Hot People Are Stressful

In 2010, when I was 24 years old, I endured six straight months of recurring strep-throat infections before I finally got the green light to get my tonsils out. Midway through a round of antibiotics, I hauled myself into my new specialist’s office unshowered and wearing gym clothes I had collected from my floor, sweaty and rapidly losing any remaining will to sit upright. So I was not prepared for when the doctor walked into the exam room and revealed himself to be tall, broad shouldered, square jawed, and absolutely beautiful.

Embarrassment shot through my body. Why was his unplanned handsomeness allowed to stress out sick people? Why was his face that symmetrical? Why hadn’t the receptionist warned me?

A couple of weeks later, the hot doctor cut out my rotting tonsils. When he paid me a surprise visit in the recovery room, I was consumed again by the irrational belief that people at the far end of the physical-beauty bell curve should at least give the rest of us some time to compose ourselves before we have to deal with them. Instead, we’re left to walk up to a store counter, interact with someone we find arrestingly gorgeous, and pretend that nothing has happened.

I’ve chafed under this onerous expectation periodically in the intervening 10 years: There was another hot doctor, to whom I had described a rash in detail over the phone, as well as a hot mover and the occasional hot delivery guy. Every time, it was the same small sense of panic, embarrassment, and indignation. Aren’t people supposed to enjoy beauty? As it turns out, this isn’t just me being a colossal weirdo, at least according to neuroscience. Even if they don’t mean any harm, hot people can be very, very stressful.

The problem starts with brain chemistry. “When you see an attractive person, the left ventral tegmental area of the brain becomes active and will pump out dopamine,” says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who studies attraction at the Kinsey Institute. “Dopamine is a stimulant to the brain, so some people might react with surprise or awkwardness.” That feeling is the weak-kneed giddiness that very attractive people can inspire, which can leave you fumbling for words and feeling off balance, even though a dopamine rush is a fundamentally pleasurable experience.

Even if hot people have the element of surprise on their side, that gets them only so far. “Good looks are important in the beginning, because it gets you to look at a person and you might go talk to them,” says Fisher. “It’s a great first signal, but mating has breaking points and escalation points.” She notes that usually, in the long run, being really hot isn’t enough to keep people attracted to someone who has a terrible personality or a bizarre worldview. Whether knowing that pretty people have problems too makes you feel better when you’re wearing a hospital gown and suddenly confronted with a sentient Ken doll is another issue.

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