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What all women want?*

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These four female writers reveal that titanium abs are not vital and that commitment anxieties aren’t just the preserve of men. Strap yourselves in…

The Holy Grail of the male/female quest for success, parity and happiness while spending their lives together is finding out what the opposite gender really thinks. In fact, so valued is this precious information that reams of self-help books, storerooms full of film and countless — slightly inebriated — restaurant-based arguments have been devoted to its cause. What does she really mean when she says, “I’m fine” in that clipped, angry tone? Why does she sigh so loudly when she picks another pair of my dirty socks off the bedroom floor? Why do I risk being questioned about my work ethic and sworn at if I wait three days to do the washing up? It’s a minefield out there, which is why we’ve chosen to do some of the more dangerous excavation for you. But don’t thank us. Thank the following contributors who know more than a thing or two about the female mindset.

Manic gym-going and grooming makes us deeply uncomfortable

By Amy Bratley, 36 Having pride in your appearance is one thing; looking like Cristiano Ronaldo is quite another

Gleefully eyeing the spa voucher sticking out of my boyfriend’s wallet, I clapped my hands together. “How lovely,” I sighed dreamily.

“Is that for me?”

He shook his head, casting his eyes to the floor. “No,” he said quietly. “I’m afraid not.”

“Oh,” I said, my mind racing. Was he having an affair? “Who then?”

“It’s for me,” he said. “I’ve booked myself a pamper day. I’m going to have a herbal wrap.”

My eyes were perfect circles. Pamper day? I put my head in my hands. Our relationship screeched to a halt. There was no way I could date a bloke who had herbal wraps, because there’s nothing so deeply unsexy as a vain man. Nearly all women are agreed on this. Men who invest too much time and energy into looking good — be it having facials, pedicures or going to the gym every day — are a major turn-off. As my friend Rachel recently discovered when her new gym-bunny boyfriend spent more time in the gym than with her, no woman wants to go to bed with a narcissist.

“I caught him staring at his six-pack during sex,” she told me. “I felt like a rowing machine.”

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with men taking pride in their appearance. Let’s face it, no woman likes a man who smells like an onion hotpot, who is shedding his scalp or has a scary furry neck rising from his shirt collar. Deodorant, shampoo and a razor are items to be proud of. But there’s no need to be extreme. We don’t want to discover your bathroom cabinet bursting with cinnamon face cream, pomegranate scrub, peppermint foot cream or, worse still, bronzing powder and concealer. Apparently, male cosmetics are the biggest growth area in the cosmetics industry, but make-up is for girls. It belongs to us. Hands off. To our minds, a man who spends endless hours at the gym is rejecting spending time with his girlfriend. The man who splashes out on grooming products cares more about himself than he does about us. Plus, we can’t help but question the motive. Who are you trying to attract with your whitened teeth and your self-tan and your regular back, sack and crack wax?

Nothing is more likely to send girls into a spiral of hysterical self-doubt than a man so obsessed with his appearance that he has no physical flaws. We really don’t want to be upstaged in that department. And when we ask if our bum looks big, we really want you to shake your head and offer us a bag of chips, not offer us advice on how to do a bum crunch. We’re banking on the fact you didn’t really notice or care about our wobbly spots. Hey, maybe you even love us for them. We seriously don’t care how hard your pectoral muscles are or how many squat thrusts you can do. So just relax. You know we all love a man with a love handle who falls off the back of the treadmill. He will most likely laugh at himself and shun a wheatgrass shot for a pint. That’s far more attractive to me.

After a few lagers one night recently, my partner declared he wanted to look like Daniel Craig and should do 100 press-ups before bed. My mouth fell open in alarm, but I stayed silent. He managed one, before his arms gave way and his nose hit the carpet. For that, I truly loved him.

We’re deeply suspicious if you don’t like sport

By Kate Bussmann, 35 Prefer chamber music and botanical drawings to kicking a ball around a field? You’re in trouble…

I can see why you’d get the impression that women prefer men who don’t like sports. It’s a rare girlfriend who won’t moan if you insist on a full day surfing between the 6 Nations and the Premier League, followed by a late-night cricket chaser, while she does a shop at Sainsbury’s, scrubs the ring off the bathtub and recycles the beer cans balanced on your gut. Likewise, if you’re like one man I know, and decide to go on an all-night bike ride when your partner has just had a baby, that could inspire irritation. And if you take a girl who doesn’t watch football to White Hart Lane for her birthday, as my friend Anth’s ex did, you’re as good as dumped. But it’s another matter if you’re not into sports at all. For starters, you’re a rare specimen, just like a woman who doesn’t like shoes — it’s a sexist stereotype, but that doesn’t make it any less true. As my friend Nicole puts it, “It’s just plain weird.” And as a result, we start to get suspicious. Did you suffer childhood trauma by being picked last for every team at school? What, if not sports, do you talk about with other men? The relative merits of a top-of-the-range moisturising lotion and a high-street own brand? Your feelings? Or, heaven forbid, us? At the very least, as in my case, we wonder who we’ll go to the pub with on those biennial occasions when football actually becomes mildly interesting. Even my friend Anna, who insists that she prefers a husband unobsessed by sports, “would be happy if he was more into football. Then I wouldn’t have to explain the sodding away-goals rule to him every time there’s a two-leg game on.”

