I’m chilling with my friends at our favorite Manhattan bar when we notice his outfit—not his clothes, his outfit. Tailored suit? Check. Crisp shirt, no tie? Check, check. Trilby hat? Wait—why is he wearing a hat? In a bar? At night?
It turns out our fashion-conscious fellow patron is peacocking. But what does peacocking mean, and does it represent, well, anything?
What is peacocking?
“Peacocking” isn’t just what happens when peacocks spread their distinctive feathers for the purpose of attracting a peahen. Defined by Urban Dictionary as dressing for attention in a way that’s designed to attract a mate, human men peacock for exactly the same reason.
Sometimes subtle and sartorially focused, and other times marked by loud or obnoxious behavior, men—and occasionally women—peacock to show off what they believe is their most attractive feature.
“While the act is downright flashy and ostentatious, it’s highly effective for the birds,” said Nicole Arzt, licensed marriage and family therapist and board member of Family Enthusiast.
“It all comes down to evolution. In people, peacocking refers to displaying the most desirable trait. This can be done unconsciously or deliberately,” she added.
“Men with great arms, for example, will be sure to display a photo of them in a tank top on their online dating profile. If they’re proud of their wealth, they might show it off by leaving an enormous tip to the waiter. If humor is their asset, they’ll make it a point to weave in their best jokes whenever attractive women are present,” Arzt said.
And the good news for those of us who love people-watching?
“This ‘peacocking’ increases when around desirable mates,” according to Arzt.
Can women peacock?
But wait. Women like to get dressed up, right? I mean, I’ve got more than a few pairs of high heels and diaphanous blouses in my closet.
“Yes, women can and do peacock. There is a sense of mystery about a woman who walks in her power without fear or apology,” said educational psychologist Elisa Robyn.
“Women might not find this as effective as men since men expect a woman to dress up and show off her body,” Robyn added. “So, powerful women can be seen as someone to conquer, but are often seen as intimidating. However, there is a way to walk and stand that will catch men’s eyes.”
Signs of peacocking
Trilby hats and see-through shirts may be attention-getters but surely most who socialize have their own ways and means of looking their best and attracting attention.
So, what’s the difference between someone who’s peacocking and someone who dresses well for reasons that have nothing to do with securing a mate?
It turns out that location matters—a lot.
“Extreme forms of peacocking include truly narcissistic displays of one’s physical attributes regardless of the setting,” said clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly.
“For example, while it would be natural to see a buff man lathered in suntan oil wearing swim trunks standing proudly on the beach, that same attire and demeanor would be inappropriate in a hotel lobby or café,” Manly said.
Don’t overlook digital narcissism as a mechanism for the peacock to attract attention.
“We’re all guilty of displaying our best lives on social media, but the digital peacock is in a different league. His well-curated social media accounts only feature him in the best light; he seems to be the human embodiment of your wildest daydreams,” said Chris Pleines, founder of DatingScout.com.
“A digital peacock’s feed showcases his talents and physical assets. His posts rake in followers and reactors, and he has no problem basking in the compliments,” Pleines added. “While browsing his account, you can almost hear him say, ‘Do you like what you’re seeing?’”
So what does this mean for me?
Whether play-acting for fun or a calculated attempt to attract mates, the peacock’s hyper display of his perceived best assets makes starting a conversation easy—after all, that’s his goal. But just because his trilby-hat feathers are out, that doesn’t mean he’s a player or isn’t capable of turning out to be an A+ mate.
Nevertheless, experts recommend approaching peacocks (and peahens) with a healthy dose of caution.
“The primitive goal in peacocking, regardless of the gender, is to gain a competitive advantage in the mating game. The more prominent and attractive a person appears, the more likely it is that they will gain recognition, interest and ultimately the desired mate,” said Manly.
“That said, peacocking can occur even when gaining a mate is not the goal; some people peacock simply to gain ego-gratifying attention.”
Shake ya tail feather
Aspiring peacocks, take note: flaunting your plumage can indeed help you win a mate, but it’s easy to look silly.
“When done right, men could potentially win over the attention of the female they’re interested in and become memorable and interesting,” said Pleines. “However, you could also fail miserably if what you’re wearing or doing does not fit your personality—you’ll only end up looking foolish in your outlandish costume.”