Love is . . . Physical Attraction?

What is love? It’s a lot of different things, depending on who you listen to. Last week at the 20-something relationships conference I looked at a series of popular cultural answers to the question, trying to use movie clips to help explore things.

One common answer is that love is physical attraction. Love is that spark between two people that makes them want each other, that sexual chemistry. In one study, people said that physical attraction is one of the two keys for finding your soul mate.

A great illustration of this answer comes from “Crazy, Stupid Love.” Cal Weaver is a middle-aged man whose wife has had an affair and wants a divorce. Down in the dumps, Cal encounters Jacob, a womanizer who takes him under his wing to help him get his mojo back. And in Jacob’s eyes, there’s a lot of work to do.

Jacob tells Cal the meanest thing he can say: “Your wife cheated on you because you lost sight of who you are as a man, a husband, and probably as a lover.”

How does Jacob know that Cal lost sight of his manhood? His appearance: he wears New Balance sneakers, jeans from the Gap, and a dopey hair-style. So how does Jacob help him get back in focus what it means to be a man? By giving him a makeover so that he’s sexually attractive. Love is being desirable, being attractive enough that other people want you, that they want to sleep with you.

But maybe you feel like I’m over-doing it, that reasonable people don’t think this. Maybe that’s true at an explicit level. We don’t equate love with just physical attraction. But I have been struck again this week how pervasive this idea is in an underlying way.

Just one way that’s come home to me is my reading this morning a soon to be published book review of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne. The impression was that this viewpoint of what matters is how physically attractive you are, starts really young. Kids far before puberty are picking up on the idea that they need to look attractive. Seven-year olds are crying because they’re too fat and not sexy enough.

So I’m contemplating again this answer for what love is. At one level, I’d say that this answer gets it right that physical beauty is a good thing, and even more, that sex does matter, that it’s something significant, something worth pursuing. But clearly it gets things out of whack and in its single-minded pursuit of sex actually distorts it and, surprisingly, devalues it. Love as physical attraction falls far short of what love truly is.

Nonetheless, I don’t have a pretty bow to put on this post. It’s more a thinking out loud about the reality of how common this viewpoint is. It’s not just in a Hollywood romantic comedy (where actually the point of the movie is to disagree with this definition). It’s really, truly, genuinely pervasive, and we’ve got to work a lot harder at thinking in an explicit, gospel-driven and utterly realistic, direct way about sex and physical beauty. I think it’s a point I’m going to come back to over the next few weeks.

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