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What is Love at First Sight?

The cigarette smoke hung suspended in the thick air of the cocktail lounge like a fog hovering over the surface of a dark pond, creating the illusion of a romantic dream … or so we thought back in the day when we were known to frequent the bars for socializing on the weekends. It was one of those usual Friday night Happy Hours spent with a female friend and I was relieved to be able to relax after a hectic week at work. 

I watched as Marsha, my co-worker, raised an ice cold glass of bubbly liquid to her lips and took a sip while she gazed around the crowded room.  We were trolling for dates and I watched as her eyes rested on a dark-haired man in a business suit standing near the doorway. He was a babe, I had to admit; but I wondered if he knew he was as well. Marsha’s old boyfriend was a looker, too, and he played around on her for months before she found out. That was a bad scene. 

Marsha winked at me and, with a nod of her head in that direction; she stared at the handsome guy holding a cocktail glass and talking with a balding man wearing a sweater over dress pants. In the back of my mind, it seemed that I had seen him in the lounge before, but I could not be sure. At that moment, I may have placed my bets on the bald guy being the better mate; but it wasn’t my call.

Slowly, the well dressed man in the suit turned to look directly at Marsha with dark, dreamy eyes. When her eyes met his, I could hear her let out a gasp. It wasn’t only the smoke that hung in the air, I thought. It could be romance, too – albeit possibly misguided. I could see then that it was going to be a long night. She was attracted to him and he was attracted to her, so I secretly wished her luck and hoped it wouldn’t be a repeat performance of her old relationship. 

He wasn’t my type, but none of the men that I saw in the lounge were my type and I wasn’t even sure in those days what my type actually was. I stifled a yawn, wishing I could go home to bed; but Marsha wanted to stay longer, the reason being obvious, so I ordered another glass of chardonnay in order to allow this mating ritual to unfold. I had nothing better to do.

Taking a sip of wine, my thoughts wandered and pondered on the reasons for physical attraction. What was it about this particular man that caused Marsha to be attracted to him and him to her? Was it his good looks or her beauty? Was it hormonal chemistry? Was it the dreamy mood in the lounge? Was it the numbing effect of the liquor on the senses? What are the reasons that cause us to fall in love at first sight?

According to my college textbook, “Understanding Human Sexuality” by Professor Janet Shibley Hyde, the initial impression we receive upon encountering someone new is largely a visual one. Research shows that we tend to be attracted to beautiful people – handsome men and pretty women – however, the definition of what is considered to be beautiful changes in relation to time and culture. A well balanced face is the first aspect of beauty, whether it be a man or a woman, but the heaviest burden of expectations of visual attractiveness has been traditionally placed on the female, largely because the male in patriarchal cultures has held the power of choice of a mate. So, like a male peacock in heat, human females have had to strut their stuff in order to gain the attention of males .

In the Renaissance Period in Europe for example, portliness was beautiful because it was an indication of wealth and having enough money to buy abundant food which, in turn, labeled the person as being of high cultural status. If you have ever been to the Renaissance Faire, you will have noticed that fact all too well for both the men with bellies draped over their belts, and the women with breasts spilling over the tops of low cut bodices, a tradition that apparently has never died out, I concluded as I scanned the women in the darkened room. 

During the Victorian Era in the late 1800’s, a woman who had a pronounced derriere was considered to be beautiful, so women wore bustles under their dresses to enhance their behinds. Interestingly enough, copulation from the rear was considered to be the best way to impregnate a woman back then, so the reason for an enhanced bustle built into the garment was a sexual attraction tool. I wonder if that was the same reason for the popularity of derriere implants today and, looking around the room, I noticed there were a few female lounge goers that looked derriere enhanced.

Historically, the Chinese considered small feet on a woman to be beautiful, so they took a female baby, broke her foot bones, and bound the stumps up in tight wrappings to stunt the growth into tiny foot stumps that a man could hold in his hand. I had read somewhere that this practice originally began as insurance that she would not run away from an arranged union, whether as a wife or a concubine. Tight skirts and heels produce much the same restraints on movement in the modern age.

The platform heels we wear today that are considered to be beautiful were originally created for the purpose of elevating the bottom of the skirt above ground to keep it dry and clean in Italy centuries ago. Having no drain pipes or sewer systems back then, the town folk would throw the contents of their slop pails out the windows, so it would fall to the street and into the gutters.

