Like Sands Through an Hourglass Figure by Chris Damitio
In the battle for the hearts of minds of future anthropologists, behaviorists, and popular science buffs, two competing camps have risen to the forefront. Each of these camps has appeal to the masses, each of them can make points that astound and confuse the layperson, and most importantly each of them offers advantages to those who adhere to the strict doctrines that these philosophies put forth. The advantages offered, at first glance, appear to be non-material; however, this would be an illusion. The stakes of this battle between opposing forces could very well be as vast as the world and the powers gained could determine the future of the human species. While many fronts exist in this war, this essay will focus on one specific battle that has quietly been raging since 1993. In this paper I will do three things. First, in ‘The Players’, I will introduce and examine key publications from both sides of the debate. On one side are Dr. Devendra Singh and the Evolutionary Psychologists and on the other side are Dr. Mary Orgel and the feminists. Second, in ‘The Battle ’, I will look at the specific arguments of both sides. Third, and finally, in ‘The Verdict’, I will issue my own complex opinion and analysis of the issue and declare a winner. The winner in this case, is the winner of only my heart and mind, not of the population in general. (Important disclaimer: This term paper is written for entertainment and academic credit purposes only. The decisions and opinions of the author are not binding and do not represent the decisions or opinions of the masses. )
To begin, we need to understand the background of this debate. First, let’s meet the key players and the articles they are defined by. In 1993, an associate professor at the University of Texas named Devendra Singh published a paper in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, entitled “Body Shape and Female Attractiveness: Role of Waist-to-Hip Ratio”. It was this paper and the further work of Dr. Singh that created the debate that this paper will be analyzing. Dr. Singh’s article postulated that an evolutionary explanation existed that would show why men find some women more attractive than others. The cornerstone to Dr. Singh’s theory is that the ratio between the size of the waist and the size of the hips is a visual cue that creates attraction in human males for human females. This is called waist-to-hip-ratio or WHR. Dr. Singh summarizes his research goals in his article:
In summary, WHR reliably signals female reproductive status (pre
or post-pubertal or post menopausal), reproductive capability, and to
a certain degree, health status as inferred from risk for major disease.
If the attributes of good health and reproductive capability are
critical in mate selection as posited by evolutionarily based theories,
then men should possess mechanisms (conscious or unconscious) to
detect these features in women and assign them greater importance
than other bodily features in assessing female attractiveness.
(Singh 1993: 295)
Note the phrase ‘evolutionary based theories’ in the second sentence above. This phrase is a clear indicator of one side of the debate which is the basis of this article. Dr. Singh and those who most staunchly defend his research and conclusions are known as ‘Evolutionary Psychologists’. Evolutionary psychologists believe in general that human behavior can be explained in terms of adaptive behavior to environmental circumstance. As an example, an evolutionary psychologist might believe that the reason humans form romantic bonds is because at some point in the distant past, forming a romantic bond gave a particular human couple a genetic advantage. So, this is why evolutionary psychologists believe that a visual cue might be hard wired into the human system that would make a woman more attractive to a man. A visual cue such as WHR.
On the other side of the debate is Dr. Mary Orgel of the University of California at Santa Cruz who with Jacqueline Urla and Alan Swedlund has posited a challenge to the scientific establishment’s acceptance of WHR as fact in their article “Surveying a Cultural “Waistland”: Some Biological Poetics and Politics of the Female Body” which appeared in the 2005 book Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture. Dr. Orgel and her associates take issue with the views of the evolutionary psychologists and the research of Dr. Singh. In the opening paragraphs of her response, Dr. Orgel states:
The arguments that we will address here are those that claim that the
ratio of waist to hip size serves as a genetically encoded or
hardwired signal to human males that the female under surveillance
is healthy, fertile, and reproductively available. (Orgel 2005:134)
In short, Dr. Orgel and many feminists believe that evolutionary psychology and the WHR are a means to disempower women and reduce them to nothing more than “a sexy (and reproductive) body.” (Orgel 2005: 151). While in this paper, I will refer to this as a battle between feminists and evolutionary psychologists, there is probably a middle ground between the two, although it does not appear to exist in this particular debate.
In the thirteen years between the publication of the above mentioned articles by Dr. Orgel and Dr. Singh (after this referred to simply as Orgel and Singh), the scientific establishment, the general public, and the world at large seem to have accepted WHR as a solid truth. Prior to Orgel’s article, there does not seem to be much dissent, if there was, not much of it was published. For example, in 1996, an article by Geoffrey Cowley appeared in Newsweek titled “The Biology of Beauty”. This article started out saying that penguins are hardwired to look for body fat to survive the extreme cold and went on to say that humans are hardwired to look for a .6 to .8 WHR. The article presents Singh’s research and conclusions as revolutionary new fact. Consider the certainty with which this statement is made:
When men are asked to rank figures with various weights and
waist-hip-ratios (0.7 – 1.0) they favor a pronounced hourglass
shape. (Cowley 1996: 60-67).
