In: Focus on Body Mass Index and Health Research ISBN 1-59454-963-X
Editor: Linda A. Ferrera, pp. - © 2006 Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Chapt e r I
The Influ e nc e of Bod y Wei g h t and
Shape in Deter mi n i ng Femal e and Male
Physical Attr a c t i v e n e ss
Department of Psychology, University College London
Ab st r a c t
Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there exist universally shared criteria of
attractiveness, which are potent cues to a person’s potential reproductive success. This
article reviews the current state of evolutionary psychology’s study of female and male
physical attractiveness. The former focuses on body shape as measured by the waist-to-
hip ratio (WHR) and body weight scaled for height, or the body mass index (BMI),
whereas the latter examines the waist-to-chest ratio (WCR). The evidence seems to point
to BMI being the dominant cue for female physical attractiveness, with WHR playing a
more minor role. The opposite is true for male attractiveness, with WCR playing a more
important role than either the WHR or BMI. Importantly, cross-cultural studies have
suggested that there are significant differences for physical attractiveness in terms of
body shape and weight, which evolutionary psychological arguments have difficulty in
explaining. Alternative explanations and the future of the field are discussed in
Keywords: Evolutionary psychology, physical attractiveness, waist-to-hip ratio, body mass
index, waist-to-chest ratio.
In tr o d u c t i o n
* Address for correspondence: Viren Swami, Department of Psychology, University College London, 26, Bedford
Way, London WC1E 6BT. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although human beauty has been a topic of debate for poets, philosophers and scientists
for centuries, most lay theories of physical attractiveness concur with David Hume’s (1757:
208-209) declaration that beauty ‘is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the
mind that contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.’ Recently, however,
investigators have claimed that progress in theories of evolutionary psychology and empirical
evidence has challenged this conclusion (Buss, 1994, 1999; Buss, and Schmitt, 1993; Symons,
1995). Evolutionary psychologists argue that there exist universally shared criteria of
attractiveness, which are potent cues to a person’s potential reproductive success. Within this
tradition, males and females are said to select partners that will enhance their reproductive
success, and there has been a concurrent emphasis on the attractiveness of salient
morphological features. The latter are said to honestly signal that one individual is more
‘desirable’ than another (Buss, 1994, 1999).
Much of the literature within this field has concerned two potentially critical cues in
women, namely, body shape and weight scaled for height, or the body mass index (BMI). This
chapter begins by reviewing the evidence in support of the thesis that female body shape is an
important predictor of physical attractiveness, before examining comparable evidence in favour
of body weight. In addition, some recent studies have begun to look at male physical
attractiveness from an evolutionary perspective. This chapter considers evidence in this regard,
before finally presenting alternative (but not mutually exclusive) explanations for these
findings, and suggests directions for future research.
The W ais t- to- Hip Ratio in Wo me n
Overall body weight is the most noticeable change caused by pubertal onset in women, and
the traditional technique for estimating body weight has been the BMI. However, in a series of
papers published in the 1990s, Singh (1993a, 1993b, 1994a, 1994b, 1994c, 1994d, 1995a,
1995b; Singh, and Luis, 1995; Singh, and Young, 1995) argued that the increase in BMI
observed in women during puberty does not take into account the sex-dependent anatomical
distribution of fat deposits. Instead, he made the point that the deposit and utilisation of fat from
various anatomical areas is regulated by sex hormones. Oestrogen inhibits fat deposit in the
abdominal region and maximally stimulates fat deposit in the gluteofemoral region (buttocks
and thighs) more than in any other region of the body. Testosterone, on the other hand,
stimulates fat deposit in the abdominal region and inhibits deposits in the gluteofemoral region
(Björntorp, 1997). It is this sexually dimorphic body fat distribution that primarily sculpts
typical body shape differences between the sexes that become noticeable after pubertal onset.
Before puberty, body shape is more or less similar for both males and females (Pond,
1978). After puberty, however, women have greater amounts of body fat (adipose tissue) in the
lower part of the body, thus engendering what is known as gynoid fat distribution, whereas men
have greater amounts of fat in the upper body, or what is known as android fat distribution
(Björntorp, 1987, 1991; Rebuffé-Scrive, 1988, 1991). This sexually dimorphic fat distribution
is most commonly quantified by measuring the ratio of the circumference of the waist (the
narrowest portion below the ribs and above the iliac crest) to the circumference of the hips (at
the level of the greatest protrusion of the buttocks), that is, the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR).
These differences between the gynoid and the android fat distribution engender a
noticeable and typical sex difference (Molarius, Seidell, Sans, Tuomilehto, and Kuulasmaa,
1999). For healthy, pre-menopausal Caucasian women, the range of WHRs has been shown to
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
be between 0.67 and 0.80 (Lanska, Lanska, Hartz, and Rimm, 1985); for healthy Caucasian
men, it ranges from 0.85 to 0.95 (Jones, Hunt, Brown, and Norgan, 1986; Marti, et al., 1991).
Women typically maintain a lower WHR than men through adulthood, although the WHR
approaches the masculine range after menopause (Arechiga, Prado, Canto, and Carmenati,
2001; Kirschner, and Samojlik, 1991). It has been shown that the increase in WHR in
menopausal women is caused by the reduction in oestrogen levels.
This interpretation seems to be corroborated by the observation that pre-menopausal
women suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (which is marked by impaired oestrogen
production) have higher WHRs than age-matched non-patients (Pasquali, et al., 1999;
Pirwany, et al., 2001). Additionally, Pasquali, et al. (1999) have shown that when women
suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome are administered an oestrogen-progestagen
compound, their WHRs become lower over time. Conversely, men suffering from disorders
associated with endocrine imbalance (for example, Klinefelter syndrome) or treated with
oestrogen for testosterone-dependent cancer of the prostate, develop gynoid fat distribution and
lower WHRs that are more typical or normal-weight women (Kirschner, and Samojlik, 1991).
