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Profiles in History
“Our brains are hardwired. The cortex in the back of our brains scans the environment looking for fertile mates.”
—Louann Brizendine, M.D., author, The Female Brain
If you believe the attractiveness of a slender body and especially a flat abdomen are a recent Western, industrialized-countries phenomenon, history will prove you wrong. In cultures around the world and across the millennia, a slender middle as the hallmark of health, vigor, and beauty has nearly always headed the list of desirable physical attributes in a mate.
Take, for example, Queen Hatshepsut, fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt and the most powerful woman in her world. She died at age 50 from a ruptured tooth abscess, an ignominious end to be sure. That notwithstanding, as she was borne to her grave a hoary, desiccated corpse, swaddled in folds of her own fat, her funeral procession passed myriad statuary and glyphs representing her, not as she was but as she wished to be: young, sleek, and of slender silhouette. Modern analysis of her mummified remains, however, tells us such was not the case. Middle age had caught up to the queen. It appears that along with being quite obese, she had wretched teeth, bones riddled with tumors, and may have suffered from diabetes as well. Yet during her lifetime and for all the many centuries since her death, her svelte form in statues and paintings belied the middle-aged sprawl of the real Hatshepsut.
In 1991, feminist Naomi Wolf opined, “Beauty is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.” In other words, Ms. Wolf views our opinion of beauty as being based not on any innate or inborn sense of what is attractive, but as a product of our cultural indoctrination. We think a pretty face is pretty or a flat belly is attractive for no other reason than that’s the way we’ve been programmed to think by the society in which we live. The covers of Playboy, Playgirl, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan, she claims, set our standards for attractiveness, not the reverse. According to Wolf and others of her opinion, there is no universal standard for human beauty. Were we not programmed by advertisers and the entertainment industry, we would find a fat man or woman just as attractive and desirable as a thin one.
Years of serious scientific study, across numerous disciplines, prove otherwise. Our attraction to a pretty face and a flat belly is in our genes and is an atavistic throwback to a time when such features represented health and the ability to reproduce—important requirements in the selection of a mate. As Harvard Professor Deirdre Barrett puts it, these deep-seated universal standards of beauty “reflect our evolutionary need to estimate the health of others from their physical characteristics.”
It’s not our cultural programming that sets our standards for beauty; it is our instinct.
As recently as seventy-five years ago there were no reliable antibiotics available to fight bacterial infections and absolutely nothing to deal with myriad other infectious agents to which we humans fall prey. Many diseases common to our great-grandparents’ generation and before are virtually never seen now. And many of these diseases left disfiguring marks on their victims. For instance, it was common in those days to see people with terrible scarring from smallpox, along with ringworms and running sores from other skin infections. The peaches-and-cream complexions of persons of the opposite sex advertised their health. Who wouldn’t be more attracted to someone with smooth, unblemished skin? Rickets and other diseases struck their marks on the bones, leaving their victims with obvious physical deformities. Who in choosing a mate wouldn’t be more attracted to someone with a symmetrical physique and straight posture? And women who were youthful and flat of belly were more fertile and therefore more attractive as mates. This all sounds cruel, but unfortunately biology is cruel. Our ideas of beauty are not driven by Madison Avenue, but by the microchip in our DNA, placed there by Mother Nature using her most indispensable tool: natural selection.
But is Mother Nature’s handiwork accurate? Does it apply today? Or is it an artifact of evolution like the vestigial tails on some apes? We would argue that it is accurate. At least the part that makes us perceive a thin waist as more desirable than a thick one.
Our hard-wiring compels us to be drawn to potential mates with slender midsections because we are drawn to health. Although we may not perceive it at a conscious level, at the DNA level we want to mix our genes with those of someone who is healthy. That innate desire translates to our brains’ singling out those with narrow waists and deeming them attractive. And with good reason. As it turns out, those flat abdomens usually reside on healthy people.
For over a century scientists have known that the forces of natural selection have molded our bones, muscles, organs, biochemistry, and physiology to provide optimal health under our evolutionary circumstances. Those who didn’t adapt died off. Those who made the cut are the ancestors of we who are alive today. About forty years ago researchers started applying the laws of natural selection, not just to physical adaptations, but to mental adaptations as well. Evolutionary psychologists realized that animals born with instinctive fears—for example, fear of falling or fear of snakes or fear of the dark—had a greater likelihood of surviving and passing on those inbred fears to their progeny. In the same way, desires were genetically hardwired. Those who developed the instinct to search for mates using looks and/or body size and shape as indicators of good reproductive health were more likely to populate the world with their offspring who carried these same genes.
