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Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

The 'Perfect' Female (an analysis of Biology of Beauty)


Would Prince Charming ever have chosen Cinderella out of all the maidens at the ball, if she was not the most beautiful in the land? How important were the relative contours of her waist and hips in his selection? Is it a question worth reflection or for one which there is a 'natural' answer-"No, he wouldn't have looked at her twice if she wasn't attractive".

All fairy tales and hegemonic narratives hypothesize that beauty is an essential for well being and survival. Likewise, evolutionary scientists including Darwin himself have found that certain features and characteristics considered beautiful are indicators of developmental health and is fundamental to the evolutionary process of both humans and animals alike (1). Diverse observations carried out by evolutionary biologists over time have indicated a positive correlation between attractive physical traits and higher proportion of fertility and good health ((1). Studies of disparate range of animals and plants have revealed that less attractive and asymmetrical physical features render an organism more susceptible to disease and parasite assaults (1). Hence, beauty acts as a 'certification of biological quality' (2) since the mate value and fitness of an individual may depend on them possessing attributes esteemed as beautiful.

One such 'attractive' physical attribute of women that positively correlates in to an indicator of child bearing ability and healthiness is relative waist to hip ratio (2). Men are observed to 'biologically' prefer women with a striking hour glass figure (a small waist to hip ratio) since these physical features of a woman are what is considered the most salient indicators of her ability to procreate (2).I wonder how valid this mode of classification of women based on an attractive physical trait such as the relative contours of her waist and hip really is. The 'Barbie doll' contours of women's bodies that both men and biologists rank as significant attributes of fertility, youth and health could be dominant hegemonic categorization of beauty that is inextricably linked to applying a universal standard to the classification of female beauty which does not take into account of increased diversity and cultural variances.

Through observations evolutionary biologists have found a link between the popular fascination for Barbie doll curves (or small waist to hip ratios) in women and a higher disposition of fertility and health. Worldwide men of diverse backgrounds, ethnicity and ages have ranked women with a small waist to hip ratio of around 0.7(the waist is 70% the size of the hips), irrespective of variance in weight as the most attractive and healthy (2). This corresponds to scientific assessments that verify a woman with a small waist to hip ratio (WHR) as the most healthy and fertile. WHR is found to be positively correlated with high testosterone and negatively linked to estrogen (3), thereby high degrees of estrogen lead to low WHR. A high concentration of estrogen in the female body especially after puberty results in nearly 35 pounds of reproductive fat deposited on the hips and thighs rather than on the waist (2). A study conducted in Netherlands has found that even a slight increase in waist to hip circumference might lead to reproductive problems and infertility, as a woman with a WHR of 0.9 is nearly one third less likely to get pregnant than a woman with a 0.8 WHR (2). In addition, a higher degree of adult onset diabetes has been observed in women with high WHR (4).Thereby it could be observed that a female with a more hourglass figure is more fertile and healthy than non-curvaceous or high WHR woman. Male fascination with more curvy women therefore translates into a reasonable indicator of the actual reproductive value of females since the low WHR is associated with high fertility and good health. This is a good example of sexual selection in the evolutionary process (1).

However it could be argued that the very concept of using the relative waist to hip ratio of women to assess beauty, as an indicator of better adaptability and fertility might be a consequence of western hegemonic values and ideals internalized by individuals of different backgrounds, cultures and ages. As poet and social critic Katha Pollitt argues, "it's the fantasy life of American men being translated into genetics" (2).A research had been carried out by some evolutionary biologists to test the hypothesis that the male preference for women with low WHR might be a product of dominant western influences and that beauty as an indicator of adaptability might be culturally variable (4).A study of two populations of Matsigenka Indians; an indigenous group of Peru, which comprised of a highly isolated group and a more westernized group of the same ethnic population was used to test this hypothesis (4).The summarized observations revealed that males in the highly isolated group of Matsigenka ranked 'overweight' women with high WHR as more attractive and considered them more healthy and fertile than women with low WHR (4). However, the men of the more westernized group of Matsigenka, regarded low WHR women as more attractive and preferable although overweight and high WHR females were considered healthier and more fertile (4). Child bearing women of both population group was observed to have a high WHR as opposed to post child bearing and childless women who were thinner and had a small waist to hip ratio (4). These observations by themselves do not prove (or disprove) the hypothesis that the male preference for small waist, big hipped women is dependent on cultural variances. However it emphasizes the importance of a more broad and diverse theory of evolution and adaptability, which takes in to account, increased diversity as imperative to evolution rather than a narrow focus on supposedly 'universal' characteristics like small waist to hip ratios as an indicator of female adaptability. It also makes us contemplate how 'natural' the categorization of humans under the broad umbrella of biology of beauty as a form of 'successful' adaptation really is, if it does not address increased diversity and reproduction with variance. Biological evaluation of women based on the contours of their body for instance has been used to contend male preferences for certain categories of women like young (a.k.a. 'fertile' and 'healthy' women) that exclude a diverse segment of women out of the beauty paradigm. Thus, it could be argued that by biological categorization/separation of women as superior/inferior based on attractiveness, science becomes another tool to justify patriarchal practices that discriminate and subordinate women. This time on the grounds of biological quality.

WWW Sources

(1) Sexual Selection and the Biology of Beauty, from WWW resources on the Serendip web site.

(2) The Biology of Beauty, a past Newsweek cover story.

(3) The Mystery of Female Beauty, the Nature publishing group search engine.

(4) Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?, the Nature publishing group search engine

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