Singh also pointed out that risk for various diseases depends not only on the degree of
obesity as measured by BMI, but importantly on anatomical location of fat deposits (Guo,
Salisbury, Roche, Chumela, and Siervogel, 1994; Kissebah, and Krakower, 1994), that is, that
the WHR is systematically related to a variety of life outcomes. In particular, WHR is a risk
factor for cardiovascular disorders, adult-onset diabetes, hypertension, endometrial, ovarian
and breast cancer, and gall bladder disease (Folsom, et al., 1993; Huang, Willet, and Colditz,
1999; Misra, and Vikram, 2003). In addition, the WHR signals all the conditions that affect
women’s reproductive status. Females with higher WHRs have more irregular menstrual cycles
(van Hooff, et al., 2000), and WHR becomes significantly lower during ovulation compared to
non-ovulatory phases of the menstrual cycle (Singh, Davis, and Randall, 2000). The
probability of successful pregnancy induction is also affected by WHR – women participating
in donor insemination programmes have a lower probability of conception if their WHR is
greater than 0.8, after controlling for age, BMI and parity (Zaadstra, et al., 1993). Married
women with a higher WHR and a lower BMI also have more difficulty becoming pregnant and
have their first live birth at a later age than married women with lower WHR (Kaye, Folsom,
Prineas, and Gapstur, 1990). It has been suggested that the lower pregnancy rate in women
with high WHRs, compared to women with low WHRs, may have to do with a problem in
embryo development and its viability (Waas, Waldenstrom, Rossner, and Hellberg, 1997).
The Idea l Wa i st - to- Hip Ra tio
According to Singh, one of the main problems facing our hunter-gatherer ancestors during
human evolutionary history was the identification of mate value. To overcome this problem, he
argues that males possess ‘perceptual mechanisms’ to detect and use information conveyed by
the WHR in determining a woman’s attractiveness as a potential mate. Because of this, it is
possible to systematically change men’s evaluations of women’s attractiveness by manipulating
the size of the WHR alone. In support of this idea, Singh amassed evidence for an evolved male
preference for a WHR of 0.7, which correspond closely to the optimal in terms of health and
To begin with, Singh (1993a, 1993b) developed a set of twelve two-dimensional, line
drawings of the female figure, which were systematically varied with respect to overall body
weight (underweight, normal weight, and overweight) and the WHR. Within each weight
category, line drawings represented four levels of the WHR by changing the waist size. In a
series of experiments using these drawings, Singh (1993a, 1993b, 1994c; Singh, and Luis,
1995) described a negative correlation between WHR and female attractiveness, with line
drawings with gynoid WHRs (0.7 and 0.8) being judged as the most attractive. However, the
relationship is not strictly monotone – beyond a certain point, an extremely low WHR may
appear grotesque and repelling (Furnham, and Radley, 1989).
The finding that normal weight female figures with a low WHR are judged as most
attractive has been replicated with participants in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany
and Australia using the twelve line drawings developed from the initial study (Connally,
Slaughter, and Mealy, submitted; Furnham, Tan, and McManus, 1997; Henss, 1995, 2000;
Singh, 1994c). For Singh (1993a: 304), the WHR ‘acts as a wide first-pass filter, which would
automatically exclude women who are unhealthy or who have low reproductive capacity.’ It is
only after this ‘culturally invariant’ filter is passed that other features such as the face, skin or
weight (which may vary between cultures) become utilised in final mate selection.
A Brok e n Filte r?
Reviewing the literature suggests that the evidence may once have supported Singh’s
conclusions, but that it may not anymore. For one thing, several authors have questioned the
validity of Singh’s findings based on the use of evidence purporting to show that the WHR 0.7
is optimal for health and reproductive potential. For example, Singh (2002) cites evidence that
fat deposits in early pregnancy are primarily localised in the pelvic girdle regions, and hence,
an increase in WHR in the absence of any significant weight gain is one of the first signs of
pregnancy. Coupled with this is the finding that reproductive history such as parity or lactation
can also increase the size of a woman’s WHR (Tonkelaar, et al., 1990). Singh uses such data
to support his claim that the WHR provides reliable information about mate nulliparousity and
female pregnancy induced by other males during human evolutionary history. But he does not
present evidence to suggest that nulliparousity and mate pregnancy were important problems
for human ancestral populations – the lack of detailed information about hunter-gatherer
populations in our evolutionary past precludes any such conjecture. Importantly, Wetsman
(1998) reports that obesity is typically presumed to have been more rare in our evolutionary
past, especially among reproductive-aged women. If correct, then the consequences of different
kinds of obesity could not have been a target of selection.
On the other hand, from a methodological point of view, Tassinary and Hansen (1998)
have criticised the fact that research in this area has been almost exclusively restricted to the
set of line drawings developed by Singh. They argued that the use of line drawings to depict
variations in WHR used by Singh and other researchers lacked ecological validity. As Singh
self-critically indicates, line-drawing stimuli are often impoverished and unrealistic, relying on
a single original image from which modifications are made. It is thus ecologically unrealistic to
show modified versions of the same stimulus and expect each to be rated on its own merits,
without any recourse to a comparison with variations that have been presented simultaneously
To examine the issue, Tassinary and Hansen (1998) developed a set of their own line
drawings comprising twenty-seven female figures that varied in weight (light, moderate,
heavy), waist size (small, medium, large) and hip size (small, medium, large). With this new
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
set of images, the authors found the weight of the figure to be a more potent factor than the
WHR. Light- and moderate-weight figures were judged to be much more attractive than the
heavy figures, whereas moderate-weight and heavy figures were judged to be much more
fecund than the light figures. They thus suggest that the apparent positive association between
the WHR, judged attractiveness and judged fecundity is an artefact of a limited stimulus set,
and argue that their findings ‘demonstrate that weight and hip size are important and
independent co-determinants of both relative attractiveness and fecundity, and that the WHR is
of marginal importance for predicting relative attractiveness. This pattern of results…
constitutes a clear and unambiguous disconfirmation of the WHR hypothesis’ (Tassinary, and
Hansen, 1998: 154-155). More recently, however, Streeter and McBurney (2003), using
stimuli that statistically controlled for body weight, failed to replicate the positive relationship
between WHR and attractiveness reported by Tassinary and Hansen.
