Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Beauty: Nature versus Nurture- Part Deux

Today I want to discuss the science and research that Anakin Niceguy (NG) referred to in his blog references in my last entry. Interpreting research can be difficult for the general public who often rely on media sound bites and the ethics of the authors of the study in honestly explaining the outcomes of the research. Unfortunately the public is often exposed to just plain false conclusions by the media and unethical researchers more interested in proving a point than being objective. As a researcher (not of sociology specifically but in a field that examines human behaviors and health) I can tell you that there is no way to carry out research that excludes the effects of the culture that the research subject is a member of. So it is extremely difficult to say what is biological drive and what is culturally determined. We can look at preferences across cultures and see if there are any similarities among all cultures and that may give us a clue about some general trends. However, we cannot scientifically prove anything based on cross cultural studies because especially in the modern technological age the world is becoming smaller so there are fewer cultures that are not influenced by other cultures. AN states that research has proven that biology determines what we find attractive. I can see how he may come to this conclusion based on the ideas circulated in popular culture, and even written by Harvard psychologists, however it is far from scientifically proven because there is no way to remove culture from the equation. At least no way that any institutional review board that governs human subjects research would ever approve. We can, however, examine what evidence we do have from science and history.

For example let’s examine a specific physical quality mentioned in the essay I quoted as well as in the links provided in AN’s response to my comment: body weight. The few large scale studies that cross cultures and study what people find attractive appear to point to several factors that are in common across cultures such as symmetry of facial features or a .70 waist to hip ratio for a woman. Obviously symmetry is not excluded for women (or men for that matter) who are not of the culturally ideal body weight and neither is the .70 waist to hip ratio as this is the ratio between my waist and hip measurements though I am not within the culturally ideal weight range.

We can get other cues by examining historical depictions of beauty or desirability. The current ideal of beauty has not always been the cultural ideal. Look at depictions of beauty and desirability represented in places such as the primitive art forms of fertility idols of both ancient Europe and ancient Africa, the art of Renoir or Rubens, (or Rembrandt, Giorgione, and Jordaens) descriptions of some desirable women by writers of the 19th and 18th centuries such as Charles Dickens, or the more contemporary (20th century) writings of playwright August Wilson which depict or describe women who would be considered as at least overweight if not obese today as attractive.

The idea that a preference for thinner women is a God established preference because men are looking for healthy women is a commonly mentioned theory as well. The idea that health is evident if a woman has an ideal body weight, however, is not entirely proven by science. Sometimes thin = good health and fat= poor health but this is not always true. Now, I know that this idea goes against current cultural ideas about health perpetuated in the media but hang with me while we examine some research on the subject.

While some research has demonstrated that a woman’s excess body weight is associated with higher risk for things such as heart disease, that increased risk of heart disease is actually less than the risk associated with being a man or being an African American. (It should also be noted that correlations and some expressions of risk cannot “prove” anything scientifically because they are statistics that report on studies that are not experimental in nature. I’ll write more on this at another time but know that there is no way to know how two correlated factors actually influence each other or if they actually influence each other at all). While being overweight increases risk factors for some diseases (though not by as much as is generally believed by the population as a whole) and certainly increases stress on joints (that’s just simple physics) being overweight and even obese also actually lowers the risk for some types of cancer and diseases such as osteoporosis.

The assumption that thin=healthy also is not reflected in mortality statistics. If one examines epidemiological research that explores the relationship between the body weight of women and mortality (as in the famous longitudinal nurses’ health study) it has been demonstrated that the group with the best mortality (least chance of dying) are those with a BMI of 25-30, also known as “overweight”. Interestingly enough once factors such as smoking, weight loss due to illness, and activity level are accounted for, mortality for “morbidly obese” women (BMI over 35) who are not sedentary is better than the mortality of women with BMIs under 20, otherwise known as your average Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, who are sedentary. Mortality is equal when both groups have the same activity level. Research demonstrates that activity level is actually a much better predictor of health than body weight is and it is not always apparent from looking at someone how active they are. For example at my gym I would estimate that at least half of the women that I see there regularly are overweight or obese yet there they are being physically active 3-4 times a week.

Does this mean men should prefer overweight women to all other women and morbidly obese women to super models when given a choice because they have better mortality stats? Nah, I’m not saying that at all. LOL I am not saying you should or should not be attracted to anyone. I am just pointing out that it would be more intellectually honest for men to stand behind their preferences as simply their preferences (or the current cultural paradigm of beauty) and not as some divine mandate, especially since it is not a Biblical mandate, historical fact or scientific certainty. I think so many of the issues being discussed are so very important and I don’t want women who need to understand this stuff to get hung up on other assertions which are based on weaker assumptions.