Orgel in her studies of gender and politics, obviously took issue with the sort of blank check acceptance that the mainstream press and scientific establishment were giving to Singh.
In her article, Orgel points out a number of points which she considers to be flawed research or incorrect assumptions on the part of Singh and the Evolutionary Psychologists. Orgel says that “the validity of the argument, therefore, depends upon a demonstration of the universality of particular gender traits” (Orgel 2005: 133). While this is certainly true in a universal sense, Singh’s initial research was not done in a universalistic mode. In fact, Singh goes to great pains to represent that his three studies are conducted on limited groups. His first study, for instance, focuses on “changing ideals of feminine beauty in America ” (Singh 1993: 295).
Orgel also takes issue with the methods utilized to show changing beauty standards. Orgel calls into question that there is a difference between male and female waists at all! (Orgel 2005: 134-136). While her facts represent that the waist has been politicized and used to marginalize women, they do not do anything besides raise outrage at the subjugation of women. Her polemic accomplishes the mission of pointing out that the world is not a just place, but it does nothing to show that there is no difference in the waists of men and women. It does not change the established fact that Playboy centerfolds and beauty contest winners (the icons of beauty in America) consistently have WHR’s that fall within the range which Singh suggests causes attraction in male human beings (Singh 1993: 296).
Orgel likes to take words that she has issue with and put them in quotation marks. Some of the words she uses in marks are “advertises”, “masculine”, and “feminine” when they are used in relation to the shape of the human female body. One can wonder what words she would prefer. She offers no alternatives.
Orgel takes a clear issue with the evolutionary psychology assumptions made by Singh. Mainly, that women are attracted to wealth and men are attracted to breeding capability and physical attributes (Orgel 2005:141). She equates these assumptions as saying that men are aggressive and women are passive. Surprisingly, neither word appeared in quotes. She dismisses such hypothesis as invalid because there is no way to go to the era when such behavior would have become hardwired and examine the mechanism that created it. This is a moot point. Singh’s research is looking at current behavior that can be recorded and verified with current real world data. Regardless of the theoretical background of evolutionary psychology, what Singh’s data has shown is that Caucasian American males, when given the choice, are more attracted visually to women who have a WHR that is in the general area of 0.7.
Orgel is troubled by the following:
…cultural specificity of the hairdo and bathing suit. This image
bears a striking resemblance to the ubiquitous pinup girl/fashion
model used in Western advertising media, where she serves as
a “cover” (girl) for a purported link between desire and
While her observations are correct, it is obvious that presenting the figures nude would have resulted in outrage by some feminists and presenting the figures in mumu’s would have obscured the necessary physical characteristics. The bathing suit and hairdo are culturally neutral. If the images were presented different, it is quite possible that Orgel or someone else would point out the issues with however they were presented. The images Singh utilizes in his study are culturally marked, but in our media saturated world, all images are culturally marked. Orgel neglects to mention that Singh asks respondents to rank the figures in a variety of categories that include: good health, youth, attractiveness, sexiness, desire for children, and fertility (Singh 1993: 297). Since all the images are clothed and styled the same, this particular cultural marker would seem to have little effect upon the rankings in these categories.
Orgel points out that young women in the American military are typically in good health and have an average WHR of 0.813 (Orgel 2005:146). This, she says, discounts WHR as being a measure of good health. Again, her data is accurate, however, one can easily prove that the women who join the American military, while not unattractive, generally have a different lifestyle, motivation, and plan for their future than women that do not join the American military. As an example, motherhood is an incompatible immediate goal with a career in the military.
Orgel goes on to show that the claims of WHR being universal are not backed up by the evidence. She provided several examples as proof that there are exceptions to men being attracted to the 0.7 WHR. Her examples include the Hazda people in Tanzania , Fijians, and other unnamed groups. Orgel makes a compelling point, however, there is one problem. While she shows that the Hazda prefer heavier women and that Fijians view thinness as sickness, she neglects to offer us the WHR of the women that are considered attractive in these societies. (Orgel 2005: 146-147).
Singh, on the other hand, calls for more studies of non-Caucasian ethnic groups and non-American cultures to test the validity of the WHR hypothesis. His supposition is that even if a specific group is more attracted to heavier or lighter females, the WHR will still fall within the general range prescribed. Singh does not say that a WHR within the 0.7 area always leads to mate selection or reproduction, he clearly says that he believes that WHR is “…the first filter…” (Singh 1993: 305).