A number of other studies have also attempted to overcome the ecological invalidity
associated with line drawings. Henss (2000), for example, designed a study using full frontal
photographs that included the face and breasts of different women with computer-altered
WHR. For each photograph, two versions of the WHR were created using morphing techniques
– in one picture the waist was tightened (lower WHR), and in the other it was widened (higher
WHR). Using this new set of stimuli, Henss found support for Singh’s contention that the
WHR is an essential attribute of the attractiveness of the female figure. However, Henss also
pointed out that when whenever both WHR and overall body weight have been manipulated, it
is evident that weight accounts for more variance than WHR. All the evidence, he concludes,
underlines the fact that the WHR plays a less potent role than the weight category or the face.
This is also the conclusion of Forestell, Humphrey and Stewart (2004), who used
Tassinary and Hansen’s line drawings to test the degree to which various body shape
characteristics influence women’s ratings of attractiveness of female figures. Their results
showed that participants preferred figures that had WHRs around 0.7, but that as body size
increased, larger WHRs tended to be preferred. Figures with small and medium waists and hips
were generally preferred regardless of body weight, but figures with large hips were preferred
less regardless of other shape characteristics. In addition, when photographs of women with
WHR manipulated either by hip or waist changes are used, attractiveness seems to be more
influenced by changes in waist than hip size (Rozmus-Wrzesinska, and Pawlowski, 2005). It
seems likely, therefore, that body weight, waist size and hip size all interact to influence
women’s ratings of attractiveness of other female figures (Furnham, Petrides, and
Fe mal e Body Wei g h t
Tovée and his colleagues (Tovée, Maisey, Emery, and Cornelissen, 1999; Tovée, Mason,
Emery, McClusky, and Cohen-Tovée, 1997; Tovée, Reinhardt, Emery and Cornelissen, 1998)
have objected to the extant WHR research on the grounds that none of the previous studies
used women with known WHRs. Thus, it may very well be that such a relationship does not
generalise to an actual population. In addition, they argue that the assumption held by WHR
researchers that the BMI of figures is held constant when narrowing the waist is false (Tovée,
and Cornelissen, 2001). When the figures are modified by a altering the width of the torso
around the waist, this not only alters the WHR, but also apparent BMI. As the value of the
WHR rises, so does that of the apparent BMI, and so it is not possible to say whether changes
in attractiveness ratings are made on the basis of WHR or BMI, or both (Tovée, and
Cornelissen, 1999; Tovée, et al., 1999). This error is intrinsic to most studies that have used
line drawings, including the study by Tassinary and Hansen (1998), but is also duplicated by
Henss (2000). In short, Tovée et al. (1999) suggest that the importance attributed to WHR in
previous studies is likely to be an artefact of co-varying WHR with apparent BMI.
To investigate the relative importance of BMI and WHR in the perception of female
attractiveness, Tovée and his colleagues used images of real women in a standard pose and
distance from view. By using images of real women (as opposed to line drawings) both BMI
and actual WHR were known precisely and their effects could be estimated separately. A
further advantage of these stimuli was the fact that the heads of the women were obscured, so
that facial attractiveness would not be a factor in participants’ ratings. Multiple regressions of
the attractiveness ratings for these images of real women suggests that although both shape and
body mass are significant predictors of female attractiveness, weight scaled for height is a far
more important factor than WHR (Tovée et al., 1998, 1999; Tovée, and Cornelissen, 2001).
BMI is said to account for more than 70 per cent of the variance in their analyses, whereas
WHR accounts for little more than 2 per cent. These results also hold when the women are
presented in profile, as opposed to a frontal view (Tovée, and Cornelissen, 2001), when
computer-generated photographic stimuli are used in a between-subjects design (Puhl, and
Boland, 2001) and when three-dimensional images are used (Fan, Liu, Wu, and Dai, 2004).
However, the multivariate analyses by Tovée and his colleagues used the widest range of
BMI and WHR values available. One objection to this is that the relative ranges of BMI and
WHR are unequal, and that the apparent importance of BMI in such studies is due to greater
relative variation in this parameter than in WHR (Singh, 2002). To address this problem,
Tovée, Hancock, Mahmoodi, Singleton, and Cornelissen (2002) used images of female bodies
where the range of BMI values was strictly controlled (thereby giving WHR an ‘advantage’),
but WHR still failed to emerge as a strong determinant for attractiveness. In a second
experiment, the researchers disturbed the natural relationship between the WHR and BMI.
Normally, BMI and WHR tend to be positively correlated in the female population, that is,
women with a higher BMI tend to have a less curvaceous shape. Instead, Tovée et al. (2002)
deliberately chose a set of photographic images that demonstrated an inverse correlation
between BMI and WHR, that is, a group in which as the women become heavier, they also
become more curvaceous. Even though the relative ranges of WHR and BMI should favour
WHR in this sample of images, BMI again emerged as the dominant predictor. In other words,
women with a low BMI and a high WHR were judged as more attractive, rather than women
with a high BMI and a low WHR.
The finding that BMI may be the primary determinant of female attractiveness is consistent
with the fact that successful female fashion and glamour models all fall within a narrow BMI
range (Tovée, et al., 1997), albeit an underweight range. From an evolutionary psychological
point of view, Tovée and his colleagues suggest that there are advantages to using BMI as a
basis for mate selection, as BMI provides a reliable cue to female health (Manson, et al., 1995;
Willet, et al., 1995) and reproductive potential (Frisch, 1988; Lake, Power, and Cole, 1997;
Reid, and van Vugt, 1987; Wang, Davies and Norman, 2000). Put together, Tovée and his
colleagues suggest that the balance between the optimal BMI for health and fertility is struck at
around a value of 19kg/m², which, in their studies, is also the preferred BMI for attractiveness.
In addition, Tovée, et al. (2002) suggest that actual WHR may be limited in its utility. For
example, there is a considerable overlap in the WHRs of populations of normal women and
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
anorexic patients (Tovée, et al., 1997). The latter group are amenorrhoeic, and so a woman
with an effective fertility of zero can have the same WHR as a woman with normal fertility.
