Hello Doctor NerdLove,
I (33/Male) have been following your site for a while now and have found it enormously helpful in changing my outlook. For a long time I have had a very negative view of myself, based in part on a long struggle with being overweight, and I viewed any sort of non-platonic relationship with a woman as fantasy at best. However, your advice encouraged me to challenge many of my assumptions that I held as “fact”. I now feel a lot more encouraged about my future. I also decided to stop waiting to make changes or pursue my goals. I once believed that it was pointless to work on anything else until I had lost weight and preferably had a nice set of six-pack abs. And while I have made significant changes to my diet with the help of a nutritionist and become more physically active, I am no longer waiting for some mythical “right time” to start working on other things. I have been pursuing my passion for acting, taking classes and making many new friends. However, there are some areas I would still like to improve, namely: hygiene, fashion, and home décor. I have a number of questions and would like any advice you can give.
First, hygiene. I have never really had bad hygiene, per se. I have always showered regularly, washed clothes and sheets on a regular basis, and taken good care of my teeth. However, my goal was usually more about “not smelling bad” as opposed to “smelling good”. In your columns, you suggest using fragrance free body wash and shampoo so as not to clash with your cologne. I always viewed cologne as something saved for special occasions, like a date. Should I be wearing it every day, even just to go to work or class? And if not, should I have body wash and shampoo with fragrances? Is it okay to mix and match fragrances, or should my deodorant, body wash, and shampoo all be the same brand and scent? Also, I heard that after a while your body gets used to a given scent and it becomes less effective. Should I be switching up the scent every now and then? And as for the scents themselves (citrus, green, and spice), are there scents that are more appropriate for certain situations? For example, would one scent (like citrus) be more appropriate for work or class while another sent (like spice) be more appropriate for a date? Finally, in one column you suggest showering before bed. Does this mean I should shower twice a day? My skin is somewhat sensitive and showering twice a day might be a little harsh on it.
Now, on to fashion. My general style for the past decade is best described as “non-offensive”. Basically, jeans and a t-shirt. Usually a black t-shirt under the assumption that black is trimming. I’m white, of Scandinavian and Northern European background, with green-blue eyes and brown hair. I still need to figure out what my skin’s undertone is, but do you have any color suggestions based on my description? If I decide to go with a t-shirt and an overshirt should the colors be similar or contrasting? Are jeans okay, or should I wear slacks? Should I worry about the color of my belt? What about watches? It’s been a while since I actually wore a watch, I just use my phone for time, but when I did wear a watch it was always a digital one. Is that okay, or would a more traditional hand watch look more elegant? I don’t want to go too crazy with accessories right off the bat, but what about a necklace? I was thinking of one with Thor’s hammer on it to represent my Scandinavian roots. Or is that too phallic a symbol to be wearing around my neck?
Finally, home décor. I have a few posters and a scroll that I am definitely putting away, however, I have a couple of very nicely framed posters complete with museum glass. One is a poster of multiple connecting covers from the Street Fighter comic by Udon. The other is from one of the covers of DC’s Identity Crisis. With the framing and glass they both look very nice, but they are still pictures of animated characters mainly aimed at children (regardless of how dark and gritty DC keeps trying to make its properties). Even being nicely framed, do these still make my place look like a kids room? Do these really say “33-year-old man” or are women going to see them and just think “man-child”?
Now, before I end this long laundry list of questions that I call a letter, I have one more question that doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned categories. One of the few things about my physical appearance that I have always actually been proud of is my smile. I am generally a very smiley person, and I have consistently gotten compliments on my smile throughout my life. However, I have read a couple of articles about apparent “studies” that suggest women find men more attractive when they don’t smile. Apparently it has something to do with smiling being considered “feminine”. Do you know if there is any truth to this? Should I stop all the smiling and try to emulate the solemn and serious faces of the guys from Twilight?
Alright MQ, today, we’re going to do things a little differently. Usually when I pull letters for Ask Dr. NerdLove, I’m answering readers’ specific concerns or questions. Today, however, I chose your letter for two reasons. First, it’s because you provide an excellent example of something I see a lot of folks — especially men with relatively little social experience — do all the time: they overthink themselves into a sort of analysis paralysis. They become so worried that they need to perform so perfectly and specifically that they worry that even the slightest miscalculation will sink their chances at love like a U-boat sinking the Lusitania. As a result, they end up drastically over-complicating things to such a degree that they end up stuck and afraid to make a move at all.