Dr. Donald Symons, one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, opines that “the tendencies to find healthy people and young women attractive are relatively ‘innate’ because they are universally associated with reproductive value.” And he notes “males should be attracted most strongly by females of 23–28 years, since they are most likely to produce a viable infant.” It so happens that healthy women between the ages of 23 and 28 years old have flat abdomens and waist-to-hip ratios (WHR, or the waist circumference divided by the hip circumference) of about 0.7. A survey looking back at all the Miss Americas for the past nine decades shows their waist-to-hip ratios have been pretty much the same from the 1920s to the 2000s, averaging about 0.7. Although these young women have varied in weight and height over the years, the WHR has remained constant.
But it’s not just young American pageant contestants who are idealized as the paragons of youthful good looks and health. Across the world and across multiple cultures, the small waist and the low WHR are associated with beauty. (In fact, the WHRs of Playboy centerfolds and Miss Hong Kong have each tracked precisely in that range since 1987.) A number of researchers throughout the world have investigated numerous societies, contemporary and ancient, and found that a small WHR is desirable to members of the opposite sex across both time and culture. According to one of the leading investigators in the field “waist size is the only scientifically documented visible body part that conveys reliable information about reproductive age, sex hormone profile and risk for major diseases.”
Some physical characteristics or manifestations of disease are pretty obvious. Take the sixteenth-century reformer and author Ulrich von Hutten’s description of the signs and symptoms of syphilis, a disease called the “Great Pox” and common to his age: “Boils that stood out like Acorns, from whence issued such filthy stinking Matter, that whosoever came within the Scent, believed himself infected. The Colour of these was of a dark Green and the very Aspect as shocking as the pain itself, which yet was as if the Sick had Laid upon a fire.” This gruesome picture was nature’s not so subtle way of alerting the dating population that one so afflicted probably wasn’t the best mate material. Other signs are not so obvious. At least not on a conscious level.
The WHR is a subtle sign consciously, maybe, but a strong sign at the subconscious or innate level. Why? Probably because there is a link forged by eons of natural selection between our subconscious sense of another’s health and that person’s WHR. The correlation between WHR and reproductive health and overall healthiness is so precise that even tiny variations in this measurement herald significant changes in multiple components of fitness.
For example, multiple autopsy studies on young women who died from nonnatural causes show a significant increase in latent disease when WHR increases above 0.8. The victims were unaware they were so afflicted because the disease processes weren’t far enough along to cause symptoms, but they were present in the early stages. To show just how subtle this change is, a slender young woman with a 22.5-inch waist and a 32-inch hip circumference and a 0.7 WHR would have to increase her waist circumference to only 25 inches, a mere 2.5 inch increase (which represents in increase of only 3?4 inch from front to back) to increase her WHR to 0.8 and increase her chances of disease.
Sex hormones drive the distribution of fat to and from various anatomical areas. Prior to puberty women have WHRs that are about the same as young males, and as they reach menopause, they once again approach the male WHR range (around 0.9). During their fertile years estrogen inhibits the deposition of fat in the abdominal area and shifts it to the hips and thighs, thus the lower WHR. And, what’s more, a normal WHR is associated directly with increased fertility. Studies have shown that women with WHRs above 0.8—independent of body weight—have significantly reduced pregnancy rates than do women with WHRs in the 0.7–0.79 range.
But a lower WHR is not just a sign of fertility. As mentioned above, it is a sign of good physical health all around. And it may even be an indicator of mental health as well. Some studies have shown that higher WHRs correlate with increased vulnerability to stress and a higher prevalence anxiety and depression than normal WHRs.
Many parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, amoebiasis, and others cause a swelling of the abdomen without an overall weight gain. These diseases and many others are still prevalent in undeveloped countries, and would have been a common part of our evolutionary heritage. The increase in WHR occasioned by an infection or infestation with one or more of these parasites would be an indication of less than stellar health and would undoubtedly have raised a subtle cause for concern in potential mates.
In view of our modern medical evidence it seems pretty obvious that an increase in WHR—even a slight one—should give us insight into the overall health status of another, but that’s today. What about in ancient times? How could early man (or woman) recognize these subtle changes as portraying a less than perfect mate, at least from a health perspective? No one knows with certainty how people in centuries past could suss out slight variations in WHR, but the evidence is pretty clear that they did. And the same goes for most non-Westernized societies today.