Part of it, you understand, is in our evolutionary psychological make-up, at least when it comes to men who play sports as opposed to those who just watch them. If you tell us you don’t like chasing balls around fields, a primal alarm bell goes off warning us that you’ll suck at spearing antelope. And as long as you’re not totally rubbish, watching you practise legalised violence for an hour or so gets our blood flowing as well as yours (with the obvious exception of darts, snooker or any other ‘sport’ where a 20-a-day habit is mandatory). And even if we’re not that interested in watching you, we don’t mind a bit of time to ourselves. When an acquaintance’s husband announced he was going to take a summer off from his cricket team so they could spend more weekends together, she admitted to “getting jittery” at the thought of all her ‘me’ time becoming ‘us’ time.

As for those of you who are just spectators, it depends on the sport. When we date a long-distance cyclist, we get to enjoy those chiselled thighs at close quarters; if you spend most of July in a darkened room watching men ride up and down the Alps, you will only arouse our disdain.

But, if you coast all the way past uninterest to ironic detachment when, say, the World Cup’s on, you’ll arouse contempt. As one friend put it, “It’s not hilarious to act as if you’re above the whole thing. It’s too boring for words.”

We’d much rather you were funny than rich

By Sali Hughes, 35 Money is good for the weekly Sainsbury’s shop. It won’t go much further

On paper, I don’t have a type. I’ve dated rich men, poor men and men of undisclosed income dubiously obtained by importing porcelain. I’ve slept with handsome men (a top model and a couple of celebs among them), downright plain men and even a man with one ball, three nipples and a monobrow (I kid you negative).

But as disparate as this line-up may be, closer inspection reveals they all had one crucial attribute in common. They were all hilarious.Funny is a deal-breaker and non-negotiable. Throw anything else at me, but if you don’t make my organs fail from laughter, I’m not putting out. You have to be able to sit in front of the telly and take the p*ss until Countryfile is the funniest programme I’ve seen in weeks. You need to have a dark streak that allows you to dryly mock sad events, making them seem more bearable.

You need to be able to laugh when one of us does a pratfall off the side of the bed during sex. You need to ‘get’ comedy and be able to tell a dirty joke until my tea’s coming out of my nose. Dodgy dress sense, unexceptional looks, a low income — I can roll with almost anything but the inability to make me cry laughing. I know from my male friends that when women say they seek a sense of humour above all else, you think we’re just fibbing, but we’re not. Just because many of you place shiny hair and good hooters above punchlines, doesn’t mean we’re as shallow.

A preoccupation with looks is short-sighted, an obsession with wealth even more baffling. I was brought up to look after myself and pay my own way. A woman relying on a man for money is never free. Cash imposes a power imbalance and sapping of self-respect. And no mansion or number of Prada handbags could sweeten a life spent with a rich man who’s as funny as cancer.

You should take comfort from this. Unlike money, which we know is linked with education and social class, humour is the great leveller. The funny boys who couldn’t get laid at school suddenly find an appreciative female audience in adulthood. Funny is meritocratic — you can be fat, plain, skint or educated in a Portakabin with armed guards and still have the talent to laugh a girl into bed. And when the deed is done, there’s nothing more intimate and sexy than getting the giggles at a joke only you two have shared.

Most importantly, the ability to be funny demonstrates intelligence, confidence and perceptiveness. After the big two — kindness and honesty — these qualities are important and sexy. I’m not saying that I’m looking for some relentless gag merchant who’s still quoting Seinfeld at me as I’m wearily brushing my teeth gone midnight (I’m afraid that I’ve had a couple of those), or who can’t hit the pause button when it’s time to discuss the intricacies of our relationship, but some warm, well-timed laughter remains a great aphrodisiac for me, and turns me on in a way that cold, hard cash never could.

We like our men to be tough

By Terri White, 31 Don’t listen to the rom-coms and lady magazines — strong and silent is fine by us

I was 16 when it first happened to me. There was no warning, no sign of what was to follow. If there had been, I could — no, I would — have been better prepared. Sat opposite me, his face contorted, his hands moved to his eyes and then what looked like water started to leak through. It couldn’t be? Could it? My God, it was. My first boyfriend was sat before me, crying. And not a dignified, solitary single tear. Racking, heaving, noisy, icky sobs. Now I’m not a completely heartless harridan — his dog hadn’t died or anything, we’d actually had a daft row about the length of my skirt — but a rather large part of my love and respect for him died in that moment.