Second, it provides an opportunity to talk a little about how to take charge of your self-improvement, how to find answers to a lot of your questions and apply those answers in a way that’s relevant to your life, instead of looking for a universal solution or singular critical path to success.
(Don’t worry MQ, I am going to address your questions and provide answers too. This is all part of the process.)
So let’s talk a little about getting out of your own way, shall we?
One of the things I notice right off the bat from your letter is how intensely detail oriented it is. This, in my experience, tends to be one of the first indicators that someone’s undergoing analysis paralysis — that is, they’ve become so caught up in collecting as much information as possible that their brans have vaporlocked. It’s a very particular type of executive dysfunction, where you’re suddenly trying to absorb and process so much information that you find yourself unable to move for fear of getting things wrong. And, in fairness: there’s a lot of folks out there who will tell you about how sweating the details is how you get ahead and not paying enough attention to the details will ruin you.
And… well, while that’s not entirely wrong, it’s not entirely right either. Especially when it comes to dating.
The first thing to keep in mind MQ, is that getting so caught up in the details is, in fact, another form of waiting for that mythical “right time” you’re trying to avoid. It doesn’t feel the same as, say, waiting until you’re at the exact right weight or musculature to start dating. In fact, it feels more like you’re trying to just answer nagging unresolved questions that are just the last steps before you feel ready to put yourself out there. But in practice, putting so much importance on incredibly fine details ends up having the same effect as waiting until you’re at $_Perfect_Weight in order to start dating. This isn’t to say that getting answers to those questions is bad; just that all too often, folks let those seemingly minor details or last questions derail the entire process.
This is what’s known as “letting the perfect become the enemy of the good”; you end up prioritizing perfection, even when the benefits provided by perfection are so minor that you ignore that “good enough” will get you where you want to be. Now, I know folks will say “what’s wrong with seeking perfection?” After all, to quote Robert Browning, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? And while seeking to reach for perfection is a fine ambition, all too often what happens is that you get hung up on imperfections that the vast majority of the world will never notice.
Now to be fair to you, MQ and to many others out there: there’s a lot of shit out there that seeks to convince you that the tiniest details will destroy everything you’ve worked for. Women, in particular, have been subjected to this for generations; all you have to do is look at any supermarket tabloid that revels in gloating over some female celebrity who dared to exist as a human body in physical space. Got folds in the soft tissue of your skin when you bend at the waist? Do you dare to have the slightest bulge at the waistband of your pants? Do you have — gasp, shock, horror — visible pores or even a small skin blemish? Don’t look like you’ve been airbrushed, Photoshopped and FaceTune’d within an inch of your life at all times? Dare to be seen under less than perfect lighting — particularly overhead lighting — or with makeup and hair that isn’t done just so? HOW DARE YOU EXPOSE YOUR WRETCHED SELF TO THE WORLD, YOU SCUM?
If you want to see how deep the push for perfectionism goes, just search Google for “Megan Fox thumbs” and notice how much digital ink is spilled over a detail that most of the world would neither notice nor give a singular flying fuck about if it weren’t for dudes wanting to shit on women who would never give them the time of day.
Nor is this devoted exclusively at women. No, now men also have the joy of feeling judged for the crime of having bodies that are subject to time, gravity or not being paid to look like a Men’s Health cover model. Jonah Hill — much like Amanda Palmer before him — famously slapped back at the Daily Mail for their body-shaming bullshit after posting photos of him peeling off his wetsuit after surfing. Even men who’re famous for being obscenely fit aren’t immune to criticism. When Jason Momoa had the temerity to be seen in public without having dehydrated himself enough to have camera-ready washboard abs, people lamented that Momoa now had a “dad bod”.
So I can’t blame folks for fearing that perfection is the minimum standard and that even minor imperfections will be seen as deal-breaking, world ending flaws.