Dr. Devendra Singh from the University of Texas studied the WHR of members of a couple of isolated herder-gatherer tribes in southern India and found them to be in the same average range as Caucasian men and women. A number of members of one of these tribes had moved to the city to work as laborers and had been exposed to Western media. Dr. Singh queried subjects who were city dwellers and those who stayed in their remote environment about the body types each felt to be the most attractive. He did so by showing adult males from both groups photos of female nudes of varying sizes and shapes. These photos were a set that had been used by other researchers in published work evaluating the body size and shape preferences of Western males. Since Dr. Singh’s Indian subjects were illiterate, he had them look at the photos and draw a line on a sheet of paper to express their opinions of the attractiveness of the women portrayed in the set of photographs—a long line for very attractive and a short line for less attractive. As Dr. Singh points out in his published research, “the results showed that the attractiveness rating was jointly determined by body mass index—BMI—and WHR. Photographs were judged to be attractive only if they were normal BMI and a low WHR.” There was no difference in the judgment of what constituted attractiveness between the tribal group that had moved to the city and the tribal group that had not. Moreover, their judgments were practically identical to those of U.S. participants.
According to Dr. Singh, this is the only attractiveness study to his knowledge conducted among a tribal population using photographs of women with known BMI and WHR. Despite finding identical results between city dwellers and country dwellers from the same tribe, questions still linger as to whether or not the concept of what constitutes beauty is innate or somehow a product of modern culture. Despite their being illiterate, who knows if the tribesmen still living as hunter- gatherers have had the opportunity to be influenced by the long arm of modern media? In an effort to totally eliminate the possibility of contamination by exposure to today’s ubiquitous newspapers, magazines, and TV, Dr. Singh decided to look at ancient cultures. He measured WHRs in almost 300 Greco-Roman, Indian, Egyptian, and African sculptures, and he found that across all these cultures WHR distributions varied, but the average clustered around 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men, which is the same as is regarded as ideal today.
Yet another research group took on the prodigious task of deciphering WHRs by analyzing over 300 photographs of artwork from Europe, Africa, America, and Asia dating from the Upper Paleolithic period until 1999. As with the Singh study of statuary, this international group of experts found that the depictions of female WHR clustered in the range of 0.6 to 0.7 and have remained remarkably unchanged from 32,000 years ago until the present.
Another nascent science, or social science at least, confirms the findings of the evolutionary psychologists that a low WHR is rooted deep in our innate development as humans. Literary Darwinists apply evolution-based research to works of fiction. Since the advent of written literature (much of which, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, are the written version of oral literature that is centuries older), a number of themes on love, life, loss, and attraction persist with little variation across all cultures and time spans. Owing to these thematic similarities, literary Darwinists posit that these represent the inborn desires and feelings of the majority of humanity.
One such literary Darwinist, Jonathan Gottschall, from Washington and Jefferson College, writes in the New Scientist that folk tales from around the world contain references to females as being attractive two to six times more often as compared to their male counterparts. And a small WHR, representing youth and fertility, is a primary component of their attractiveness. Though it’s likely impossible to computer-search the world’s literature to determine a specific WHR from literature hundreds of years old, it is possible to look for mentions of slender or small waists. Dr. Singh’s group (the same Dr. Singh who studied the statuary), along with a member of the Harvard Law School faculty, searched the Literature Online database—a database containing over 345,000 British and American works of fiction dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries—and found that when waists are described as attractive, they are described as small or narrow in 100 percent of cases. If these works of literature did describe WHRs, it is highly likely that females populating the world of literature would sport WHRs in the range of the 0.7 that we equate with youth and desirability today.
The evidence from diverse sources ranging from ancient works of statuary, to literature of the middle ages, to the research of multidisciplinary scientists tells us that throughout history, in both men and women, narrow waists and flat bellies have been deemed attractive. Evolutionary psychologists inform us that we are innately attracted to slender waists because they signal good health. The medical literature makes it clear that an optimal WHR is indeed associated with good health and that even minor increases from the optimal are associated with diminished health. A low WHR has generally been viewed as an asset of youth (although, as we will see, that constant is changing) that begins to dissipate with encroaching middle age. But why?
Why is it that as we move into our middle years our waists get larger without our seeming to do anything different to bring it about? Why can we eat anything and everything while we’re teenagers and never seem to enlarge our waists, yet it appears all we have to do is look at food after we’re 40, and we have to loosen the belt another notch. The next chapter will explain exactly what happens to us in middle age that increases our middles along with our health insurance premiums. And although you can’t totally turn back the clock on all the ravages of aging, you’ll learn that you can at least attain—and more importantly, maintain—a smaller waist and a more youthful silhouette.
From the Hardcover edition.