The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, December 24, 2000
Lead Article

It is generally believed that the notion of beauty is cultural, and that the inner spiritual beauty of a person is to be preferred to physical beauty. Although cultural conditioning is significant, new work in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology seems to take us back to the concept of natural selection and the traditional emphasis on physical beauty, writes Kuldip Dhiman.

He was mightiest of Puritans no less than of philistines who first insisted that beauty is only skin deep ó Louis Kronenberger

She is in front of a full-length mirror, and she is not happy with what she is seeing. If only my skin were fairer, she sighs, and my nose a little longer, my eyes a little bigger, teeth straighter. And my waist . . . . .I wish I could lose about 15 kilos, and how I wish I were a few inches taller. Her situation becomes all the more agonising as she looks at the pictures of Aishwarya Rai, Cindy Crawford, and the latest Miss World Priyanka Chopra, that adorn the walls of her room. If she fails to acquire the ideal shape, she fears, she wouldn't be considered attractive enough. Unknown to her, what she is actually thinking is that she might not find a good life partner, and produce healthy children.


Not all of us have so many problems, but the fact is we are generally not happy with the bodies we are born with. True, with the latest technological advances, we could change our bodies to a great extent, but the question still remains: Why are we unhappy with our bodies. And is the desire to look beautiful unnatural?


Moralists hasten to condemn this 'beauty craze' as an evil influence of the West generated by multinational cosmetics and clothes companies and the evil media, forgetting conveniently that our ancient paintings, sculptures, and literature are eloquent in celebrating the ideal female form, that is proportional body features, and the much sought after hour glass figure. In fact about 2300 years ago there was in some regions of northern India this tradition of appointing a Nagar Vadhu (literally the bride of the city). Women competed, as in modern days, to win the title of a Nagar Vadhu, and it was not considered a taboo. There is also a beautiful dialogue between Amrapali, a Nagar Vadhu, and Lord Buddha. The ancient physician Charaka, took careful note of a person's body symmetry while diagnosing a disease. Poet Kalidasa said Yatrakriti tatra guna vasanti óthat is where there is beauty, good qualities will automatically reside.

We have been told repeatedly that the notion of beauty is cultural, and beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, that the inner spiritual beauty of a person is to be preferred to physical beauty Although this sounds good, but the fact is most of us are born with an innate desire to look at and possess beautiful things. Although cultural conditioning is significant, new researches in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology seem to point to something else as it tries to answer the question: What are the factors behind our notions about what is beautiful and what is not beautiful based on.

Recent studies in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, seem to confirm the view that what we consider beautiful has a lot to do with body symmetry. All over the world, people unbeknown to themselves, take body symmetry in to account while judging a person for physical attractiveness. But why is physical attractiveness important?

Prof. Steven W Gangestad Prof. Randy ThornhillEvolutionary psychologist Steven W Gangestad and biologist Randy Thornhill measured various features, from foot width and hand width to ear length, and ear width, and combined these measurements to produce an overall index of bodily symmetry for each person in their study. They then asked volunteers to evaluate these people for attractiveness. The responses showed that there was a close correlation between the attractiveness-rating and the degree of body symmetry.

Why is body symmetry so important, and why do we unconsciously admire it? The answer lies in that magical catch phrase coined by Charles Darwin more than hundred years ago: Natural selection. Like all other species, our ancestral cavemen had to make sure they produced healthy children so the human race could have a better chance of survival. This could be done by making sure better genes were handed down generations and defective ones eliminated. This is one of the basic principles of natural selection.


Since DNA testing kits had yet not been invented, our prehistoric ancestors relied on instinct. Just as they had learnt to distinguish nutritious food from poisonous one, they devised by instinct methods of judging gene quality in their mates. The more symmetrical the body is, the better on average the genes are. This is because less robust genes are more likely to get knocked off course by environmental setbacks such as physical injuries and parasites. With time people with such symmetrical bodies came to be recognised as beautiful by our senses, this is again natural selection in progress. Why donít we celebrate ugliness?

Evolutionary psychologists believe that our mind is made of thousands of modules which are designed for different purposes. One of the modules is for recognising the ideal mate. These modules keep storing information over centuries and the information gets ingrained in them. So when we look for mates, we take skin colour, hair colour, the shape of the face, and the rest of the body into account.


"Symmetry is presumed to be an indicator of a form of developmental health, developmental stability," says Prof. Steven W Gangestad in replying to The Tribune. "In a variety of species, symmetry is associated with health and fitness, though no one claims it to be universally so. For humans, the hypothesis makes sense but is yet to be tested."

Prof. John T ManningResponding to The Tribune, Prof. John T Manning, Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, asserted that symmetry is important, "because our genes tell us so. Why? Because symmetry is difficult to achieve. Symmetrical people probably are more stable during development and have more energy to devote to maintaining symmetry. This adds up to greater physiological efficiency, greater fertility etc. All things associated with a pay-off in terms of mate choice." Prof Manning believes that there is a lot of cultural "noise" about beauty, but much of what is seen as beauty is biological. However, he adds, that there is a relatively weak but real correlation between attractiveness rating and the degree of body symmetry.