What I can tell you, from decades of experience, is that the vast majority of the world does not give a fuck about perfection. While there will always be assholes who will insist on absurd levels of detail as a means of gatekeeping, the remaining 99% would neither notice nor care about whether or not you’re wearing the “wrong scent for the season”. The zen of “good enough” means accepting that your imperfections aren’t automatically deal-breakers and that not knowing all the “rules” doesn’t doom you to failure. It means recognizing that perfection is an ideal, not a reality. Getting bogged down in trying to make sure everything is exactly right means you’re going to spend more time picking at things that only you would notice or even care about than you are actually dating. Clothes that aren’t the exact perfect color for your skin tone aren’t going to be nearly as much of an issue as you think, nor are a couple of framed pictures going to ruin things if you bring someone home.
Rather than getting lost in the fiddly details, you want to understand the broad brushstrokes. If you’re focused on the minutia, you never see the whole picture. So it’s better to zoom out, master the basics and then worry less about “rules” and more about customizing things so that they are emblematic of who you are and help you stand out the right way.
And the key to this is simple: you focus on the basics. Get a good grasp on those… and then you fuck around and find out. When you have that understanding of the basics and fundamentals, you’re able to explore more, experiment with more and figure out what will and won’t work for you. Then, rather than worrying about getting everything exactly “right”, you’re able to relax and recognize the differences and “imperfections” as the things that make you uniquely you.
Which is actually an excellent segue into your first question: making sure you smell good. Smell is an incredibly powerful sense — the olfactory bulb is connected to the part of our brain that controls memory and emotion — so making sure you smell nice is important. Smelling bad — and “bad” past a certain point is very much a cultural construct — is associated with sickness and disease; rotting teeth, gangrenous wounds and the like. Because hygiene is important for general health, the most obvious indicator — scent — takes on great importance.
Most colognes and perfumes, for example, have very complex and layered scents; these actually change over the course of the day as the carrier liquid evaporates and your body heat and chemistry interacts with the scent. Expensive colognes, in particular, tend to have scents that develop over time; a hint of amber at the start, turning to more sandalwood as it warms against your skin. This is why the perfume counters at department stores will have little strips of paper that are used to sample the scents. You spray the cologne on the paper, then take the strip with you and see how it smells as the initial layer evaporates.
However, smelling nice is deeply personal and variable, in part because of individual body chemistry and because of emotional associations. Plenty of folks will have preferences, especially on people they date. Many prefer minimal or no scent if at all possible, especially if they have sensory issues. And while there’s value in making sure that your scent isn’t offensive or overwhelming to the person you’re hoping to date, trying to tailor your scent to the occasion or the person is a great way to drive yourself mad.
What I suggest is that you worry less about finding the “right” scent for others, and instead, look to find a scent that speaks to you as a person. Some folks like spicier scents for the sense of the exotic, while others like woodsier scents that invoke feelings of nature. Some like florals or fruiter scents like berries. The best scent for you is one that you think smells best on you and is in line with your identity. If you like the classics, a muskier scent might work. If you like smelling light and fresh, then a floral scent is excellent. There’re even scents that just smell “clean” — subtle hints of ozone and petrichor, rather than plants or spices. Personally I’m a fan of amber, sandalwood and vanilla, but that’s just me.
What I suggest is that instead of switching one out for day and night or work vs. date, I would recommend finding a scent that speaks to you and let that be your signature — something that folks associate with you. It is less about following the “rules” and more about cultivating a personal, signature style, one that screams “this is MQ”. Now, this is something that can take time and experimentation, and I recommend figuring out the general scent family and working out from there; the sales associates at the perfume and cologne counters will be able to help you pick one or two candidates to try. However, when it comes to scent there’s one rule that’s inviolate: nobody should be able to smell you unless they’re close enough to kiss. The problem with Axe isn’t the scent so much as the amount. Part of why it became synonymous with douchebaggery (outside of an atrocious ad campaign) is that people would douse themself with the stuff and became ambulatory Stinking Clouds. Your personal scent should never have an area of effect beyond your embrace; too much of any scent, no matter how nice, ends up becoming a chemical weapon instead.
