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Rules of Attraction: Why Does the Grungy Look Turn Women On?

Karliemarie Lane has never been to Burning Man (a "transformative" annual camp out in the Nevada desert), but she’s convinced she’d find the love of her life there. Men, covered in desert grime, hair a wind-whipped mess, nary a shower in sight. Yes, finding Mr. Right at Burning Man would be simple. Although they didn’t meet at a festival, Lane says her current relationship is great. But her boyfriend is very clean, groomed. She wouldn’t say she has a fetish, but Lane, 23, has a definite preference toward outwardly dirty men: Long, greasy hair, weathered skin, scruff, cuts, scrapes, sweat.

Lane was about 8 years old when she noticed the attraction; the vision of Johnny Depp dressed as a pirate stirred something deep inside of her. It was 2003 when Lane and her family saw the inaugural installment of the swashbuckler franchise Pirates Of The Caribbean in theaters. At the time, Lane was confused about her feelings and her physical reaction to them—she jumped out of her movie theater seat. But looking back on it now, she remembers thinking Depp, with his dreadlocks, thick eyeliner, and salt-stained clothing, was… hot. Captain Jack Sparrow was her first celebrity crush. See also: Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

Later, as a teen, Lane dated a skater. The dirt under his fingernails and his unkempt hair were turn ons. There was something mysterious about how unbathed he looked, how he wore the aesthetic like a halo, an intangible energy saying “I really don’t care.” Lane loved every unwashed inch. “It’s just golden,” she says, “it’s something golden about them.” What is it about hands signaling a long day’s work or a pair of jeans not having seen the inside of a washing machine that women like Lane find attractive?
There was something mysterious about how unbathed he looked, how he wore the aesthetic like a halo, an intangible energy saying 'I really don’t care.'
This lady and the tramp trope has long been popularized in culture. Rough-and-tumble (and even downright animalistic and dirty) male cartoon characters like Popeye, Tarzan, and Aladdin were the object of affection of loyal ladies, explorers, and princesses alike. Every teen drama’s “bad boy” rocked a scruffy chin, greasy hair, and rumpled t-shirts. Celebrities like Colin Farrell and Brad Pitt have mastered the “just-rolled-out-of-bed” look. The aesthetic has even made its way to the runway: British men’s fashion retailer Topman dirtied up their models with greasy hair and oily skin for London Fashion Week in 2017.

These characterizations, in turn, have psychological and biological reactions in women. In a 2008 study, men with light stubble were rated by women as more attractive and a more suitable romantic partner. Even more recently, in 2016, researchers asking women to rate men’s attractiveness found heavy stubble to be the preferred look among study participants and men with this kind of facial hair were more likely to be seen as suitable long-term partners.

All of the physical components pertaining to hair length, smell and body type signify to a woman how masculine a man is, says sexologist Dr. Damian Jacob Sendler. “Women have always been attracted to men with higher levels of testosterone and you can visibly assess it in most men,” he says. High testosterone in men tends to manifest in physical details like more hair, more muscles and deeper voices. Not to say your average suit-and-tie type doesn’t have these qualities, but images of construction workers, lumberjacks, and outdoorsmen—who, after a long day’s work, look sweaty and dirty—tend to lean stereotypically buff and rugged.

This kind of dude—a provider, a handyman—Carolyn Manning finds attractive. The 28-year-old has long associated a strong-looking, dad bod-possessing, bearded guy with tousled hair as someone who knows their way around a toolbox. “I have deep-set psychological issues of being taken care of and I feel like if a guy is very well kept … they’re kind of self-absorbed,” Manning says.

She traces her infatuation with dirty-looking guys back to sixth grade when she found skaters attractive. As an adult, Manning lost her virginity in the back of a car to a guy who’s currently homeless and has dated multiple people who lived in vans either before, during, or after their relationship. It’s not so much the look she’s attracted to, “it’s an assumption of what that aesthetic means,” she says, a lifestyle of being able to do a lot with very little.

Behavioral scientist Nick Hobson says this perspective stems from the lumberjack stereotype of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when men would retreat into the woods to perform strenuous and dangerous work. “The escaping-into-nature type man was an attempt for urbanized boys to regain a sense of authentic, primal manliness,” Hobson says. “The perception from women followed: A man who lived the natural way, in the wilderness, would be seen as genuine, bold, and a risk-taker.”

Ashley Laderer tends to go for adventurers of a more modern era: artists and musicians. Just as lumberjacks were associated with a freewheeling lifestyle, so, too, do dudes in bands. If you look a little greasy and are playing an instrument in your Tinder pictures, Laderer, 25, says, she’s more likely to swipe right. “If you look like you've been on Warped Tour sweating on stage, that’s great,” she continues. “You’re glistening and you’re dirty.”
In high school, Laderer was first attracted to the bad boys, the rule breakers, future dirty men still in the midst of puberty and under the influence of parents’ hygienic routines. It’s no surprise this early memory of attraction has stuck with her into adulthood, Sendler says. Young men who didn’t do their homework or who outgrew their jeans faster than their parents could buy new ones were often girls’ first encounter with cultural defyers, he continues. “We tend to turn our heads on the street toward guys who look like that because it reminds us of our first experience of sexual thrill.”

Just because a man looks dirty doesn’t mean he should smell that way though, Laderer says. (Lane and Manning agree.) Offensive body odor is a line, when crossed, signifies a guy’s a little too unwashed. The key, says celebrity groomer Barbara Guillaume, is to only look unbathed.

For her part, Guillaume, who’s worked with Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Grant, and Colin Farrell, puts effort into making her clients seem like they just rolled out of bed. All it takes is running a little bit of product through air-dried hair to give the perfect tousled appearance, minus actual greasy hair and stench. It’s a styling choice that screams “I’ve been places, I’ve lived,” Guillaume says. “He doesn't have to prove himself. ‘That’s me and I’m comfortable with that’ and there's something very attractive about that.” And no brand of body wash emulates that kind of confidence

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