Professor Devendra SinghProfessor Devendra Singh of Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, has conducted research on the notion of ideal female body shape. He spoke to The Tribune about what he calls Waist-to-Hip ratio (WHR) to compare it with what we consider the ideal female figure. Commenting on the significance of body symmetry in judging beauty, he says: "Yes, attractiveness ratings of both men and women are related to body symmetry. And accumulating evidence seems to favour a biological basis. Especially if you are looking at core features rather than superficial features such as hair colour or eye colour, skin tone, etc. For example, children as young as three months of age seem to prefer attractive faces. They look at attractive faces longer, which are also judged by adults to be attractive. Obviously they have not had enough time for culture to work on their minds. So the question is: What makes this face attractive? One of the techniques used by researchers is to computer average 20-30 faces and ask people to judge these faces' attractiveness. People in Scotland, America, and Japan judge the computer averages as more attractive than individual faces. What the averaging technique is doing, I think, is to highlight the core features of the face, such as a small chin or full lips in women or massive jaws in men. The averaging technique, of course, makes the faces more symmetrical and it could be that the people are reacting to symmetry cues. Symmetrical people, facial symmetry as well as body symmetry, have been shown to cope better with psychological and physical stress and resistance to parasitic diseases than less symmetrical people. Attractiveness here is an indicator of health and genetic quality. At an unconscious level, attractiveness and health are the same thing."

Prof. Singh's own research on WHR is an attempt to make a distinction between body weight and body shape. Sex hormones regulate the amount as well the anatomical location of body fat deposits.

Estrogen inhibits fat deposit on the waist, but allows the fat to be deposited on the hips and the thighs. Testosterone, on the other hand, suppresses fat deposits on the hips and thighs and allows the fat deposits to go on the waist. The differences in the size of the WHR between males and females becomes evident only after puberty. After menopause, a female's WHR starts to move into the male range. Women typically have WHRs of .8 and below, while men have higher than .8. The WHR can be easily measured by taking the circumference of the narrowest part of the torso and dividing it by the most protruded part of the buttocks. WHR is a unique feature of humans as animals, including higher primates, do not have waists.

But does it matter? Apart from other physical features, why is the hourglass figure considered desirable universally? Do women with this ratio have any biological advantage?

"Women with WHR in the typical feminine range", observes Prof. Singh, "have optimal levels of estrogen, less susceptible to major diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, risk for ovarian cancers, and ease of conception. Thus, WHR conveys important information to a man about the reproductive age of the woman, her health and status, and ease of conception at a glance. Also, pregnancy, even in the early stages, will increase WHR, it can be used to assess whether a woman is already pregnant or not. As the reproductive success of the man depends on finding a woman who is healthy, of reproductive age, and able to conceive, women with low WHR are preferred as romantic mates."

Dr Singh admits that most people have a difficult time conceptualising what WHR is, and many times he has found it very helpful to show a photographs of the same woman in which he has modified the WHR artificially using a computer.

Of course, now this hourglass figure may not be essential to produce healthy children, as better medical care is available, but the genetic preference still holds.

But what about women? Are they too concerned with this ratio? Do they also have to take into account similar problems when looking for a male? "Yes, women also pay attention to male WHR," says Dr Singh, but " as women invest so much in the progeny, WHR alone does not make a man an ideal mate. Rather what makes man ideal are his resources to defend, protect, and raise children. Thus WHR is necessary for a woman to admire a man romantically, but not sufficient for him to be selected as a mate."


But how could we explain the recent craze among women to acquire a stick-like figure made popular by British model Twiggy Lawson in the sixties? Does it not defy the laws of natural selection?

In Prof Singh's opinion, these days women's desire to look like a stick figure is probably driven by female-female competition. In the ancestral populations, people lived in bands of 20-30 and one would always know how to look better than another. But now we have worldwide sample of what is and is not attractive. If there is a free mate choice, women might aspire to be more attractive than their competition; hence, strive to achieve that ideal.

"The male media, on the other hand, such as Playboy magazine, is merely selling the sensuous female body. Therefore, you do not see starving, stick-like figures as models for Playboy. So the question is, do men want women that appear in Playboy or do they find stick figures sensuous? If there is an appeal to lose weight in India as well, it should be more evident in urban, rich women who are competing with other women to draw the attention of men. Finally, keep in mind that hourglass does not imply fatness or skinniness ó body shape is related to body weight, but is not the same.