Based on these findings, Tovée et al. (2002) have suggested that one simply does not need
to be very sensitive to shape cues. In a normal situation, BMI and body shape are linked, which
would suggest that, on average, a body with a particular BMI would tend to have a particular
shape. An alternative explanation is that there exists a ‘hierarchy of cues’ used in partner
selection. Features such as WHR may be used to discriminate broad categories, such as male
from female or pregnant from non-pregnant. Discriminating within the category of potential
partners, one may use such cues as BMI and then other cues such as the proportions of the body
to discriminate between women of very similar BMI.
Fe ma le Attr a ct i ve n e s s Acros s Cultu re s
Preferences for a low WHR have been replicated in a wide range of countries, including
Australia, the UK, Germany, Greece, India and the Azores (Connally, et al., submitted;
Furnham, Dias, and McClelland, 1998; Furnham, Lavancy, and McClelland, 2001; Furnham,
Moutafi, and Baguma, 2002; Furnham, Tan, and McManus, 1997; Singh, 2000, 2004, 2004;
Singh, and Luis, 1995). This has been taken as evidence for the universal and culturally
invariant nature of WHR as a signal for mate selection. However, a single factor shared by all
these studies, which makes the claim unwarranted, is that they were carried out in industrial
societies. What is clear from the literature is that cultures differ widely in their attitudes
towards such things as obesity and body shape (Brown, and Konner, 1987; Ford, and Beach,
1952; Sobal, and Stunkard, 1989).
In an early cross-cultural study, Furnham and Alibhai (1983) compared Black Kenyan to
White British and British Kenyan participants’ ratings of line figures from anorexic to obese,
reporting that Black Kenyan participants viewed obese female shapes more positively than
either British or British Kenyan participants, both of which were indistinguishably negative in
their evaluation. Replication in Uganda also found the native African sample to be much more
approving of obese female figures than a British comparison group (Furnham, and Baguma,
Ethnographers have also noted the greater positive association between body fat and
prestige in the South Pacific, as body fat is more likely to reflect access to food resources
(Brewis, and McGarvey, 2000; Craig, Swinburn, Matenga-Smith, Matangi, and Vaughan
1996; Wilkinson, Ben-Tovin, and Walker, 1994). Becker (1995), for example, reported that
Fijian men and women were more tolerant of overweight and obese line drawings than a British
comparison. This line of evidence is corroborated by a raft of studies (for example, Akan, and
Greilo, 1995; Perez, and Joiner, 2003; Poran, 2002; Rucker, and Cash, 1992) and reviews of
the literature (Crago, Shisslak, and Estes, 1996; Fitzgibbon, et al., 1998) demonstrating that
African Americans have different attitudes about weight, body shape, and attractiveness than
Caucasians, with overall less drive for thinness and greater acceptance of larger body
The argument remains, however, that while preferences for body weight may differ across
cultures, preferences for a low WHR do not. What is the evidence for this? Wetsman and
Marlowe (1999) elicited WHR preferences from a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Hadza, in
Tanzania, who subsist almost exclusively from foraging wild foods. They found that the size of
WHR does not affect judgements of attractiveness. Instead, the Hadza preferred heavy to
medium and medium to lightweight line drawings when selecting for attractiveness, health and
desirability as a wife, regardless of WHR. The authors concluded that the WHR may be more
akin to a ‘second-pass filter’: ‘The first-pass filter could consist of partner preferences based
on body weight... The influence of WHR may only become relevant when food resources are
plentiful enough that the risk of starvation during pregnancy and lactation for women is
minimal...’ (Wetsman, and Marlowe, 1999: 226).
These results are strikingly similar to that of a previous study conducted amongst a
relatively isolated population, the Matsiengka of southern Peru, who practise swidden (slash
and burn) agriculture (Yu, and Shepard, 1998). The researchers tested three groups of the same
population, differing in their degree of contact (and, therefore, their degree of ‘westernisation’).
The least westernised group, like the Hadza, ranked figures first by weight (high preferred to
low) and then high WHR over low WHR, once again diametrically opposing findings using
participants in industrial societies. The second, moderately westernised group differed in that
they rated low WHR females as being more attractive and more desirable as spouses, but not
more healthy. The third and most westernised group (first contacted 20 to 30 years previously)
did not differ from male participants in the United States.
Marlowe and Wetsman (2001) recently returned to Tanzania with a new set of line
drawings in which only the WHR was varied. With no weight variation, Hadza men preferred
high WHRs, which the authors argue is nevertheless an artefact of the preference for heavier
women. They argue that their (as well as Yu and Shepard’s) findings can be explained by the
fact that exposure to western media is likely to co-vary with dependence on wild versus
domesticated foods. That is, the more subsistence-oriented a society is, and the more
energetically expensive women’s work, the more men will find heavier women attractive.
Among foragers, women who are too thin and energetically stressed reach menarche later,
ovulate less regularly, and have less capacity to support pregnancy and lactation (Ellison,
1990; Frisch, 1987). They argue that obesity does not exist among the Hadza and probably
rarely, if ever, existed prior to agriculture. In the past, therefore, men should have been selected
to find heavier women attractive, as indeed they do in many societies. Agriculture led to a more
predictable, surplus food supply, the risk of obesity decreased, and men began to prefer low
body mass indices. Thus, the more food-rich a society, and the longer it has been food-rich, the
more likely a low WHR will be preferred. However, in a stratified society, a low preference
might begin among upper strata men and spread to lower strata men, even if lower strata
women are too poor to be at risk of obesity.
Furnham, Moutafi and Baguma (2002) have investigated the effect of weight and WHR on
attractiveness ratings on subjects from Uganda, Greece and Britain. They too found a clear
cultural influence on body size and shape preference – although the European data showed an
overall preference for the 0.7 WHR, the Ugandan subjects gave the ratio of 0.5 the highest
rating. A monotonic negative relationship between WHR and perceived attractiveness has in
fact been proposed by researchers (Singh, 1993a), but using 0.7 as the lowest ratio. An
extrapolation of this relationship would yield 0.5 as the most attractive WHR, but the
evolutionary psychological hypothesis would also require it to be the most fertile and healthy
ratio as well, which is not what has been reported. A possible explanation for the preference of
the Ugandan subjects for the 0.5 ratio is that the 0.5 ratio could only be achieved by having a
small waist and large hips, and large hips yield the impression of a heavier figure. Therefore,
the preference of a 0.5 ratio could be explained by their preference for large figures, which can
be seen by looking at the effect of weight on attractiveness ratings. Furnham, et al. (2002)
hypothesised that they would find a preference of heavy figures by the Ugandans, in contrast to
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
a preference of light figures by Greeks and the British. The results supported the hypothesis,
suggesting that weight matters, sometimes over and above WHR.
