Is Being Picky a Good Thing or Are We All Just Giant Assholes?


I know a lady who cannot, under any circumstances, be with a dude who doesn’t have straight teeth. She just can’t get into that, and the flipbook of her dating past is a parade of guys who all fit the profile: gleamingly straight chompers with nary an errant angle. I’ve lovingly mocked her many times for being too picky, because WTF? But I’ve often wondered: Are we entitled to our picky preferences, which are perfectly normal — even a good thing — or are we all just shallow, entitled jerks who need to loosen up?

In an XOJane post titled “I’ve Been On Way Too Many Dates and It’s Because I Won’t Settle,” the author lays out some of her dealbreakers for dating a dude — can’t be bald, must be settled in a career, can’t live in the suburbs — all within the neatly framed caveat that she wants to find a guy just like her dad, but she’s pretty sure that type of guy doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s not a newsflash that women are typically presented as being pickier than men, or that when they are, it’s to their detriment, mainly because our preferences for mates are always framed as if every choice is a path to the altar.

But whether it’s a study indicating that women are pickier about one-night stands, or a piece arguing that women who are still single are most likely to be in the possession of an itemized laundry list of preferences ruling out most men in the general vicinity, in the vast, dicey history that is How Men Are vs. How Women Are, pickiness is our very specifically designed cross to bear.

The alleged explanation is as old as the cobwebs on a single lady’s Hope Chest: Evolutionarily speaking, it pays for women to be choosy. The uterus is a picky little nest, and it wants only the best genetic setup for its offspring with the most likely to stick around semen-provider in the tribe, whereas men are happy to just pump out little replicas, regardless of how crooked those teeth may be.

But duh, men and women are both picky. Need recent proof? This NY Mag sex issue piece on dating.

You might say, so what? Every romantic choice is not a precursor to forever. Choosing a love interest is not an act of charity. In the course of an average life, I think it’s perfectly defensible to like what you like and not have to spend enormous energy parsing it. Who does it hurt? What do you lose, liking what you like and not liking what you don’t? A “connection” is a “connection” — a mystical thing we can’t really explain. Attraction is irrational.

Still, who doesn’t know someone, male or female, who seems “too picky”? The guy who won’t date anyone with small boobs, the girl who only likes super beefy lovers. The person who can’t date someone with a Yahoo email address. Pickiness is fine to a point, it seems, but if it prevents you from meeting new people or giving someone a chance who might be a great friend or mate, all because of some shallow physical attribute or cultural misstep, doesn’t that make you a big asshole? Pickiness is ultimately judginess, and we say that judginess is a bad thing.

Whenever I start going down this road of thinking, it always dead-ends at “types.” Having a type is having a very specific set of preferences that manifest in one specific way. You like men who are tall and athletic. You’re interested in girls who are petite with long dark hair. I once dated a guy who talked openly — and at length — about how much he liked girls who were “club kids.” (The ’90s, you guys.) And they had to be short, and petite, and basically look like this. Needless to say, we didn’t last.

Nonetheless, I’m not bitter about types — I find them fascinating. How are they formed? What are they based on? They seem as much illustrative of things you’ve been exposed to (charm like my dad’s, sense of humor like my first boyfriend) as they are things you have not (a preference for dark haired Jewish guys when you grow up in the rural South).

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly where a type comes from in your history — is it what you’ve seen, what you haven’t, what you’ve dreamed, what you’ve never gotten, or some random mix of all of the above? Don’t forget TV shows, movies, magazines and books — a well-drawn fictional love interest has no doubt served as the imprint for many people’s “dream guy” or “dream girl.”

A type, then, is a living embodiment of the accumulation of a lifelong exposure to love/rejection + bombardment of media. And so, when people say they do not have a type, I usually do not believe them.

What I do believe is that you don’t have to cater to it all the time. You can embrace it for what it is, but be mindful about when it’s actually getting in the way of trying to be a more open-minded person. Is it more evolved to be picky, or more evolved to disregard pickiness in favor of new experiences, even when they are out of your comfort zone?

Either way, I think it IS worth figuring out what a type is all about. How else do we make sense of our choices?

Maybe my friend’s love for straight teeth is about aesthetics and beauty. Maybe it’s about her own past with crooked teeth and the straightening power of braces. By loving straight teeth in others, perhaps she is psychologically avoiding the reality of her own once-crooked teeth.

For the record, I’m not putting myself above her. I got preferences like anyone else. When I was in college, and even well into my twenties, I thought it was absolutely essential that anyone I was with liked the same bands as I did. If someone couldn’t “get” the stuff I love, how could they “get” me? I needed them to see the beautiful dissonance in some weird indie band most people didn’t like. This was a line drawn in the sand, and I needed any one I gave myself to firmly planted on the right side of it.

This is, of course, the worst kind of elitism. It’s one thing to want someone who shares a passion for music or art. But it’s quite another to expect the identical response to that same exact music, and for the same reason. And besides, I had tons of boyfriends who loved everything Merge put out in the ’90s as much as I did. It wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk for whether our romance would succeed.

Perhaps how much our hard-won identities matter to us might have something to do with how much we need other people to validate or mirror them. Just a thought. And even though I see this, I’m positive I’d still never date someone who liked active rock.

But I have to say: Pickiness is, at its root, a luxury. This is never more true than when it comes to eating, which offers some useful parallels here. In one such discussion online, the author goes so far as to call pickiness a moral failing. At its core, he argues, it’s an unwillingness to open the mind to other things we might find displeasing at first, but which can ultimately teach us more about the world than when we stay safely within our comfort zones. No risk = no adventure = repetitiveness = life of blandness/banality.

This explains my own preferences for people who like the same art I like. I think I’m being sooo cultivated, but no, I’m just reinforcing my own preferences. I have to call bullshit on myself, if I’m being honest.

In another story about the science of picky eating, the author asks a doctor to help understand her lifelong aversion to certain foods and textures — maybe it’s rooted in something ultimately more evolved?

Might picky eaters be the ultimate survivors? “Yes,” Dani responds, “but they will also starve to death in times of famine.”

Perhaps our love lives are not so dire, but this doesn’t change the fact that the greatest friend you never had could be out there somewhere RIGHT NOW, listening to Korn with crooked teeth and wearing raver pants.

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