was about these women that had drawn and kept their interest. They were intrigued by the question, and gave me some very thoughtful answers. They also wanted me to tell them what the original survey said, and what my other respondents said.

So, here it is, gentlemen, my report back to you. (And to everybody else. Admit it, you're curious, too.) And yes, the results were as varied as I expected.

I was surprised at how few of you said you were attracted by her appearance. Looks and chemistry are something you can't not notice, after all, and, biological creatures that we are, they have to come into account at least a little when we are mating. I also found it surprising that only two of you spoke with obvious pleasure of fondly remembered lust.

I wonder if this isn't a skewed result of using people I know--you might have thought I'd think less of you for responding to physical appearance. Or maybe you were afraid you'd shock an old lady. (Little do they know. The only thing that shocks me anymore is human nastiness.) But since I figure most satisfying love relationships include moments when you both can hardly wait to get home and rip each other's clothes off, I was puzzled by how few of you mentioned that sort of need.

Most of you who did mention looks seemed to be talking at least as much about personality as about faces and bodies. You talked about the quality of the smile, (loving, infectious, irrepressible), the expression in the eyes, the free and easy stride that radiated confidence--"no low self-esteem hunchover," was one memorable description. One of you was "poleaxed" by a woman who "was tall and gangly and radiated a level of energy that would have made her dangerous on a trampoline." Several of you mentioned naturalness, and being "pleased with her own femininity, but not obsessed by it"--femininity in jeans, shall we say.

But no matter how attractive the woman might be, not a one of you would consider her if you couldn't talk to her. (As one of you said, you have to have something to do while you're waiting for the pizza to arrive.) One of you needed someone "at least as smart as me, hopefully smarter, and with a sense of humor that tends toward the dark side." You spoke about brains, thoughtfulness, the ability to argue, to challenge your own thinking. One man couldn't imagine dating any of the sweet young things he met at work because they would bore him--they just didn't know anything yet.

Another thing that mattered to virtually all of you was kindness. As one of you said, "a friend, a truly loving and caring person--now that's totally irresistible." You used words like "comfort" and "solace." That didn't surprise me at all. I've never known a man who could handle meanness or spitefulness in a woman. [I've seen men all but dive under the table when two women were sitting there in outwardly polite chat while scoring bitchy points.] And after all, there's enough casual, unthinking nastiness in the everyday world of work. Who would want to come home to more of the same? I think men and women alike long for somebody who's more in the business of listening to hurts and binding up wounds than dealing out more of their own.

Several of you talked about openness or honesty. I asked my own ex-husband what he saw in me when I was a 22 year old twit, all brains and awkwardness, humor and brashness and desperation. He told me that he had pretty much given up on women at that point because they were giving him nothing but hassle, yoyoing him back and forth, playing stupid little games. What he liked in me was that I was honest, straightforward, loving, and endlessly curious about the world. (You'd think I would have known that thirty years ago, wouldn't you?)

You liked it if she shared your interests--one of you was struck by the sheer zest a woman brought to rock-climbing. For some of you, shared temperament was appealing--my son, for instance, is attracted to women as fidgety, physically and mentally, as he is. Many of you required a shared sense of humor. (I suspect more of you would have mentioned that too, had you thought longer about the question. Could anything be more deadly than going through life with someone who didn't get your jokes?)

Another thing several of you loved in your women was a quality of unexpectedness. For some of you, it was a quirky way of looking at life that made the world seem new and shiny. Some of you liked the contrasts and contradictions in the woman--outward delicacy concealing tremendous spiritual strength, outward decorum combined with inner wildness. Maybe it's the collector instinct--you liked being able to see what less perceptive men had missed. My ex-husband was a collector of strays, who always believed that the shy raggedy alley cats he took in would turn out to be valuable purebreds once he gentled them and bandaged the scars.

Many of you talked, in one way or another, about what she did for you, challenging you, comforting you, encouraging you, bringing out qualities in yourself you'd never known were there. Several of you talked about how she complemented you, nudging your stodginess with her playfulness, your idealism with her hard-headedness. One of you, describing life before and after she came into his life, compared it to going from dingy, black-and-white, depression-ridden Kansas to technicolor, wonder-filled Oz.

Again, though, I am puzzled by what most of you did NOT say: that it was important that she adored you (though my son did see this as a promising sign of intelligence). I'm not sure why. Perhaps that was a given, since you would hardly have bothered to pursue a woman who didn't want you back. But surely the fact that she thought you were wonderful must have been a powerful part of her attraction? And the fact that, when you looked at yourself through her eyes, you liked yourself better?

You know, the most important thing a mother does is adore her baby, telling him he is the most wonderful child that ever graced the earth. Without this foundation, it's hard to go out and face a world that wastes no time in telling us that mother may have overstated the case a trifle. After the world cuts us down to size, I suspect the man or woman we need is somebody who will move us back toward that original state of grace.

Now, my unscientific survey is probably as meaningless as the stupid NBC one. It could mean no more than that I chose a bunch of unusally interesting likable men to pose the question to (which I did, and I thank you all). Or it could mean exactly what I started out thinking, that there is no such thing as what MEN value in women. There are only the qualities each individual man needs in a woman to help make him whole. And those are as different as the men themselves.

A lot like how we choose our men, in fact.

My Word's
Current column
home to all my
other writing

NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.