This set of results is similar to that reported by Freedman, Carter, Sbrocco, and Gray
(2004), who examined ethnic differences in male preferences for ideal body size and shape in
women. The researchers found that African American men were more likely to choose heavier
figures as ideal than Caucasian men did. Specifically, African American men disliked a low
body weight for women more frequently than did their Caucasian counterparts. In addition,
both ethnic groups chose figures with a low WHR, but African American men were more likely
to choose a very low WHR as ideal. For the authors, the findings emphasized the importance of
assessing male preferences for female shape (or WHR), but also showed weight to be a more
important cue than WHR in the male selection process. It appears that African American men
are more willing to idealise a woman of a heavier body size, with more curves, than do their
Caucasian counterparts, and such differences may play a role in the differential messages that
get communicated to women about the kinds of bodies that men like.
Expl ai ni ng Cross- Cul t ur al Diff e re nc e s
An early attempt by evolutionary psychologists to explain cross-cultural differences in
preferences for WHR rests on WHR acting as a predictor of child gender. A high pre-
conceptual WHR is a good predictor of male offspring, and so in cultures that value male
children, an androgynous body shape should be judged as more attractive. The predictive value
of WHR is based on studies measuring women who already have children and correlating their
WHR with the proportion of existing male offspring. Thus, two independent studies (Manning,
Anderton, and Washington, 1996; Singh, and Zambarano, 1997) argued that women with high
WHRs and thick waists tended to have more sons, and that preference for women with a high
WHR might result in selection for increased testosterone levels in children. Similarly,
Manning, Trivers, Singh and Thornhill (1999) presented data from a rural Jamaican population
which showed that there is a positive association between a woman’s waist circumference and
her number of sons.
However, this model fails to explain why westernised indigenous populations in South
America, for example, should prefer hour-glass-shaped women (Yu, and Shepard, 1999). If it
is argued that most traditional societies value strength (or sons), then South America’s male-
dominated economy should increase, not decrease, the value of males in westernised
populations, and, by extension, the value of high WHR females. Yu and Shepard (1999) also
argue that such preference changes as suggested by the adaptationist paradigm could not
feasibly occur in a single generation from an evolutionary point of view. In addition, carrying a
male child may alter the WHR in a different way to carrying a female child, and a high WHR
may be an effect rather than a cause of offspring. To test the predictive power of pre-conceptual
WHR and offspring gender, Tovée, Brown and Jacobs (2001) took WHR measures from 458
women who intended to become pregnant and then correlated with the gender of the subsequent
child. Going against the grain of the thesis that WHR acts as a predictor of child gender, they
found no significant correlation.
A different explanation for cross-cultural variation in preferences for WHR, but one that
nevertheless remains compatible with evolutionary psychology, has been proposed by
Sugiyama (2004). He argues that cross-cultural tests of the low-WHR hypothesis have used
stimuli that were not scaled to local conditions: forager women have high fecundity, parasite
loads and caloric dependence on fibrous foods, all of which increase WHR. Since mate
selection should calibrate for local conditions, he argues that WHR-preference mechanisms
will assess the local distribution of female WHR in relation to other correlates of mate value,
and will recalibrate as conditions change. Instead of expecting uniform cross-cultural
preference for a specific WHR value, researchers should anticipate only that values lower than
the local average will be attractive, and that the influence of this factor relative to others will
Taking into account the local distribution of Ecuadorian Shiwiar WHR, Sugiyama (2004)
found that Shiwiar males use female WHR in a way that is consistent with the hypothesis that
WHR assessment is sensitively calibrated to local parameters. When differences in body
weight are minimised, Shiwiar men preferred lower-than-locally-average female WHR.
However, the reliability of this study should be questioned: preferences were only elicited from
18 participants, and the stimuli did not completely unconfound body weight and WHR (Shiwiar
men prefer higher-body-fat females within locally observed levels). Thus, when WHR and
body fat were not independently assessed, Shiwiar men preferred high-WHR figures because
they appear to weigh the most among the high-weight figures.
A different evolutionary argument suggests that the reported difference in preferences for
WHR in different cultures may instead be based on BMI. Combined with the argument that
WHR and body weight are confounded in line drawings, Tovée, and Cornelissen (2001)
suggest that the same ideal BMI should not be expected for all racial groups and environments.
On the basis of epidemiological evidence that suggests that different ethnic populations may
have differing levels of risk for negative health consequences with changing BMI (for example,
Kopelman, 2000; McKeigue, Shah, and Marmot, 1991; Shetty, and James, 1994), they suggest
that there may be a different optimal BMI for health and longevity in different racial groups.
As a consequence, there will be a preferred optimal BMI for each group, which will balance
environmental and health factors, but that this optimal BMI may differ between groups and
environments (Tovée, and Cornelissen, 2001).
Recently, Swami and his colleagues (for example, Swami, and Tovée, 2005a; Swami,
Caprario, et al., in press; Swami, Knight, et al., submitted; Swami, Tovée, et al., submitted)
have tested this hypothesis in a series of cross-cultural replications of the BMI research. Swami
and Tovée (2005a), for example, examined preferences for female physical attractiveness along
a socio-economic gradient in Britain and Malaysia, from rural to semi-urban to urban. Their
results showed that, regardless of the cultural setting, BMI was the primary predictor of
attractiveness ratings, whereas WHR failed to emerge as a strong predictor. The authors also
found that preferences for physical attractiveness varied with socio-economic setting, with rural
observers preferring larger figures than semi-urban observers, who in turn preferred larger
figures than urban observers.