Clothing is, likewise, an issue of expression as much as it is about following the right “rules”. Understanding the basics — formal wear vs. casual wear, for example — is important. There are some decent guides to clothing basics out there, such as Debrett’s Guide For The Modern Gentleman; they can be a little on the conservative side, but they’re a good way of picking up the fundamentals. However, when you understand the basics, you’re in a position to start bending — or even breaking — the rules to meet your personal style and sense of expression. Confidence and a sense of personal style let you ignore or twist the so-called “rules” in ways that make it possible to express your individual identity. This is part of how celebrities will often “get away” with wearing unusual or unorthodox outfits that still look great; they know which rules can be bent, which can be broken and what makes them all work.
And the one rule that absolutely cannot be broken is very simple: fit trumps literally everything else. If your clothes don’t fit properly, it doesn’t matter how expensive or cheap they are, what color they are or what style. A hundred dollar suit from JC Penny’s that’s been tailored to fit you properly will look far better than an Armani that makes you look like you’re a ten year old playing dress up in Daddy’s clothes. Part of why Billy Porter and Harry Styles look amazing even when they’re wearing outré couture is because they’re still wearing clothes that fit them. Porter isn’t just wearing a dress, he’s wearing a dress that fits him perfectly. That alone makes it look less like a bid for attention; he didn’t just grab a remaindered prom dress and call it a day, he got a dress that is very clearly for him.
If your clothes fit you correctly, then everything else is far more flexible. You’re in a better position to experiment with color, texture or breaking other rules. Confidence and individuality — especially consistency in style — tend to mean that what would look unusual or out of place on one person will look perfectly natural on the right person. If I wear a three-piece suit with a v-neck tee, I’m doing so because it’s a calculated style choice and I understand how it all fits together. If I dress in a way to emphasize my visible tattoos, it’s because I’m deliberately drawing attention to them and contrasting them with the outfit. It looks right on me because it matches my personality and I’m doing it with intention and care.
One thing that helps: find yourself a role model. Pick a celebrity that has coloring similar to yours and see what stylists put him in. What colors is he wearing most often, what sorts of clothes look good on him? These can give you ideas about what you might want to try next or how you might want to break those rules. However, it’s important to remember: that’s a starting point and a guide, not iron clad law. It’s for inspiration, not restriction.
Now, it does help to start by going simple. Part of what sinks folks who get hung up on “what about this detail? What about this?” is that they try to do too much when they should be doing less. When you go with simple and basic, you have a canvas on which to paint, and it makes those small details pop more instead of overwhelming things. So having a basic outfit — say, black jeans, a white button-down shirt, simple leather sneakers — means that the personal touch you do put to it will jump out at folks. If, for example, you add a silk knit tie with a tiebar and a black bomber jacket over that, you have a deceptively simple outfit that stands out in an understated way. It’s classy and stylish and different from what most folks would wear, but not so outrageous that you feel like you’re wearing a costume. But as you grow and gain experience and confidence, you can take bigger and more significant risks — maybe that jacket would have a pattern to make it stand out, or you may swap out the jacket for a victorian-style red and black waistcoat for a pop of color. Simplicity allows you to dress up or dress down as needed, and makes the rest stand out in the way that you intend.
However, again: start slowly. Pick one thing to stand out, until you get your metaphorical sea-legs under you. That one statement piece — which may be a jacket, a flashy watch, something — is there to catch the eye; everything else supports it. As you get more experienced, you can add more and find the things that fit your sense of self, your sense of style and your personality. That way, when you break the rules, you’re doing so deliberately and with a purpose.
(And as an aside: be aware that how you dress and what you wear does convey messages about who you are, and that can work against you. The Mjolnir pendant you mention thinking of wearing isn’t going to come across as too phallic… but it may cause folks to make unwarranted assumptions about your politics and racial views. Nazis have appropriated a lot of Nordic symbology — including the Valknut, Odin’s ravens, the Othala and the Wolfsangel runes. Some, like the Mjolnir pendant, can be edge-cases, but it’s worth being aware of how folks will take it.)
That guide of “understand the fundamentals, then let your personality shine through” applies to decor as well. Once again, focusing on specific pieces risks missing the forest for the trees. Yes, how you decorate your place will affect how potential dates see you… but it’s far less about what you have on your walls and more about the holistic living space and overall vibe. The reason why women will talk about man-children — and why there’re so many folks who enjoy laughing at single dudes’ living spaces — is because of how little care and effort guys will put into their pad. The stereotypical “manchild” apartment doesn’t look like Steve Carell in The 40 Year Old Virgin, it looks like the Delta Tau Chi frathouse.