Some 15 years on from that shocking encounter, there is a reason why women have embraced figures such as Don Draper with such zeal and pleasure. Because he appeals to the secret, unspoken part of most women that longs for a man’s man. A straight-talking, whisky-drinking, suit-wearing, traditional chap who’ll grunt his displeasure and cry only when a wasp flies directly into his retina.

We can understand your confusion, though. And it is sort of our fault. In the Nineties we proclaimed our desire for the ‘new man’ — all cuddles, introspection and emotional chats while clad in angora jumpers. We slated traditional men, called them ‘sexists’ and demanded sensitivity and walks by ponds to feed the ducks. And we certainly got what we asked for — men were now talking about their deepest feelings without the aid of alcohol, quoting Keats in bed and crying at the drop of a hat. Crying when their football team lost, crying when we had a row over your carelessly discarded socks, crying when Planet Organic ran out of pancetta. And while we wiped your tears, cooed and looked sympathetic, inside we were wanting to scream the words you should never, ever say: “For the love of God and all things sacred, be a real man!” No wonder you may have been a tad baffled — we’d gone and done a complete 180.

Suddenly, everything we thought we wanted was everything that made us recoil in horror. Hypocrisy though, surely? Absolutely. We have spent many, many wine-soaked evenings mopping up our friends’ tears and deconstructing their every emotion. In fact, if you had to add up how much time we’ve spent sharing our inner-most thoughts and feelings with other women, you’d find it was approaching a full-time job. And what with our actual full-time job, the thought of taking on extra shifts with you is simply exhausting. Also, the really unspeakable truth is that we just fancy you less.

This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t show emotion. But there are limits. At the risk of sounding like a Stepford wife, we have no problem with you dealing with your emotions in a more traditional way. Go for a bracing walk, have a stiff drink (sans mixer) or talk to good old Dave down the pub — these rituals have endured for generations for a darn good reason. While we love it when you then do share with us, we don’t need to know every inner-most emotion you’re experiencing at every single moment, just as we’re sure you’d quite like not to be asked “What are you thinking?” every 32 minutes.

We’re not advocating turning into sexist pigs, dragging your knuckles on the pavement and feeling up the secretary. But men and women are different, and men should feel free to be men. Tough, strong and solid as a rock with the occasional chink in the armour we’re there to help you smooth out. Just don’t cry more than us. Unless your dog does die, obviously. I mean, we’re not completely unreasonable…

Actually, we’re the commitment-phobes

By Bibi Lynch, 45 ‘Forever’ petrifies us more

Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend. Let’s call him ‘Fluke’. Fluke loved me deeply and, to show his devotion, wanted to tattoo my name upon his person. (Actually, he was going to have two ‘B’s inked on him. So maybe not so devoted, eh Babs? And you Brenda.) Did his show of everlasting love fill me with joy and ideas for our wedding vows? No. It made me start such a sh*tty fight with him that he ended up getting his own initials scratched into him. On to his leg. Heh. There’s angry.

The point is, the thought of him being so sure about our relationship, being so certain it had a future, sent me into an ‘I’m a commitment-phobe… get me out of here!’ spinout. (And so him then buying us matching eternity rings was a little foolish — and for ‘foolish’ read ‘death-wishy’ — on his part.) We of course broke up.

And then got back together. And then broke up… Boy, that relationship will always be remembered for the ons and offs. It will also be remembered because it’s the only relationship I’ve ever had. In my 45 years I have had one long-term love (lasted four years, with us breaking up every six months) — the other encounters have been three-monthers or, like my last dabble in September ’09, a six-weeker.

This isn’t fun. I take no pleasure in being a female Darren Day. I want to be in a relationship. No woman is an island. I want a soulmate. I don’t want to live a lonely life and then die, on my own, on the 29 bus with some youth trying to pull my Oyster card out of my stiff little mitt. But the minute I’m in something, I’m smacked with ‘This isn’t enough/right for me’ thoughts — and the idea of being trapped with the wrong man traumatises me (I lost three stone when I was with Fluke). And so I jeopardise it. In my head I think, “He’s not funny. That was dull. He’s gonna age badly,” and out loud I say things like, “So, when was your last gay experience?” But don’t be damning me as a freakin’ freak here — because it’s not just me. One of my friends will only date married men, another only has long-distance relationships, and another ditched her last bloke because he had a missing tooth. Seriously.

Now it doesn’t take a therapist to suss that this is all about fear of intimacy — but it would take a therapist to say why we’re so scared. Yes, like our eternal bachelor counterparts, women will say we don’t want to commit because we like our lives as they are, we enjoy our independence, we want to hold out for a younger, prettier model… Hurts, doesn’t it? But it’s obviously deeper than that. Have me and my friends simply not been lucky enough to meet the right person? Or are we so unhinged that we should be put down? Sadly, for all of us, the truth lies in-between — and is far more complex.

But, you know, ever the optimist, I’m still keen to try. And I can’t imagine you’ve read a thing that would put you off delightful me. Call me! We could have a really meaningful week together.

Images: Mark Harrison

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