Importantly, this study also examined the physical attractiveness preferences of observer
groups of different racial origin from the same environment (Malay, Chinese and Indian in
Kuala Lumpur). Studies have indicated that ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians in South East
Asia have different optimal BMIs for risk factors for morbidity and mortality (e.g.,
Deurenberg, Deurenberg-Yap, and Guricci, 2002), which would suggest that these ethnic
groups should have different preferences for body weight. However, this was not the case:
Malays, Chinese and Indians in Kuala Lumpur all had a similar preference for slender figures.
Elsewhere, Swami, Tovée, et al. (submitted) have reported that physical attractiveness
preferences can be modified, as attested by the changing preferences of migrants.
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
All the evidence, therefore, seems to point to body weight, rather than shape, acting as the
primary predictor of female physical attractiveness. However, preferences for BMI appear to
vary considerably depending on the socio-economic status of observers and, to a lesser degree,
the cultural context occupied by observers. If this is true of female physical attractiveness, what
of male attractive?
Male Physic a l Attr a cti ve ne ss
Although much research concerning physical attractiveness has focussed on the female
body, researchers are increasingly paying attention to masculinity and the male body (for
example, Stam, 1998). What little work has been done employs an evolutionary psychological
perspective and considers different traits to be an indicator of genetic variability. This
explanation assumes that a reliable connection exists between body attractiveness and male
quality; that male attractiveness is an indicator or some component of fitness such as health and
vigour; and that females detect and use this indicator for choosing a mate (Shackelford, et al.,
The most obvious case of sexually selected characters in humans concerns features such as
beards and body shape that differ conspicuously between the sexes (Barber, 1995). Thus, it has
been argued that men with dominance- and masculinity-related facial and body characteristics
are considered most physically and sexually attractive. Testosterone and areas of the body
indexing testosterone play key roles, as dominant males have higher testosterone levels
(Ehrenkantz, Bliss, and Sheard, 1974). It has also been suggested that aspects of male body
build, particularly the upper torso, might be sexually selected. The shoulders of men, their
upper body musculature and biceps are all more developed than in women, even when
differences in stature are accounted for (Ross, and Ward, 1982), and these characteristics are
influenced by testosterone levels (Björntorp, 1987).
Using silhouettes as stimuli, a number of studies have shown that females tend to prefer a
moderately developed male torso than extremely muscular physiques (Barber, 1995). However,
most of these studies have not looked explicitly at male bodily physique, focussing rather on the
waist-to-hip ratio (WHR; the ratio of the circumference of the waist to the circumference of the
hips). According to Singh (1995), men with WHRs in the ‘desirable’ range (0.90 to 0.95)
should have fared better when competing for mates in evolutionary history. To test this idea,
Singh (1995) had participants rate line drawings depicting men with different WHRs and body
sizes. Men with WHRs near the desirable range were consistently rated as the healthiest and
most attractive mates. They were also rated as being more intelligent and having better
leadership qualities. In contrast, men with WHRs lower than 0.90 or higher than 0.95 were
rated as less healthy, less attractive and as having less-desirable personality characteristics.
This basic pattern of results has been replicated by a number of different researchers (Furnham,
et al., 1997; Henss, 1995; Lynch, and Zellner, 1999; Olivardia, et al., 2004).
However, more recent research using photographic stimuli shows that while the WHR,
body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-chest ratio (WCR) are all significant contributors to male
attractiveness, WCR was the principal determinant and accounted for 56 per cent of the
variance (Maisey, Vale, Cornelissen, and Tovée, 1999; see also Fan, Dai, Liu, and Wu, 2005).
By contrast, BMI accounted for only 12.7 per cent of the variance and the WHR was not a
significant predictor of attractiveness. Maisey, et al. (1999) concluded that women’s ratings of
male attractiveness can be explained by simple physical characteristics that measure body
shape (in particular the WCR). Women are said to prefer men whose torso has an ‘inverted
triangle’ shape, that is, a narrow waist and a broad chest and shoulders, which is consistent
with physical strength and muscle development in the upper body (for example, Franzoi, and
Herzog, 1987; Horvath, 1979). This finding is comparable with other studies using line
drawings which show that women prefer men with a ‘V-shape’ (wider shoulders than chest,
which was again is wider than the hips; Frederick, and Haselton, 2003; Furnham, and Radley,
1989; Hughes, and Gallup, 2003; Lavrakas, 1975).
Male Attr ac ti v e ne ss acro s s Cult u re s
If judgements of attractiveness are an innate preference, as evolutionary psychology
argues, then it might be suggested that these preferences should be consistent across cultures.
Although there is now a growing body of evidence examining body type preferences for the
male body, the literature examining these preferences cross-culturally remains limited. Using
an undergraduate sample of Caucasian and Asian-American students, Mintz and Kashubeck
(1999) found that males aspired for a large, muscular cultural ideal that does not differ between
ethnic groups. However, while Mintz and Kashubeck (1999) explored satisfaction with specific
body parts, they did not specifically investigate the interaction between ethnicity and gender on
overall body figure preference. A more recent study suggests that Asian-American men are
more invested in developing a large, muscular body (Barnett, Keel, and Conoscenti, 2001), but
to date few studies have examined male physical attractiveness cross-nationally.
One exception to this is a recent study by Swami and Tovée (2005b), which examined
preferences for male physical attractiveness in Britain and Malaysia. The results of their study
show that a woman’s rating of male bodily attractiveness can be explained by simple physical
characteristics, in particular the WCR and BMI. However, there are clear cross-cultural
differences in the way these characteristics are used. In urban settings in Malaysia and Britain,
the WCR is the primary component of attractiveness ratings, suggesting that body shape is
more important for male attractiveness than body size. Women prefer men whose torso has an
‘inverted triangle’ shape, but the BMI of the male body is comparatively unimportant. This is
distinguishable from investigations of female attractiveness, which show that body weight is
the primary predictor of attractiveness ratings (Fan, et al., 2004; Tovée, et al., 1999).
