Ladies, gentlemen, and miscreants… You know that conversation that starts off something like, “what physical feature of mine do you most like”? I’ve been on the receiving end of that question from girlfriends far too many times (i.e., 1 or more). The question has a more crass iteration that goes something like, “are you a breast or butt guy?” I have a much easier time answering the open-ended first version. The second presumes not only a false dichotomy, but it never occurred to me to answer “breast” or “butt” despite the socialization implied in the question and expressed in American culture. My answer has always been, “abs”. I answered the “butt or breast” question that way as well. And don’t take any of this to mean I’m anti-butt or breast; it’s just that neither are el numero uno trait.
Beauty is an area of interest for me in general, but the timing of this piece is directly related to the Esquire magazine cover that has supposedly caused Apple to refuse to offer the offending issue for sale through its channels. It all kind of hearkens back to the “I Dream of Genie” midriff drama of the 60s. In any case, the pictures included here are to provide context.
My Bias Backstory (Optional)
Some may be tempted to cite Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s preemptive attempt to divide men’s perception of female attractiveness along racial lines. As a white, heterosexual, male, I am part of a group that represents a scant 1.47% of the human population that is supposed to prefer “big butts” marginally less. I submit that any supposed difference in this regard is a cultural influence that may correlate to race (because cultural influences often correlate to race), but is ultimately an exaggeration of a shared human nature. Further, I proffer that my preference for “abs” over “butt” (and/or “breasts”) is closer to the instinctual default.
Now, as a white dude, it would be easy to dismiss everything I say as bias. Perhaps that’s fair, but at least hear me out. One area in which I’m not particularly biased is against Sir-Mix-A-Lot. Like him, I’m “from” Seattle. In a geographical sense, we’re in-group. Recent studies have shown geographical in-groups to be more powerful than race on some levels. It does happen that I was always a bigger fan of his album Swass. Further, I’m one of probably 15 people who bought Kid Sensation’s solo album featuring Ken Griffey Jr. in his short-lived rap career. I can’t say I’d recommend it, but this is a historical fact.
I wouldn’t play this if I were you…
As far as “Baby Got Back” back is concerned, Mix-A-Lot did slip the correct answer into lyrics. And to be fair, “I like a toned midriff and I cannot lie” is not nearly as catchy as “I like big butts and I cannot lie”. Here’s where he got it right:
“…Cause your waist is small and your curves are kickin…”
“…when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist…”
Here’s another telling tidbit… I discovered evolutionary psychology while researching beauty norms. In the wake of the postmodernist dominated social science of the 20th century, I’d been told that my conceptions of beauty were the mere result of socialization countless times. Now, the thing about that is that I’m not supposed to be aware of such biases… and I get that. However, I specifically remember being told that beauty preferences were arbitrary time and again since a young age. Now, we could get all Society of the Spectacle and maybe even wax philosophical on semiotics, but I don’t want to get mired in this. My question (to myself) was this: If I’m being socialized to a certain set of beauty norms, why do I recoil when I’m told my conception of beauty is “wrong?” If culture is the sole influence, shouldn’t I absorb both messages equally and feel comfortable with a norm somewhere in the middle? Under competing messages, why did I only ever absorb one side of the argument?
So the first exposure I had to evolutionary psychology was in relation to beauty. One of the key areas of female attractiveness that’s been studied is referred to as waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). The EP hypothesis roughly states that a small waist in relation to slightly wider hips is a visual cue communicating reproductive benefits. Figuring out what the cues signal isn’t as easy as testing whether or not the cues exist, so we’ll start with the latter.
A widely referenced cross-cultural study on the WHR preferences of men found that men tend to find a ratio in the range of .69 to .71 visually attractive (Singh 1993). Since this finding was quite problematic to the “there’s no such thing as non-cultural human beauty” camp, this was hotly disputed. Methodological challenges were levied, and subsequent research has been done. Another study comes even closer to the “butt or abs” question by measuring whether altering the ratio by waist or hips made more of a difference in perceived beauty (Rozmus-Wrzesinska, et al. 2005). They confirmed Singh’s hypothesis and found the “Sir-Mix-A-Lot hypothesis” to be incorrect. Waist size was more important to men than hip size. This still wasn’t good enough for the “beauty is a power structure plot” folks, so more research was done. This time researchers used 3-D models from varying angles and determined that men prefer 3-D flat stomachs when rotated to a side-view even more than the front and rear views tested by previous research (Rilling, et al. 2009). In yet another study, it was found that blind men also prefer a WHR in the same range as sighted men (Karremans, et al. 2010). In aggregate, the research seems fairly convincing
to my culturally indoctrinated mind.
There are quite a few studies testing men’s preferences for breast and butt size specifically. Here are some excerpts from the same, fairly recent study:
“The findings of this study suggest that both male and female observers show a preference for small breast size… The finding… is particularly interesting, as it stands in contrast to previous studies which show a general preference for medium or large breast size.”“Buttocks size, however, does not seem to play a significant role in determining female physical attractiveness.” (Furnham, et al. 2007)
I’m not going to delve into the specifics now, but there are multiple hypothesized reasons for the value of a WHR. An obvious one, especially in the light of the 3-D preference study, is that a flat midsection is a pretty good indicator that a woman isn’t pregnant. Other lines of inquiry are typically related to hormone levels. In both men and women, the flood of hormones during puberty are known to influence a variety of physical traits.
Since these same hormones are related to fertility, any cues that signal a genetically optimal hormone level would be candidates for evolutionarily selective pressure. This has been studied and the average preferences of men are close to the theoretically optimal WHR. The main criticism is that men tend to prefer abnormally small waists in relation to the theoretical optimum. The argument against that criticism is the same as the argument against the “Sir-Mix-A-Lot hypothesis”.
Fitness signals tend to be heuristics. That is, shortcut rules that are generally helpful, but are not 100% accurate in all cases. For example, a useful heuristic in nature would be for men to simply prefer a low WHR if a low WHR is a more statistically valid assumption in terms of survival or reproduction. Thus, the heuristic is more amenable to cultural influence on the low-side. The “big butt” hypothesis exaggerates the WHR in the same downward direction. “Baby Got Back” points out both wide hips and an “itty bitty waist” as requirements. Thus, it follows the heuristic. Mix-A-Lot just put the “importance” of waist and hips in the wrong order. This fits with the tendency of culture to exaggerate natural instincts rather than exist in a completely arbitrary vacuum. And NO, I am not saying that all culture is based on natural instincts. I am saying that in domains in which natural instincts exist, culture will tend to amplify them through social reinforcement.
I didn’t get around to referencing one of the studies below (Confer, et al. 2010). It’s pretty interesting, but covering it would make this piece about twice as long. Another time…
So… Is this all just another hierarchical power structure conspiracy, or do humans have a beauty instinct?
Confer, J. C., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. M. (2010). More than just a pretty face: men’s priority shifts toward bodily attractiveness in short-term versus long-term mating contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 348-353.
Furnham, A., & Swami, V. (2007). Perception of female buttocks and breast size in profile. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 35(1), 1–8. Scientific Journal Publishers.
Karremans, J. C., Frankenhuis, W. E., & Arons, S. (2010). Blind men prefer a low waist-to-hip ratio. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(3), 182-186.
Rilling, J. K., Kaufman, T. L., Smith, E., Patel, R., & Worthman, C. M. (2009). Abdominal depth and waist circumference as influential determinants of human female attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30(1), 21–31.
Rozmus-Wrzesinska, M., & Pawlowski, B. (2005). Men’s ratings of female attractiveness are influenced more by changes in female waist size compared with changes in hip size. Biological psychology, 68(3), 299-308.
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