For all that it’s crammed with toys and gear, Carrell’s apartment is fairly neat and organized. It’s clearly not intended to be a shared living space, which is its own issue, but it’s not egregious by any stretch, except to folks who think that growing up means not loving the things you did as a kid. The Animal House look, on the other hand, tends to be far more common and screams that the people who live there never progressed past having other people taking care of things for them while they live like slobs. Part of what singles out the manchildren from everyone else is how little care or personality goes into where they live and where their priorities lie. When their hierarchy of needs is “TV, gaming system, sound system, everything else”, it tells people what they consider to be important, and how little concern they give to anything outside of those specific interests.
That, in turn, tells folks a lot of what life would be like dating them.
While finances will obviously affect your ability to decorate your place, there’s a difference between financially-induced minimalism and “just doesn’t give a shit.” There’s little care, less effort and even less personality; just bare walls, a carpet that makes distressing crunching noises and a bedroom that even the cockroaches abandoned in favor of a place more upscale. Putting even the barest effort — even just a painted accent wall and a couple of living plants — can make the difference between “manchild” and “spartan but comfortable”.
This is part of why having a few curated geek-interest pieces isn’t going to be a dealbreaker… with some caveats. Framed posters, for example, show care and effort, rather than sticking them straight to the wall with blu tack. It immediately moves things up from “freshman dorm room” to “a functioning adult lives here,” simply because it implies a greater level of care. Now, some posters or framed art is going to work better than others; a Mondo or Nakatomi print is going to come across as classier than the “got it out of the two-for-one bin at FYE”, but lots of movie posters and lobby cards are works of art in and of themselves. Sometimes the difference is to get a foreign language version. A vintage James Bond poster is one thing — not bad at all and it speaks to your personality. A vintage Italian James Bond movie poster elevates it, in part because of how it stands out.
Comic art can work the same way. I have framed pages from The Rocketeer and Xenozoic Tales, proudly displayed on my walls, along with tattoo prints and framed concert posters. They look great, in part because I had them professionally framed and matted. But some works lend themselves more to display than others. It doesn’t matter how you frame it, having Lady Death, Verotika or Zombie Tramp on your walls is likely to raise a few eyebrows. However, this also is where individual taste comes in. Personally, I don’t find the Udon Street Fighter covers to my taste, and I really didn’t like Identity Crisis overall, so I wouldn’t hang those on my wall. However, those can help demarcate a particular space or niche in your place — say, where you keep your graphic novels, shelved and organized. As long as that’s not the overarching theme of the entire apartment, then you’d be fine.
However, as I said: how you decorate and arrange things will tell folk a lot about what your priorities are. Having a space that’s neat, clean, inviting and comfortable goes a very long way to helping folks decide they want to spend time there. A little effort to create a space that invites people to relax in comfort goes a very long way. That includes a couch with some comfortable throw pillows, a bed that’s more than just a mattress on the ground and some plants that show you can keep a living thing alive. Browsing Pinterest can give you some excellent inspiration for how you can decorate a place — even on a budget — that is welcoming and appealing.
Now, you may notice how little direct recommendations I’ve given you. This is, in part, because one of the keys to all of this is to explore and find your own answers. Part of getting yourself in a good place to date is finding your own way, finding your own inspiration and taking chances. I can tell you how to dress like everyone else… but only you can dress like you. I have a lot of guides for you in my archives if you need a starting point, but part of the dating game is becoming the best, most polished version of yourself — and that requires seeking out ideas and trying new things, even if they may seem risky. It means being less worried about getting everything perfect and more about learning how to make mistakes. Sometimes that initial screw up can be a blessing in disguise.
Oh and one more thing: yes, for fuck’s sake, smile. You’re not the goddamn Terminator, dude. You’ve gotten compliments on your smile, which should tell you something. A smile is warm, inviting and friendly. That whole “don’t show emotions, it’s too feminine” shit just makes you look like you’re contemplating licking the inside of their ribcage.