By contrast, BMI is the primary cue for male attractiveness in rural Malaysia, with body
shape (as measured by the WCR and WHR) playing comparatively minor roles. The preference
among rural participants for heavier men is combined with a preference for a more tubular
body shape (that is, changing body shape has less of an effect on attractiveness in the rural
group, and a less curvaceous shape is regarded as relatively more attractive in the rural group
than in the other observer groups). This set of findings is striking given existing cross-cultural
evidence suggesting that Asian-American men, like their Caucasian counterparts, are invested
in developing a large, muscular body (Barnett, et al., 2001; Mintz, and Kashubeck, 1999).
Rather, when ratings are elicited from rural contexts, body size and not shape is the primary
cue for male physical attractiveness.
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
Socio c ul tu r a l Theo ry
The results of recent studies examining male and female physical attractiveness across
cultures suggests that evolutionary explanations for these findings are problematic. Some
evolutionary psychologists have attempted to provide a more rounded theory of attractiveness
by combining evolutionary and social explanations of mate choice. (Swami, and Tovée,
2005a). Sociocultural theories have typically been shunned by evolutionary psychologists, but
nevertheless provides substantial explanatory power for the findings of research regarding
Sociocultural theory emphasises the learning of preferences for body sizes in social and
cultural contexts (Smolak, and Levine, 1996). With regard to the female body, the results of
research within the Euro-American cultural sphere show that prejudice and discrimination
against heavyweight people flourishes and remains largely legal and culturally approved
(Crandall, 1994). Parental and peer influences have been implicated in the development of
ideas concerning what constitutes an ‘ideal’ female image (for example, Gordon, 2000), but
most researchers believe that the mass media plays a more significant role in influencing
preferences for thin female figures in western societies by exhibiting underweight female
models (for example, Bryant, and Zhilman, 2002; Harrison, 1997).
Research on Miss America contestants and Playboy centrefolds, for example, has shown
that the ideal became increasingly thinner over a 20 period, between 1959 and 1978, while
women actually became 4 per cent heavier (Garner, Garfinkel, Schwartz, and Thompson,
1980). A follow-up study found that this trend continued between 1979 and 1988: Miss
America contestants continued to become thinner, whereas Playboy centrefolds fell into a
plateau of very low BMIs (Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, and Ahrens, 1992). Others have
examined body satisfaction and eating disorder symptamology as correlates of using mass
media (for example, Abramson, and Valene, 1991; Baker, Sivyer, and Towell, 1998; Cash,
Cash, and Butters, 1983; Posavac, Posavac, and Weigel, 2001), the idea being that the mass
media promulgates a slender ideal that elicits negative affect. Thus, the preference for
relatively slender ideals in industrialised settings in the current study may be traced back to the
emphasis on a slim physique and negative stereotyping of obese figures (Becker, and Hamburg,
While thin figures are typically regarded as ‘ideal’ in mainstream, western culture, cross-
ethnic and cross-cultural research reveals differing perceptions of attractiveness and healthy
body sizes (Miller, and Pumariega, 2001; Powers, 1980). In most traditional, non-western
settings, body fat is believed to be an indicator of wealth and prosperity, with obesity as a
symbol of economic success, femininity, and sexual capacity (Ghannam, 1997; Nasser, 1988;
Rudovksy, 1974). In less affluent societies, there is often a positive relationship between
increased socio-economic status and body weight. Only high-status individuals would have
been able to put on body weight, which would explain why the majority of the world’s cultures
had or have ideals of feminine beauty that include plumpness (Anderson, Crawford, Nadeau,
and Lindberg, 1992; Brown, and Konner, 1987), as it would have been advantageous for
women to be able to store excess food as fat in times of surplus.
The findings reported by Swami and Tovée (2005a), therefore, lend credence to the view
that physical attractiveness may be linked less to ethnicity than modernity or socio-economic
status. Lee and Lee (2000: 324) have argued that economic liberalisation has encouraged the
deregulation of mass media, which projects a powerful image that ‘rigidly equates success with
a young, slender and, glamorously adorned woman’ (Lee, and Lee, 2000: 324). For Nasser
(1994, 1997), the transculturality of body image disturbance is evidence of the globalisation of
fat-phobia due to the emergence of a culturally shrunken world by a virtue of mass
communication technology. Studies conducted in less developed countries show an increasing
influence of western culture infused through technology, which have been shown to engender a
desire on the part of adolescents, particularly women, to be thin (Wang, Popkin, and Thai,
Of course, it would be wrong to attribute preferences of physical attractiveness to
‘westernisation’ alone. Rather, the intensification of preferences for slim physiques is
embedded in a ‘gendered complex of hegemonic forces that accompany global economic
change’ (Lee, and Lee, 2000: 324). Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation have meant
unparalleled changes in women’s condition, with regards to education, employment
opportunities, mate choice, birth control and legal rights. These changes have created
conflicting demands on young women to strive simultaneously for career accomplishment while
maintaining their physical attractiveness (Malson, 1998). Along with increasing affluence,
there has also been an increase in the prevalence of worldwide obesity that legitimises the
pursuit of thinness and a fear of fatness.
Socio c ul tu r a l Theo ry and th e Ma l e Body
In opposition to evolutionary psychological explanations, it has been suggested that society
has expectations for ideal male body shapes (Hesse-Biber, 1996; Murray, Touyz, and
Beumont, 1996) and that males in urban contexts increasingly compare their bodies to idealised
media and cultural images (Davis, and Katzman, 1997; Heinberg, Thompson, and Stormer,
1995; McCreary, and Sasse, 2000). Although gender differences emerge in attitudes toward
cultural ideals of attractiveness, with women more motivated to conform to these ideals than
men, sociocultural pressures concerning male body image seems to be on the increase. For
example, one content analysis found a consistency in the V-shaped standard of male bodily
attractiveness presented in US men’s magazines between 1960 and 1992 (Petrie, et al., 1996).
In a more recent study, Leit, Pope and Gray (2001) examined centrefold models in Playgirl
from 1973 to 1997, and found that the cultural norm for the ideal male body has become
increasingly muscular, especially in the 1990s.