14 comments:

Triton said...

I think I would generally agree with most of that.

A woman's weight isn't the issue so much as her proportions. Even the "Rubenesque" women were properly proportioned; I don't recall any of them having narrow hips and huge bellies. And Anna Nicole Smith was a big girl, yet she made Playmate of the Year. Again, it's not weight that matters so much as proportions. I think we're in total agreement on that matter.

The idea that a preference for thinner women is a God established preference because men are looking for healthy women is a commonly mentioned theory as well.

Regarding God's designs, I certainly wouldn't say that He made men to have a preference for skinny women. But He did make us to have a preference for women who demonstrate a high replicative value, which is exhibited in a woman's proportions, symmetry, skin tone, etc. In short, He made us to prefer beautiful women over ugly ones.

Likewise, he made women to prefer men who demonstrate a high social value, which is exhibited in a variety of ways other than appearance. Wealth, power, charm, humour, flamboyance, popularity, etc. are all ways of demonstrating high social value. Plenty of ugly men have been chick magnets because they demonstrate high social value.

I am just pointing out that it would be more intellectually honest for men to stand behind their preferences as simply their preferences (or the current cultural paradigm of beauty) and not as some divine mandate, especially since it is not a Biblical mandate, historical fact or scientific certainty.

I think the reason men are having to defend their preferences is because we are being told that what we like is "wrong". (I'm not accusing you of doing this; it's just a common theme I've been seeing elsewhere.)

We prefer beautiful women over ugly ones, and some women think that is unacceptable. We are told to ignore a woman's appearance altogether and focus instead on her "character" or "personality" and that is simply not how we are wired. It would be just as silly for men to criticize women for not finding unsociable homeless guys attractive.

The conclusion that men have reached is this: some women just don't want to put a lot of effort into looking pretty, yet they still want male attention. So they try to ridicule, shame or persuade men into being attracted to unattractive women. We find this silly and offensive, and would prefer to like women for our own reasons. It's gotten to the point that whenever some woman brings up the "beauty is defined by culture" line, we automatically assume she is trying to convince us to be attracted to women we consider ugly. And that's the source of the frustration.

Anyway, I hope I've helped shed some light on the subject. You seem like a decent enough person, so I hope you'll stick around at Anakin's blog.

The Learner said...

Thanks Triton, you definitely did help me understand better and I appreciate that.

I know you are correct to say that some women deem men’s preferences wrong because some of my girlfriends (from the beautiful to the unattractive) have told me they feel this way. To me this seems foolish and short sighted…not so much because I totally understand the visual stimulation thing. I’m not sure any woman -unless she is one of the women that share this trait with men- can truly fully understand that, though we can decide to accept it. It seems foolish for women to insist men’s preferences are wrong to me because we all have some preferences and also I have no desire to shame or persuade anyone into being attracted to me. It just seems counter intuitive.

So, while I understand that men (and women too) have certain preferences and I believe those preferences are up to the individual (and for the Christian between them and God) I still don’t understand the need to defend the position that men (or women) are made this way by God. I have been thinking about why that is. I think part of it is that I can’t always take my “professor hat” and “research advisor hat” off when I should and that the degree of rigor in the interpretation of research and in reasoning I expect from my students is perhaps not appropriate in this sort of discussion.

You seem like a very reasonable person so I am going to impose on you, if I may, and ask some questions of you, or anyone else who would care to comment, in the interest of understanding. I feel the need to say again that I think liking a person for your own reasons is perfectly reasonable. As far as I am concerned even if you or any man want to limit your concept of female beauty to only women who look like Jessica Alba, hypothetically speaking, I pass no moral judgment on that (though I may think you short sighted…but it’s really none of my business).

In your comment to my post yesterday you stated that “The finer points of what makes a woman attractive are cultural, but the broad strokes are universal.” And I agree for the most part with that if “broad strokes” are talking about facial symmetry and the waist to hip ratio. However when hearing in person or reading the kinds of remarks some men make in blogs (including the posts of Anakin’s I responded to) it usually doesn’t seem to be facial symmetry or waist to hip ratio men are focusing on and they say it is how God made them.

