Science: The Truth About... Beauty

BEAUTY IS truth and truth beauty, to quote John Keats. But what is the truth about beauty? A scientific investigation of what men find beautiful in a woman's shape suggests that concepts of beauty are more to do with Western influences than what comes as an inbuilt, or innate desire.

The accepted biological explanation for why men prefer women with waspish waists and wide hips is that a small waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is a measure of Darwinian fitness. In other words, a thin waist and broad hips are an unequivocal indication that a female would make a good mate.

Healthy women have higher levels of the female hormone oestrogen than testosterone. This causes more fat to be deposited on the buttocks and thighs than on the waist, where men are more prone to put on weight, especially in middle age. Thin-waisted females with a low WHR are less likely than apple-shaped women with thickset waists to suffer from infertility and adult diabetes.

Evolutionary psychologists have proposed that thin waists are a mark of good health and therefore would be selected during the course of human history to become a sexually alluring trait. A variation on the same theme proposes that thin waists and wide hips indicate to a male that a prospective mate is not already pregnant, and is well adapted for the physical trauma of childbearing.

Surveys of the sexual preferences of men from many different cultures have found that small WHRs are universally viewed as attractive. This is used as evidence that there must be a deeply engrained biological explanation for this male weakness rather than something more superficial, perhaps related to culture.

However, as Douglas Yu and Glenn Shepard from Imperial College, London and the University of California, Berkeley, point out in this week's Nature, few if any cultures are not influenced by Western ideals of beauty. "Many of the remotest places on Earth have access to television, cinema and advertising posters displaying exceptionally gynoid [hourglass shaped] females draped over desirable products such as cars and beer," they say.

To test their idea that Western influences are more pernicious than scientists imagine, they went to a remote Andean tribe called the Matsigenka, who have lived in Manu Park, a remote region of southeast Peru in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. They chose to study the 300 villagers of Yomybato, whose degree of isolation "is about as high as can be obtained today".

Men from the village were shown six drawings of a woman in a bathing costume whose figure was altered to become progressively stouter with a varying waist-to-hip ratio. When asked to categorise each figure in order of attractiveness, the men of Yomybato favoured overweight females with thickset waists. Another group outside the park, who had more contact with Western influences, also preferred overweight women but liked thin waists, indicating perhaps that this was something they had picked up from seeing Western advertisements.

"Our results suggest that when culturally isolated populations are taken into account, some supposedly invariant standards may prove malleable. As a result, many `cross cultural' tests in evolutionary psychology may have only reflected the pervasiveness of Western media," the researchers say.

It appears that the truth about beauty has more to do with beauty being something that is, after all, measured in the eye of the beholder.

Steve Connor

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...