Similarly, in studying the media’s portrayal of the ideal body shape for men, Andersen and
DiDomenico (1992) found that men’s magazines published significantly more advertisements
and articles about changing body shape than about losing weight, suggesting that men might be
more concerned with overall physique than with body fat. Another study found that boys’
action toys have become increasingly muscular over time, with many contemporary figures
having physiques more muscular than is humanly attainable (Pope, Olivardia, Gruber, and
Borowiecki, 1999). For Pope, Phillips and Olivardia (2000: 36), the contemporary muscular
male ideal featured in the media represents a ‘hypermale’ or ‘more male than male’ look,
characterised by a disproportionate amount of muscularity in the shoulders and upper arms.
The preference for a large, muscular, and mesomorphic body type in industrialised settings
develops at a very young age (Staffieri, 1967), and reaches its peak during early adolescence
and early adulthood (Collins, and Plahn, 1988; McCreary, and Sasse, 2000). Importantly, the
development of such preferences has been linked with media use and exposure (Morry, and
Staska, 2001). In a recent study, Botta (2003) surveyed US college students to test the extent to
which reading fashion, sports, health or fitness magazines is related to body image and eating
The Influence of Body Weight and Shape in Determining Female…
disorders. Results indicated that, for men specifically, reading was linked to increased
muscularity, which means that the more time they spent reading, the more likely they were to
engage in behaviours intended to increase muscle composition. Furthermore, the absence of a
strong preference for muscular, V-shaped bodies among rural participants in the present study
lends credence to the view that such an ideal is a culturally-influenced phenomenon.
However, it would be overly simplistic to blame media influences alone. Emerging
evidence highlights other personal and sociocultural factors, especially parental and peer
influences (Field, et al., 2001; Ricciardelli, and McCabe, 2001). For example, adolescent boys
gain greater peer acceptance and popularity with both same-gender and other-gender peers by
achieving a more muscular body (Eppright, Sanfancon, Beck, and Bradley, 1997; Silbereisen,
and Kracker, 1997). Another possibility is that, in most industrialised settings, women have
rapidly achieved parity with men in many aspects of life, leaving men with only their bodies as
a distinguishing source of masculinity (Faludi, 1999; Leit, et al., 2001). Images of muscular, fit
and toned men are argued to represent men seeking to embody the physical strength, hardness
and power associated with the traditional muscular ideal, signalling distance from traditional
cultural ideas about feminity. The contemporary preoccupation with abdominal stomach
muscles has been discussed precisely in these terms by Baker (1997), who argues that this
preoccupation is a way for men faced with decline in physical labour and increasing leisure
time, and a related increase in girth, to hold on to the outward appearance of masculinity. If the
softness and roundness of women’s bodies are viewed as the apothesis of assumed femininity,
then men’s aspiration for abdominal tautness may be offering them a means to affirm a male-
female difference. White and Gillet (1994) have, likewise, commented on the muscular body as
an attempt at literally embodying traditional masculine ideals. They argue that the presentation
of muscular masculinity as a cultural ideal may be a form of resistance to alternative
masculinities that contest power hierarchies among men.
A Wor k in g Hy p ot he si s
The finding that preference for body weight and shape varies according to socio-economic
status is in line with earlier ethnographic reports. Until recently, this pattern linking resource
availability (as indicated by socio-economic status) and female body weight lacked an obvious
psychological mechanism. Nelson and Morrison (2005), however, proposed an implicit
psychological mechanism based on the situational influence of environmental conditions, which
does not require the invoking of any evolved mechanism. They argue that collective resource
scarcity has consequences for individual resources, as individual members of a society in which
resources are scarce are likely to lack resources themselves. They further argue that the
affective and physiological states associated with individual-level resource availability provide
implicit information about collective resource availability, and that this information then plays
a role in the construction of preferences.
In a series of studies, Nelson and Morrison (2005) tested this hypothesis by manipulating
people’s financial satisfaction or hunger (both these being proxies for personal resources in
industrialised societies) and measuring their preferences for potential romantic partners. Their
studies confirmed that financially dissatisfied and hungry men preferred a heavier mate than did
financially satisfied men or satiated men respectively. Swami and Tovée (in press) have since
confirmed the finding manipulating hunger using photographic stimuli, with hungrier men
preferring larger figures than satiated men.
These studies provide evidence that temporary affective states can produce individual
variation in mate preferences that mirrors patterns of cultural differences. In this sense, ratings
of attractiveness vary over time. The mood or state of the rater can subtly but significantly
influence his or her ratings of the physical attractiveness of a possible mate. This helps explains
why preferences for body weight should vary according to socio-economic status, as individual
preferences depend on situational feelings of resource scarcity. In rural contexts, where
resource scarcity is more likely to be prevalent, affective and physiological states associated
with individual-level resource availability provide implicit information about collective
resource availability, and this information then plays a role in the construction of preferences
for a heavier body weight. This hypothesis appears to have firm grounding in the psychological
literature: feelings not only often serve as ‘information’ about the environment, but can also
influence behaviour without the engagement of complex cognitive processes.
Evolutionary theory has proved to be a powerful theoretical tool in exploring male and
female bodily attractiveness. Slogans like ‘biology is destiny’ have been used by both
supporters and critics of evolutionary theory, which always attracts both philosophic and socio-
political criticism. Some aspects of attractiveness may be ingrained in our biology:
characteristics associated with evolutionary advantages (for example, a low WHR) seem to be
perceived as attractive, although debate still continues. However, while some aspects of bodily
attractiveness appear innate, other aspects are clearly influenced by culture and experience.
The existence of culturally incongruent behaviours and attitudes, of course, suggests that
cultures are not fully-integrated systems or coherent wholes. Rather, cultures can best be
conceptualised as ‘constantly changing, open systems of attitudes, norms, behaviors, artifacts,
and institutions that people reinforce but also continually modify or even challenge through
diverse means of participation and engagement’ (Kim, and Markus, 1999: 798). There are,
however, a few core ideas and themes that connect different parts of a given cultural context
and that are shared by the majority of its participants. It is the latter that helps explain the
extant findings of cross-cultural psychology with regards to body weight and shape
Ac kn o w l e d g e m e n t s
I am grateful to Professor Adrian Furnham for his help with this manuscript.
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