"Let's consider the stick figured models, like Twiggy and the ever-popular Barbie Doll. They are extremely thin, but they certainly do have a feminine shape. Twiggy Lawson's WHR was in the feminine range, although she had very small breasts. A stick-figured model always has feminine shape, and I doubt very much that people will judge a woman who is extremely thin and does not have a feminine body shape as attractive. You can see the obscenity of this belief that skinniness is ideal by taking into account that Miss Universe is not selected on the basis of body weight alone. Do you suspect that somebody would have won the title of Miss Universe because they were ten pounds skinnier and had no shape instead of the woman that actually won? Of course, I don't mean to imply that the weight plays no role; thinner girls will look more youthful than a fatter girl the same age. The critical point is, from my perspective, that it is the shape that is conveying important information, which is not just the weight alone. There are skinny and fat women of all ages, whether they are out of reproductive age or not. But WHR in the typical feminine range becomes evident only after puberty in women, and returns to the masculine range only after menopause. So maybe the present trend is for youthful women (skinny), of still a woman of reproductive age (WHR). Do you suspect that a 50kg woman that is 70 years old would be judged as attractive?"

The preference for symmetrical mates, theoretically, should have lead to the elimination of unsymmetrical people, because over thousands of years, unwanted genes often go out of circulation. However, this has not happened since asymmetry is caused by lots of environmental conditions such as early childhood disease, malnutrition, etc. Thus, sexual preference for symmetrical mates alone will not eliminate unsymmetrical people. If the environmental conditions were optimal, indeed, after many generations there should be no unsymmetrical people. But this hasn't happened, and is not likely to.

Prof. Manning believes that recurrent harmful mutations maintain variation for asymmetry in populations. However, there is no consensus yet as to what proportion of symmetry is controlled by genes. If the heritability is low then selection to drive to perfect symmetry is weak. In addition symmetry may be one of the last traits in the list of what is essential for survival. Only efficient organisms can therefore afford to spend energy on this trait. Potential mates are interested in such a trait ó not because of its survival value but because it indicates overall viability.

Prof Gangestad thinks a variety of factors lead variation (even maladaptive variation) to persist despite natural selection. One phenomenon is mutation-selection balance, which leads to a stable number of mildly deleterious mutations in a population--which may affect symmetry. Another phenomenon is host-parasite co-evolution, which leads to the persistence of variation in ability to resist pathogenic diseases in a host population.

There are other arguments to explain the desire for the Twiggy-look. The stick figure was made popular in the first half of the twentieth century by fashion designers, fashion illustrators and fashion magazines. Before glamour photography became a force to reckon with, magazine editors employed illustrators. These illustrators were expected to highlight the dress, so what they did was to make the head of their female figures very small, and the rest of the body very large and slim. This is certainly unrealistic, but it served the purpose. A dress does looks better on a skinny figure. To make matters complex, most fashion designers were homosexual men, who consciously chose skinny flat-chested girls that looked more like young boys. And because of intense media exposure of fashion shows, and the money and success that follows, many women now aspire to acquire a stick figure.


Another reason could be that we as a species always find ways to overcome genetic and environmental handicaps. That's what makes us the most successful of all species A 100 per cent proportionate body does not exist, all we can do is to get as close to it as possible. What do those of us who are not fortunate enough to possess a very symmetrical body do? We fake it. By corrective makeup it is possible to highlight or underplay our best or worst features respectively; by wearing stilettos, you appear to be taller, and so on. If someone could make herself or himself appear more symmetrical or attractive in order to have a better chance in the struggle for survival, what is wrong with it? Indeed, proper dress, body exercise, and appropriate makeup is our way of meeting the genetic challenge.


Beauty down the ages

The ideal human form has always been celebrated all over the world, and in almost all cultures. In painting as well as sculpture, great attention is paid to physical symmetry. A slim waist is a universal favourite as depicted in this sculpture from the Hoysala period.

Marilyn Monroe, universally accepted as the most glamorous woman ever, might find it extremely hard to clear the preliminary round of the present-day beauty contests. Are our notions of beauty undergoing a change, or is this emphasis on looking extremely thin generated by fashion designers to suit their own convenience?

Twiggy Lawson, the British model of the sixties, was mainly responsible for popularising the stick-figure. But a close look at her vital statistics shows that she was not a stick-figure after all. In spite of being extremely thin, she did have an ideal Waist-to-Hip ratio.

The desire to look skinny has become so great that women all over the world are almost killing themselves to look thin. Slimming centres have mushroomed all over India, even in small towns with women vying with each other to acquire that Twiggy-look. Most people were surprised when the highly successful supermodel Cindy Crawford recently confessed that she didnít believe she was slim enough. She wished she could be like her competitor Kate Moss. What is the reason behind this desire to look waif-like?


Priyanka Chopra is the latest Miss World. Even in ancient India, about 2300 years ago, there was in some regions of northern India this tradition of appointing a Nagar Vadhu (literally the bride of the city). Women competed, as in modern days, to win the title of a Nagar Vadhu, and it was not considered a taboo.