Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Why women know best

Over the years I've come to accept that, when it comes to personal grooming, my wife knows best.

I suspect I'm like much of the male population in that, if left to my own devices, I would shave only as frequently as the stubble became itchy, on weekdays dress in shirts and suit pants that are too tight because I can never remember my size and can't be bothered trying things on, and on weekends live in tracksuit pants and t-shirts with toothpaste down the front. My hair would be allowed to flourish untamed as nature intended, up until the point when my chances of retaining gainful employment were called into doubt.

I particularly fear haircuts. In my teens, there were the 'wedge' haircuts Mum happily doled out on the back verandah, dress-making scissors in hand. In my twenties I submitted myself on a biannual basis to every possible horrendous permutation of 'short back and sides' the local apprentice could muster for $4.50. I even issued the 'surprise me' challenge the day before a job interview once, and returned the victim of what my wife named 'the Jerry Seinfeld'. (I was offered the job, which she said proved they must have an equal opportunity quota to fill.)

It was shortly after that point that my wife reached the end of her tether and frogmarched me to the local hairdressers on Market Street. After having a serious chat with the hairdresser, during which he would occasionally glance in my direction and shake his head, she left me to get my first haircut that necessitated payment with paper money.

It was the first time I haven't left wearing a hat, and since then I've quite enjoyed going to the hairdresser. I use the head massage as quality time to think. During my last 'brush' with a hair cut, I spent my time pondering on the types of things that are typical of successful urban spaces. This is another area where I rely on my wife for her advice. Whether we're in Freo or Melbourne, Paris, London or Bath, she picks out the best, most memorable and comfortable spots.

A successful space = the degree to which it attracts women

It turns out that when it comes to successful urban spaces, women know best. This is what William H. Whyte concluded as part of his influential 1970's study of New York's small urban places.

"The most used places also tend to have a higher than average proportion of women...Women are more discriminating than men as to where they will sit, more sensitive to annoyances, and women spend more time casing the various possibilities.

If a plaza has a markedly lower than average proportion of women, something is wrong. Where there is a higher than average proportion of women, the plaza is probably a good one and has been chosen as such."

Whyte's reasoning makes good sense. While I can linger in most places in Freo without worrying about being accosted or sitting on something sticky (you can't really ruin Target track suit pants), my wife has to be much more selective.

And wherever there are women, men will follow. We're simple like that. While women assess a space based on a whole variety of factors, men just like being around women.  It's no wonder, really - statistically speaking they smell nicer, don't get drunk and want to punch strangers, and are better at choosing hairdressers.

Perhaps Fremantle could do itself a favour and make use of Whyte's study.

Additional information

William H. Whyte's published his findings in his seminal work The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. It can be purchased by clicking here or here.  

It might be a little long at fifty eight minutes, but if you have the time and want to find out more about his study click here.


  1. That's a nice post. Women are generally more matured when compared to the men in their age.
    Nice post. Thanks for sharing an interesting read. Keep posting.

  2. The Bill Bryson of Fremantle! Would be great to see some photos of your 'hairstyles'.

    Do you think Whyte's conclusions on gender are less relevant now? His book has images of gratuitous perving in public spaces without his descending comment. That, I'd say, goes on a lot less now - especially in Australia. Jan Gehl routinely promotes 'perving' as an activity worth encouraging. It may be, but in Australia I don't think we 'recommend' it.

    Then, in New York and other megalopolises where Gehl and Whyte work, perhaps this activity has a more reasonable role in the street theatre.

    Over to you ...

    1. I think that Whyte's observations are still largely relevant today.

      Re the gratuitous perving - I've just read an interesting article which I'll hopefully post this weekend. I'd be interested to get your thoughts!

      The best thing about Whyte's work was that it established a baseline. I'm sure that a similar study of Freo's spaces would provide valuable information.

      Thanks for commenting!