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‘Honest Signals’ as Our Mating Mentor

WildConnectionsBookMy latest favorite read is called “Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships.”

Written by scientist Jennifer L. Verdolin, the book’s fundamental query is simple:

What can studying animal relationships teach us about our own?

Right from the start I identified with the author, who described her early experiences with the opposite sex as “a puzzle I couldn’t quite figure out.”

In the opening pages, she shares, “I realized that I knew the ins and outs of the mating behavior of the animals I studied, but I knew very little about my own species or even about myself.

Hear, hear.

From the first chapter, years of confusion, frustration, and disillusionment about how my own species dates and mates began to melt away. I began to understand why things often feel so messed up – so complicated when they “should” be so simple.

I felt validated as well – if only through realizing I’m not the only human being who just “doesn’t get” how our species facilitates romance.

Here is one example.

In nearly every species (excepting ours), the male is the one who does the primping, preening, pursuing, and courting….while the female is the one who will do the final choosing.

Not so in our oh-so-modern human society!

With us, women are primping, preening, AND pursuing – leaving our frustrated males with little to do and lots of free time to feel confused, turned off, or even distrustful.

In the same way, in nearly every species (again excepting ours), the male is the one with the festive appearance – brightly colored, lavishly adorned, and plenty well-versed in public wooing (which can include singing, dancing, nest-building, staged fights, food gathering, and more).

But with us humans, here again we seem to have it all backwards.

Women represent the majority of customers for the “beauty industry” – where, for the right price, we can literally re-create our exterior presentation (yes, men partake of this as well, and increasingly so as the years pass, but still not to the level of women).

What this continual effort to upgrade, reshape, and alter does is take away the presence of what animal behaviorists like Verdolin call “honest signals” – those characteristics that can indicate health and vitality to a potential partner, precisely because they cannot be altered.

Verdolin offers the example of a male cardinal’s red feathers.

The male cardinal cannot artificially enhance the red color of his feathers to make them richer or deeper (thus indicating better health to female cardinals he wants to mate with). So this is an “honest signal” a lady cardinal can always trust to tell her if his genes are apt to produce healthy chicks.

Among humans who wish to select a mate, we no longer have trusted “honest signals” we can always count on. Even eye color and iris size, height, weight, shape, hair color (and amount!) can be altered just by plunking down a credit card.

So we wander about uncertain who we can trust, how much we can trust, IF we can trust.

In my anorexic (and later bulimic) years, I often felt literally gripped by the compelling need to look “perfect.” Nail polish must be chip-free. Mascara must be clump-, lump-, and smudge-free. Hair must be picture-perfect, regardless of wind velocity or humidity reading.

Those were harsh years – inside and out.

Today, I can go weeks – sometimes months – without remembering I actually own makeup. As well, my boyfriend doesn’t understand the need to declare special days when women go without makeup – he thinks there should be makeup-free YEARS (for the record, I am all for this!)

Verdolin’s research suggests he is not alone in his preference:

Although the standards of beauty can be somewhat different from culture to culture, the irony of makeup trends, at least in wealthier countries, where the bulk of beauty products are sold, is that heavily made up women are not even what men generally find attractive. If you ask them, most men will tell you that they want a real/natural woman and think makeup is “yucky” – yes, that is a direct quote…..

But if most guys don’t dig the heavily made-up, overdone face, why do so many women overdo it? The most likely explanation is that women are competing with each other in a world where young is beautiful and sexy and older is out. And that’s where the barrage of endless commercials comes into play….we can pretty must rest assured that in our modern age, it is the cosmetics and beauty industry that is telling women what they need to look like if they want to catch their dream guy and live happily ever after….

….so in the end women are competing against one another with the cosmetics companies telling us how to get the advantage.

Yuck, yuck, and yuck.

I, for one, do not prefer to have modern media – or artificial/unattainable beauty standards – as my mating mentor.

Rather, I look to the animals I love, to my own longtime (and beautifully makeup-free) mentor, Lynn, to my boyfriend, and to the genuinely deep friendships I have with women and men alike, to help me offer truly “honest signals” to those I wish to connect with – and to recognize such signals in return.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you ever get confused and/or frustrated with the constant barrage of media-issued messages suggesting a change to this-or-that will improve your chances to live the life you crave? Can you think of messages you have received from the media that you – or your partner (past or present) – directly disagrees with? How (if at all) has that changed your approach to your own preferred appearance – and your preferences for the appearance of a potential mate?

‘Honest Signals’ as Our Mating Mentor

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). ‘Honest Signals’ as Our Mating Mentor. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Mar 2019
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