So the reasoning seems to go (and please correct me where I am wrong) from one concept, that some of what makes women attractive to men is due to God’s design such as facial symmetry or hip/waist ratio because this seems to be a cross cultural preference that has been researched and appears to hold true (I am saying appears because I am not convinced the link between cross cultural general preferences and God’s design has been or even could be established by research…though I am mostly comfortable with that idea) to the concept that many more preferences (for example weight since that was the example I chose before and it is a common one) are ascribed to God’s design. What supports this jump in reasoning? Why the need for it to be God’s design rather than individual preference? What am I missing here?

Triton said...

You seem like a very reasonable person

I appreciate that, and likewise.

Why the need for it to be God’s design rather than individual preference?

I think the point they're trying to make is that preferences that seem to be biologically wired would be, by definition, God's design. When a man is trying to defend his tastes as valid against women who say they aren't, this appeal to divine design makes a more powerful defense than one based on something more transient like culture.

Again, this whole conversation exists in the first place because some modern women decided to criticize men for their tastes and some of those men decided to fight back.

Regarding other male commenters, when they describe women as "fat", they almost certainly mean "disproportionately fat". They mean women whose bellies are too big for their hips. So when you hear men referring to fat women, think "beer gut".

There are plenty of big girls out there who are smokin' hot because they are also perfectly proportioned. These are not the kind of women that men refer to as "fat". I mentioned Anna Nicole Smith earlier because I think she is a great example: in 1992, she was 5'11" and 160 pounds. That's both heavier and taller than a lot of men. But her measurements were 38DD-26-38. She was hot, and Playboy noticed.

(These numbers are from her Wikipedia page.)

So when I or any other guy refers to "fat" women, rest assured that we're not talking about weight per se, but rather proportionality.

Anakin Niceguy said...

Learner,

I am going to have to give credit to Triton for clarifying my position. Ditto what he said,

Anakin.

The Learner said...

Triton,
Sincere thanks for your input again. I’m thinking about a lot of the things you said though I have yet to reach a conclusion on some. In particular I am thinking about this: “Again, this whole conversation exists in the first place because some modern women decided to criticize men for their tastes and some of those men decided to fight back.”

Also, it wasn’t my intent to focus on weight per se. It seems to come up a lot and was a pretty easy one for me to address because of the well documented change in preferences related to a woman’s weight and attractiveness over time and from culture to culture, so I went with it as an example. However, that being said, I find it (I’m not sure how I find this actually…Funny? Interesting? Odd? Sad?...not sure) that you used the example of a woman who was 5’11” and weighed 160lbs as someone who was big but still attractive to make the point that it isn’t about weight but about proportion of a woman’s body (or did I interpret it wrong and this was not your point?). I understand that 5’11” or 160lbs may be larger than some men but it also is a BMI of 22-23, right smack dab in the middle of the normal weight range for her height. At 5’11 and 160lbs she wasn’t overweight, she was a completely normal weight as well as well proportioned. Perhaps she just appeared larger than the average playboy woman because she was a normal weight? I’m not sure.

I’m not sure I follow you on the “beer gut” deal (do you mean like an “apple shape” vs a “pear” or “hour glass shape”?). I thought that “Rubenesque” women had bigger tummies from what I can remember of those paintings. I was thinking about finding some pictures of Rubens’ or Renoir’s paintings and maybe posting them but I am waaaayyy too sleepy for that now.

The Learner said...

Anakin,

Thanks, I appreciate your input.

Triton said...

I was referring only to raw weight numbers, not BMI.

And I thought Rubenesque women were just big, not necessarily obese or anything. Though I don't really remember.

I guess my point on fat can be summed up thusly: as long as the woman's ratios are attractive, and she doesn't have that rumpled look due to cellulite, the fat doesn't matter so much. It's the rolls of belly fat that are the big turnoff.

I also hate the low-rider jeans, by the way, since they tend to squish a girl's fat up and over her belt. (The infamous "muffin-top" effect.) Women who want to look good should wear clothes that minimize the waist, and those jeans do the opposite.

Most men prefer an average figure; not too skinny, not too fat. Unfortunately, teenage girls too often go for one extreme or the other due to various psychological reasons.

The Learner said...

Hi Triton,

Thanks for your comment.

Regarding:
"And I thought Rubenesque women were just big, not necessarily obese or anything. Though I don't really remember.

I guess my point on fat can be summed up thusly: as long as the woman's ratios are attractive, and she doesn't have that rumpled look due to cellulite, the fat doesn't matter so much. It's the rolls of belly fat that are the big turnoff."

I think this illustrates the point about ideal body weight being a cultural standard pretty well. You, and many men in current culture along with you, do not find cellulite and rolls attractive. As I said before I think that it is ok for people to like what they like. But the women depicted in paintings from some of the old masters have lots of cellulite and rolls. (If you wish to view some of these paintings I've added some links into this post...I am somewhat of a technological idiot and I can't figure out how to do a hyperlink in a comment!)