Orgel argues that “…a preference for low-WHR female bodies should manifest not only in preferences, but also in female bodies” (Orgel 2005: 148). Singh points out that after the initial filter based on attraction to the 0.7 WHR, females are further filtered by cultural preferences, style, adornments, intelligence, personality, facial features, and other criteria. It can also be supposed, that if these other criteria were to be added into the selection process that Singh uses with the drawings, the results would show a more accurate picture of the true proportion of female bodies. Orgel offers no solid numbers as to what percentage of women in any society fall within the various ranges of WHR.
Orgel states what seems to be her main issue on page 149 when she says that the WHR has the effect of men remaining the “privileged arbiters of ideal female bodies, and the physical appearance of the female body remains the primary site for defining what women should be.” From this, it is easy to see why Orgel and feminists are uncomfortable with the concept of WHR. Orgel is bothered not so much by the fact that men may be attracted to a specific female characteristic as by the fact that if this is a hardwired trait in men, there is nothing women can do to change it. Obviously, disempowering women through having an inherited desire for certain characteristics flies in the face of women taking control of their bodies themselves.
At this point, it should be obvious to the reader that my sympathies lie with Singh and the evidence that he has presented. It is only fair to note that I am an American Caucasian male and that I am also heterosexual. My decision is not a result of wishing to disempower women. I do not dispute that women have been oppressed, subjugated, and treated unfairly by men, culture, and society. I do not claim that evolutionary biology is a proven fact. My decision, simply rendered, is that Singh has conducted a number of studies in which he controlled factors as much as possible to eliminate errors based on cultural bias, preconceived notions, and misunderstanding. The results of Singh’s research suggest to me that there is a preference hard wired into the males who participated in the study for women who fall within the general 0.7 WHR. I do not believe that the evidence presented by Orgel invalidated Singh’s research or methodologies. Singh’s evidence stands up to the criticisms of Orgel when weighed empirically. Orgel does not offer enough facts or reasonable arguments to cause me to doubt the validity of the final lines of Singh’s article in which he says:
Men in all societies should favor women with a lower WHR over
women with a higher WHR for mate selection or at least find such
women sexually attractive. Cross-cultural studies would be needed
to test the validity of these suggestions (Singh 1993: 305).
Orgel, does do a nice job educating about the politics of the waistline, however, because of the lack of direct evidence used to support her criticisms of Singh, her arguments tend to utilize emotion and outrage rather than facts. To me, this not only weakens her position, but serves to strengthen the case of sociobiology in general.
Recent evidence from other researchers supports the idea that as humans we are subject to a hardwired visual preference for certain human characteristics as well. A study in the United Kingdom recently showed that this does not manifest as simply a preference for a certain WHR. The UK study had volunteers determine the innocence or guilt of a fictional mugging suspect based on a photograph of the suspect’s face. The results showed that an attractive defendant was acquitted more often than an ugly one and that even when the attractive defendant was found guilty, the sentence was lighter than for the ugly suspect (Fields 2007).
Personally, I must here admit to a bias. Several years ago, before I had ever heard of Dr. Singh or the WHR, I remember very clearly being asked by my girlfriend what my favorite part of her body was. She was surprised when I did not choose her legs, breasts, behind, hair, eyes, face, or genitals. Instead, I tried to describe to her how my favorite part of her was difficult to define exactly, but that I now know is called the waist. I had always thought the waist was the beltline rather than the narrowest part between the hips and breasts. I am fairly certain that her WHR was in the 0.7 range.
Having admitted that, I must also emphasize that while this was one of the first things that attracted me to her it is not the basis of our relationship. Without her intelligence, wit, and other essential features the WHR would not have drawn me to her. Also, while it is tempting to claim that I alone am responsible for the existence of our relationship, the truth is that she participated in the selection process every bit as much (if not more) than I did. Even excluding biological factors, she is not disempowered.
Singh’s research continues. Most recently he has been working with his daughter to analyze ancient British and Chinese literature for references to the female waist and physical beauty. The results, recently published in the Royal Society Journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, conclude that both cultures valued a slender waist. The Singh’s say that this is not very likely the result of chance and that WHR is “…a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic-morphological differences” (Highfield 2007).
Cowley, Geoffrey. 1996. The Biology of Beauty. In Newsweek. V. 127. n23. 60-67.
Fields, Suzanne.2007. “A Crime Most Foul.” Townhall.com URL: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/SuzanneFields/2007/04/02/a_crime_most_foul
Highfield, Roger. 2007.“Men Lust for Hourglass Curves, Researchers Say.” Telegraph Newspaper Online. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/10/nfigure10.xml
Orgel, Mary, Jacqueline Urla, and Alan Swedlund. 2005. :”Surveying a Cultural “Waistland”: Some Biological Poetics and Politics of the Female Body.” In Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture, 132-56. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
Singh, Devendra. 1993. “Adaptive Significance of Female Physical Attractiveness: role of Waist-to-Hip Ratios”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology v. 65 293-307