The original platform heels lifted the hems of many a velvet skirt high enough, so they would not get soaked with water contaminated with raw sewage when they crossed the street during a rain. I mean, who would want to walk through a natural septic tank to get to the other side, especially with a long velvet skirt dragging on the ground?  

Another example of beauty in the historical Japanese culture was the female kimono which had a padded pillow or obimakura attached to the obi sash at the back of the waist. A Korean friend of mine told me that, in historical Japan, a woman was bound by traditional to obey any samurai who wanted to lie with her at any time wherever she happened to be, even if she were walking alongside the road. The obimakura pillow on her backside aided in making the act more comfortable for her. Yeah, right. 

Our modern culture has come to hold a large bust in esteem, so breast enhancement surgery has indeed become popular as well as body sculpting other physiological areas. We have become a fat hating society and thin is in as the measure of attraction to the point where women want to obtain that anorexic look to be beautiful. 

In my estimation, they are striving to become mere human clothes hangers, but they don’t seem to know it. Like most of the products on the grocery store shelves which carry labels as to fat content, I think many skinny women should wear a label on their forehead stating they are also “New, Improved, and Fat Free.” 

In the Victorian Age, the painting of fingernails was a sign advertising that the woman in question was a ‘lady of the evening’ who did not have to do manual labor to earn a living without the blessings of the church, which saved her nails from the ravages of wifehood – clothes washing, cooking, cleaning, mending, babysitting and the like. 

Now, it has become a simple sign of beauty. Likewise, the painting of the lips red to where they resembled the rear end of a baboon in heat which has been considered a highly sexual, and beautiful, visual aspect. The same goes for the ‘duck lips” look. Have you noticed that most visual aspects of beauty in many cultures are related to sex? Not much about aesthetics or balance here.

Granted, the initial impression of visual attractiveness can be more subtle as well. All of us are basically narcissistic in one degree or another because we have to love ourselves in order to take care of ourselves and survive. Since we tend to feel more comfortable with what is familiar to us right down to seeing our own faces staring back at us every morning in the mirror, we may be attracted to someone that looks like we do. As a result, many couples tend to look alike in some way; that is, their smiles or the slant of their nose or the shape of their eyes or the angle of their chins may be similar … or the proportions in the faces can be similar.

In the same vein, we have an affinity for the first faces we see as infants – those of our mothers and fathers – and these images imprint on the developing mind. Consequently, there may be a tendency to identify with a person that happens to look like dear old mom or dad. That identification can become stronger if one of the parents is deceased or absent in some way, causing us to be attracted to a person that looks like the missing parent to fill in the gap. Or we may be attracted to people that resemble the x-partner of an unresolved, past relationship or that first true love. 

Since smell has such a strong influence on us, the memory of the smell of a perfume or someone’s hair can attract us to that person. The smell of a parent can haunt us for our lifetimes, too. If the significant parent happens to be abusing alcohol, their sweat will smell sweet from the sugar in the booze to a child and we can be strongly attracted on a subconscious level to people who smell like that parent, an  unconscious attraction that is not in our best interests.

Whether we are singularly attracted to beauty or not seems to depend on our sex according to the psychology textbook. The research suggests that men are more attracted by beautiful women than women are by handsome men. As Janet Shibley Hyde stated in her book, “For women, there was a fairly strong relationship between attractiveness and popularity. The women judged attractive had had more dates in the last year than the less attractive women. There was some relationship between appearance and popularity for men, but it was not as marked as it was for women.” (p. 347)

This phenomenon seems to be a direct result of the gender role differences in our society. In the animal world, it is the male of the species who shows off his horns or shakes his mane or struts around advertising his bright plumage to attract the female. In the human world, the opposite is true. Since the male has the power to chose a mate, it is the woman who is compelled to advertise her aesthetically pleasing attributes to men by mimicking the cultural epitome of beauty in using feminine beauty products, sexually attractive clothing and accessories. 

The studies show that the general principle seems to be that women’s worth is based on their physical beauty, whereas men’s worth is based on how successful they are. Consequently, there is the tendency for beautiful women to be paired with wealthy, successful men. For the man, the reverse is true. Interestingly, the least attractive men tend to pair with women who are highly educated and have the highest occupational status.

