Ivory Towers: Beauty is in the size of the beholder

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The Independent Culture
LARGER ladies have been attracting a good deal of research recently, writes William Hartston. In The 'Freshman 15': Facts and Fantasies About Weight Gain in College Women (Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol 17, 1993), Carole Nhu'y Hodge, Linda A Jackson and Linda A Sullivan tested the belief that 'college students, particularly women, gain an average of 15lb during their first month at college and again six months later'.

They weighed 110 female psychology students at the start of their course, then weighed them again after six months. The average weight was found to have risen during this period from 130.57lb to 131.47lb, a small change that was not statistically significant.

They concluded that the 'Freshman 15' is probably an unsubstantiated myth, 'although additional research is needed before drawing firm conclusions'. The trouble was that of the 110 original volunteers, 49 did not turn up for the second weighing. It might have been because they were the ones who had put on most weight.

Further light is shed on the wider problem of adiposely challenged women in Was the Duchess of Windsor Right? A Cross-Cultural Review of the Socioecology of Ideals of Female Body Shape (Ethology and Sociobiology, vol 13, 1992), by Judith L Anderson, Charles B Crawford, Joanne Nadeau and Tracy Lindberg.

Wallis Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor, claimed: 'No woman can be too slim or too rich.' The researchers point out: 'Had Wallis Simpson sought a husband among the men of the Siriono tribe, she probably could not have induced any of them even to stir from his hammock, let along abdicate a throne.'

The anthropologist A R Holmberg explained Siriono tastes in 1946: 'Besides being young, a desirable sex partner - especially a woman - should also be fat . . . thin women are summarily dismissed as being ikaNgi (bony).'

So what makes some cultures prefer slim women, while others admire plump or larger women? After testing a wide range of hypotheses, they identified five important factors: reliability of food supply (when food is unreliable, fatter women, with their reserve store of calories, are preferred for their survival value); climate (fatness is esteemed in cold climates, thinness preferred in the warm); relative social dominance of women (thin men apparently find fat women threatening); the value placed on women's work (if work is considered more valuable than reproduction, then thinness will be esteemed); and 'the probability that the expression of adolescent sexuality will have adverse consequences on girls' (stay thin and do not have babies).

They end with a further confusion factor: 'There is evidence that men in industrialised North America do prefer women who are plumper than women want to be.'