Lisette, an artist in her 30s, used to date a man who wasn’t, shall we say, a Chad. “If I posted a photo in a group DM, I would get roasted to within an inch of my life,” she says. “He was maybe 5-foot-6 and otherwise just ridiculous [looking].” But as soon as she brought her date around the same group of female friends, something strange happened. “Every single woman wanted him desperately,” she explains. “Like, very obviously fawning over him at every party or get-together, simping outrageously.”
The reason for this complete 180?
According to Lisette, it was because he smelled really, really good. “He had very good hygiene, which is always a plus generally, but he used mustache wax for his facial hair, and the mustache wax was bergamot,” she continues. “So there was the base scent of a clean guy who worked out, then hair products, then bergamot. The combination was sometimes compared to baked goods.”
It sounds too simple to be true, but Lisette insists that how this guy smelled made a huge difference to his level of attraction — a claim that seems to be backed up not just by clinical research but by the enormously positive response I received to an 11 p.m. take I dashed off on Twitter recently, which was that “smelling good is a bigger chunk of the hotness pie chart than it gets credit for.”
Which got me thinking about how so many “hotness factors” — as I will scientifically call them — are accessible and non-genetic, despite our cultural tendency to conflate hotness with god-given good looks. Things like dressing well, smelling good, having rhythm and/or a willingness to dance, strong dental hygiene, clean fingernails, good posture and appropriate levels of eye contact can hugely boost the attractiveness of a person who might not be considered classically handsome or beautiful.
Some people, too, prize endearingly specific hotness factors, such as Steve, a 36-year-old marketing strategist in New Jersey, who goes wild over well-shaped eyebrows. “They’re the first thing I notice about people regardless of gender,” he explains. “They’re such a low-effort way to improve your appearance — you can do them yourself for free in about two minutes every couple weeks. I also think it’s a good un-charged compliment to give a woman, specifically because it isn’t tied to genetics.”
That said, dressing well and smelling good come out as clear frontrunners, making the most difference to how attractive a person is perceived to be. Cinderella, a 35-year-old talent development consultant in Dubai, clarifies that she prefers the idea of “swag,” though, which she says is distinct from, and more important than, simply wearing nice clothes. “It has nothing to do with looks,” she says, “and everything to do with behavior, confidence, body language and how [the guy] carries himself.”
These hotness factors work both ways, in that they can bring a good-looking person down as well as lift those with more humble looks up. “I dated a very hot Chad type who dressed like an embarrassing horny teen, and it impacted both my attraction to him and my willingness to be in a relationship with him,” explains Tess, a 30-year-old editor in New Zealand. Similarly, Harriet, a 28-year-old writer in Australia, says she’s gone off “countless hotties when they revealed themselves to have bad taste.”
Neither Tess nor Harriet deny that good looks are a plus. “Obviously the ideal is good looks and these other nice things,” Tess says. But they stress that physical beauty isn’t determinative. “I would say good looks, however you want to define that, get you in the door, but bad taste will kick you right back out,” Harriet muses. “I’ve previously avoided listening to multiple dudes’ bands because I know it’s not gonna be great, and that’ll ruin the attraction.”
Incels are probably the group most known for a dogged insistence that immutable physical beauty determines your prospects with the opposite sex. They rank everyone on a decile scale of desirability, and while they acknowledge that it’s possible to engage in looksmaxxing — i.e., to improve your appearance by being well dressed and groomed — they think that looksmaxxing indicates a delusional belief or “cope” that it’s possible to change your position on that scale. In other words, per incel orthodoxy, once a 3, always a 3.
Because of this commitment to a pseudo-scientific, “objective” theory of attraction, incels hold in high contempt the idea that your personality can positively affect your attractiveness. But a large proportion of the people I spoke to said that non-aesthetic hotness factors were the most important of all, especially confidence, competence and the ability to hold an interesting conversation. “Being competent at any task involving the hands is a non-genetic component of peak hotness,” says Adrian, a 22-year-old translator in Canada. “It’s hot for me to know that someone else has a skill, especially if it’s a skill that I don’t have, because then they feel like an equal instead of a kid you’d have to teach how to do things.”
And again, these qualities can absolutely trump conventional good looks. “When a dude is short and doesn’t give a shit, that’s an extremely compelling vibe,” Lisette says. “Same for a fat dude or a bald dude — but the confidence has to be genuine.”
More largely, we seem to be entering a period of cultural exhaustion with hotness, which is causing us to define it in unconventional ways. Burned out from Instagram perfection and the aggressive marketing of products that promise to help us achieve conventional beauty, we’re celebrating physical traits that we’ve been encouraged to hate and resisting narrowly defined traditional beauty standards. “There’s a lot of discourse on this — remember the ‘Mr. Bean could get it’ tweet?” Lisette says. “Plus, everyone is watching The Sopranos right now, and we all know Gandolfini is sexy. He’s ugly, fat and bald, but he’s sexy.”
Ultimately, almost everyone tells me that what they really want, even more than an immaculately groomed and stylish partner, is someone who is engaging and enjoyable to be around, which outshines good looks every time. Or as Harriet puts it, “It basically boils down to this: Can I talk to this person?”