Because the traditional female role in our society has been one of economic dependence on the man for herself and her children, and because the wage and salary scales are still weighted in favor of the man, a woman will be more influenced by the man’s earning power which will ensure her and her children’s long-term survival than she will be influenced by good looks. In a similar vein, the man will be more influenced by a woman’s attractiveness than by her economic independence, although these traditional gender preferences are slowly changing with the tides.

Remember the familiar adage about birds of a feather tend to flock together? Research shows that we will be “attracted to people who are approximately the same as we are in terms of economic and social status, ethnicity, intelligence, attractiveness, and attitudes.” (p. 346). Social psychologist, Donn Burne, calls this the ‘matching phenomenon.’ Studies confirm that  these factors will more likely influence whether people who are attracted to each other actually continue to see each other or not. Do birds of a feather flock together? Apparently they do.

We all have a mental idea of how much we are worth and, since we live in a free-market culture in which consumerism stands as the cornerstone, “whom we are attracted to and pair off with depends a lot on how much we think we have to offer and how much we think we can ‘buy’ with it. In other words, if our self esteem is strong, we will reach for the gold. If not, we will settle for less. Men with more status are more desirable. But how desirable the man is judged to be depends on the woman’s sense of her own worth. Attractive women are not much interested in middle-status men because they apparently think they are worth more. Unattractive women find middle-status men more attractive, presumably because they think such men are reasonably within their ‘price range.’” (p. 347)

As callous as it sounds, sexual attraction in our culture seems to be based more on a type of unconscious barter system than we would care to admit. The popularity of another old saying came to mind. Do we tend to fall in love with the girl or boy next door? According to the research, we will be attracted to those people with whom we have had repeated contact. The studies indicate that multiple exposures to a person will cause us to like that person more; therefore increasing the chances of our forming a relationship with that person. (p. 350). 

As a result, there will be a tendency for us to be attracted to a person who is taking a college course with us or who attends the same church or who works out at the same health club or is employed at the same office or frequents the same cocktail lounge as we do. In this way, the research supports the metaphorical fact that we do tend to fall in love with the girl or boy next door …. Or, in my friend’s case, the guy who used to stand next to the door that has now joined us at the bar and his name is Kyle. This is going to get interesting… 

We also tend to be attracted to people who reinforce us with rewards and to dislike people who punish us … unless you happen to be a real weirdo, I might add, looking over at Marsha’s new friend and wondering where he was on the sliding scale. For example, if I had been deeply hurt in a relationship with a past love that looked like my new beau, I may have avoided any thought of romance with him in the name of self preservation. Not so for my friend.

Even though she had been stung before by a past love that looked like Kyle, Marsha was choosing differently. She was laughing and flirting with the handsome dude over her drink, so she had definitely designs on him. Maybe her desire to ‘fix’ the old relationship by entering into the new one that reminded her of the old one was stronger than her fear, I thought. If that was the case, her attraction to him would be magnified much to her own detriment.

We also tend to like people more if we encounter them in a pleasant environment than if we meet them in an unpleasant one. In other words, the comfortable atmosphere in the cocktail lounge increased Marsha’s attraction to her friend and his attraction to her in the first place. If the setting had been an antiseptic smelling hospital emergency room filled with moaning people or a tension filled court room during a murder trial, my friend may not have taken much notice of Kyle, no matter how good looking he was. 

The reasons why we are initially attracted to the opposite sex are many. The first impression we have of someone can lead us to date them, and dating them can encourage a more serious relationship to develop, and a more serious relationship sets the stage for love and intimacy. As a result, the first impression that we have for another person can influence with whom we fall in love. The truth of the matter is that, in the beginning stages of a relationship, what we think is love is merely a strong attraction to the other person based on any of the above mentioned factors; but emotions are strong, and it may certainly feel like love. 

With all the sexual politics going on out there, it’s really a wonder that we fall in love at all. One thing is certain. If we give our feelings and the feelings of the other person a chance to thrive, and, if we truly believe we have fallen in love at first sight, then just maybe we have. As far as my friend, Marsha, I think I am going to advise her to take Kyle to the gym for a workout and, after he has run on the treadmill for an hour, tell her to lift his arm and stick her nose in his armpit. If he smells sickeningly sweet, run like hell. If his pit smells putrid like something has died under there in the hair, he’s good to go.