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.