So, at that time rolls and cellulite did not seem to be a turn off at all, but rather the opposite. That illustrates the change in standards pretty clearly I would say.

And, yeah, a woman really needs to be thin for low rise jeans to look ok on her. I avoid them like the plague lol.

Anakin Niceguy said...

Well, I am ambivalent about the link to the nude paintings. I am not sure I needed to see those, but anyway ...

I note that those who rag on men about their body preferences being "cultural" are not clamoring for more interracial marriages. It's all cultural right, so we can throw our cultural preferences out the door?

The Learner said...

Anakin,

I'm sorry the paintings caught you by suprise. I debated about including them because they were nudes. I decided to link them instead of posting the images assuming people would be aware that they would be nudes and choose wether or not they viewed them. Obviously I was wrong about that.

I apologize for not clearly stating they were nudes and have added a warning to the post. I'm not sure if your discomfort was due to being suprized, the fact that they were nudes, appearance of the women, or some other reason but if you or anyone else informs me that the links are a stumbling block I will remove them.

I have to get to work now so I will answer the rest of your comment this evening.

The Learner said...

Anakin,

Thank you for your comment. I am unsure from your comment if you are implying that I am one of those who “rag on men about their body preferences being ‘cultural’” or not. I haven’t suggested that men or women should throw their preferences, cultural or otherwise, out the door. My contention had to do with the source of the preference from a factual point of view (I won’t rehash that here as I have already covered it in this blog and in my comments to your blog). In fact, I have repeatedly stated that you guys can prefer whatever you wish to. I have zero interest in convincing anyone to be attracted to anyone as that would be foolish. I cannot even imagine trying to convince a man who does not find me attractive that I am attractive. That would be a very good way to get my feelings hurt.

So, I don’t believe that I am in a position to speak for the people you refer to who rag on men about their body preferences yet do not clamor for interracial marriages. I can speak for myself, and for my part I see nothing wrong with interracial marriage. If a man and a woman from different races wish to marry that is their business and their choice. If people prefer not to marry someone of another race because they want to preserve their culture, that is their choice as well. My Dad is an old school WWII veteran (he married later in life and had kids into his later 40s) and if I married a man of another race he would never speak to me again. So, I choose not to, out of respect for my father and a desire to maintain a relationship with him (though this is a moot point because it is not as if a man of another race has asked me to marry him and I had to decide to say no). As far as I am aware there is no New Testament prohibition on interracial marriage, though I have never been a formal student of theology…is there one?

I don’t understand why it is so important that attraction preferences be divinely ordained. Why does it matter? Why is it not ok that preferences are based in many things including some biological, some cultural, and some personal and individual factors? Can we not, as believers, read what the Bible has to say on the subject (and there seems to be much more guidance about the kind of woman who makes a good wife than the kind of man who makes a good husband so you guys are lucky that way), and examine our own preferences in the light of Scripture and in submission to God and go with that?

singlechristianman said...

I note that those who rag on men about their body preferences being "cultural" are not clamoring for more interracial marriages. It's all cultural right, so we can throw our cultural preferences out the door?<<

Anakin, Boundless has in fact pressed for race to be a non issue in relationships.

The one girl I really liked enough to pursue for marriage was of a different race (asian) who told me on our first date that her family would never accept me as white man. And her dad was a missionary. The sonnet about "someone I knew" on my 'blog was about her.

Anakin Niceguy said...

Hi Learner,

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put you on the spot with my comments. My remarks were general observations about those who breathe down guys necks about physical appearances. I fail to understand how some can be so strident in one area but give a pass to those who are uncomfortable marrying outside of their ethnicity. If men are forbidden to judge on appearances, then wouldn't that also mean skin color as much as weight preferences? But I don't see the pundits asking for more interracial dating. At best, they just tolerate it, it seems.

The Learner said...

Hi Anakin,

I agree, it is inconsistent to say one physical preference is ok and another is not.

And, honestly, I don’t really mind being “put on the spot”. It is a good way for me to learn and think about my suppositions which is something that I have been doing a lot of recently. If I came off as offended, I wasn’t, just frustrated. I get frustrated when I think people are making assumptions about me because it seems to happen a lot and I guess it will continue to happen so I need to work on not becoming frustrated with it.

I have been thinking about this issue more and will probably post on it again later tonight if I don’t get too sleepy.