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Louie, the Fat Girl and the Psychology of Mate Value

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All things considered, it seems like we’ve entered a new golden age of television: our break-room conversations revolve around the intricacies of Mad Men and Game of Thrones, or the misadventures of Ilana and Abbi and the Workaholics dudes. What’s most interesting, though, are what these shows say. There’s a recent episode of Louie — the critically acclaimed comedy written and directed by Louis C.K. — that offers a blistering social critique of how we treat fat women in the dating arena. Over at the A.V. Club, Libby Hill sums it up best:

In the episode, a lovely, funny, overweight waitress named Vanessa (Sarah Baker) romantically pursues Louie to less than ideal ends. During her pursuit, Vanessa is revealed to be a fully formed, fully realized person; smart and capable; independent and motivated; stepping out of the fat girl holding cell populated entirely with Funny Best Friends and blazing a new trail: She is the Manic Pixie Fat Girl. And for good reason. Vanessa is written in the most droll and likable way because C.K. wants to make it perfectly clear that the reason she is rejected is because of her size. Not even being the platonic ideal is enough when you’re an overweight woman.

Like I said: blistering critique. Psychologists would say that Vanessa’s rejection is due to her “mate value,” which, in this case, refers to her extrinsic attractiveness; simply put, it’s harder to find dating success as a person who’s not conventionally attractive.

All that said, a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigates mate value and its relation to romantic success — and, as the data show, the problem of romantic pairing is more complicated (and less bleak) than it first seems.

The researchers — Paul Eastwick, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the university’s graduate student Lucy Hunt — show that there’s another measure that’s ultimately more important than the first impression, a factor they term “uniqueness.” In the New York Times, they write “[uniqueness] is the degree to which someone rates a specific person as lower or higher than the person’s consensus value.” In other words: as you get to know someone, you become less able to determine someone’s “objective” mate value — i.e., society’s collective valuing of their desirable qualities, based on an initial impression. The researchers give an example of a hypothetical man named Neil. “[E]ven if Neil is a 6 on average, certain women may vary in their impressions of him,” they write. “Amanda fails to be charmed by his obscure literary references and thinks he is a 3. Yet Eileen thinks he is a 9; she finds his allusions captivating.”

I’m sure everyone — Louie included — can relate to this: Who hasn’t found themselves unexpectedly wooed as they get to know a new friend? I certainly have. Though it might initially be easier for societally desirable people to find romantic attachments, the game changes over time. “As people get to know each other, decreasing consensus and increasing uniqueness give everyone a fighting chance,” Hunt and Eastwick conclude, hearteningly.

As for Louie and Vanessa, the episode ends with a shot of them walking off into the distance, hand in hand.

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