Role of Waist to Hip Ratio (WHR) and Mate Attractiveness:

Why women prefer men with WHR of 0.85-0.95 and men prefer women with WHR of 0.67-0.80

Bronwyn Wildbore (175202 Assignment 1, 2001)

 

An important issue for almost every human being is one of mate selection. Everyone wants to eventually make the right choice in a mate, and for various reasons. Standards for body size vary between cultures however according to Singh the distribution of body fat may be an honest signal of reproductive status and capability. Differences in body fat distribution are minimal in infancy, childhood and old age, and maximal during early reproductive life. After puberty, males deposit tissue on the upper body whilst females deposit tissue in the thighs and buttocks. Measuring the waist at its narrowest point and the hip at its widest point and computing a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) can assess these sex differences in fat distribution. The WHR is unique to humans and may be an adaptation signalling fertility.

Singh believes that a person’s is an initial factor in mate attractiveness. Specifically, women prefer men with a WHR of between .85 and .95, and men prefer women with a WHR of between .67 and .80. WHR is a signal to potential mates of health status and reproductive capability. A high WHR in females may give off warning signals of low reproductive value and high disease risk, but may also give the appearance of pregnancy. Evolutionary psychology shows that health status and reproductive capability are the two factors that ancestral man would have looked for in mates. Initially WHR is a wide filter for potential mates and then cultural bias and other factors come into play. These arguments are quite convincing and make interesting observations about the nature of human nature, and how we as human beings make quick judgements about another’s appearance before we even realise we have done so.

Males and females differ in sexual strategies although both want to pass on as many of their genes as possible. Men want to have as many children as possible and they have a relatively low investment in offspring. Women have much higher investments in children and there is a limit to the number they can have so their best strategy is to produce children that will reach maturity and reproduce. Consequently they desire a mate who can help in protection. Men and women should differ in what they want in a mate: men should prefer heavy breeders; and women prefer heavy providers. This is supported by surveys taken around the world where men rank physical attractiveness much higher than women and women rank financial security and maturity more highly. In personal ads men prefer attractiveness and women offer it, but women prefer stability and men offer it. (Schneider)

Over evolutionary time, ancestral females who had psychological mechanisms that caused them to find males of high mate value more sexually attractive than males of low mate value, and acted on this attraction, would have out reproduced females with opposite tastes. This would obey one of the rules of the game of animal life: ‘have as many offspring as possible’. A man’s sexual attractiveness to women in terms of traits that were correlated with high mate value in our ancestral environment:

Signs of high status or future status-accruing abilities should significantly enhance female perceptions of male attractiveness. Across racial, ethnic, political, and religious diversity females rate intelligence, the will to succeed, and the tendency to work hard as qualities strongly and universally desired by women. Selection should have favoured mechanisms in females designed to detect and prefer males who were willing to convert status and ability into paternal assistance.

In terms of evolutionary psychology to be reproductively successful a male needed to mate with a female who has the capacity to produce children. Human female reproductive value cannot be assessed directly as ovulation is concealed (unlike most other mammals). However, there are several clues to a woman’s reproductive value and ancestral males would have been selected for to detect and respond accordingly to the signals. Such signals would be ‘honest’ signals as they would be an accurate reflection of development and hormonal health. (Neave)

It is argued by Singh that the distribution of body fat, especially on the waist and hips, measured by the WHR is one of the main features that determine the attractiveness of men and women. Owing to the uniqueness of waist and buttocks to human beings, it is likely that the WHR holds some remarkably functional significance. After entering puberty, it is common for females to deposit fat cells on lower regions of the body, resulting in a gynoid body shape. Males tend to deposit fat on their upper body creating an android shape. Prior to puberty, both males and females have WHRs that are very similar, and it is during early reproductive life that a difference comes about. The sex hormones, which become active in puberty, play a major role in determining the anatomical distribution of the fat cells. (Furnham, 1998) Oestrogen, when high, lowers WHR and circulating testosterone increases WHR (Singh, 1993: 294). An interesting point from Singh’s research is that men treated with oestrogen for cancer of the prostate develop gynoid fat distribution and lower WHRs.

WHR has been shown to be a reliable indicator of the levels of sex hormones, and also the risk of major diseases, reproductive potential, and premature mortality. Several studies (cited in Furnham, 1998) have demonstrated that a high WHR in a female can predict menstrual irregularity, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, gall bladder disease, and cancer of the endometrium, ovaries and breast. Zaastra, Seidell, Van Noord, te Velde, Habbten, Vrieswijk & Karbaat (1993, cited in Furnham, 1998), found evidence suggesting a relationship between WHR and the likelihood of conception. It was suggested that the higher the WHR, then the less likely it was that the women would conceive. On the basis of the evidence that WHR plays a role in indicating health status it is suggested that males and females may have developed innate mechanisms which detect and make use of the WHR to assess how healthy an individual is and infer possible mate value. Having a healthy mate improves the chances of producing offspring with inherited genetic protection from various diseases and a healthy mate is more likely to be a good parent (Thornhill, 1993 cited in Furnham, 1998).

In the first study undertaken by Singh (1993: 295-296), the WHR of Playboy models and Miss America winners of the last few years were compared. The results showed that even though the perceived ‘attractive’ image has changed, ie from fuller figures to the Twiggy waif-like image, that the WHR has remained constant. One point that is interesting is that nun’s habits and the chaddor worn by Iranian women that hides the female body make women look like men – with a high WHR. But when women need to look attractive the waist is emphasised, such as in the use of corsets and bustles.

In the second study male participants saw twelve female figures of three different weights and with varied WHR. The figures were ranked as attractive in order of WHR: 0.7, 0.8, .09, 1.0 in all weight categories (underweight, normal, overweight). The figures were also ranked on attributes of good health, youth, attractiveness, sexiness and desire and capability for having children. N7 – the normal female with WHR of 0.7 – was rated as the most attractive, most healthy, most capable for having children, and the most sexy. Youthfulness went with the underweight figures, perhaps a signal of pre-reproductiveness.

A third study was undertaken to see if the same WHR was attractive to older men and whether the trait is transgenerationally stable. Older men are even more exposed to different ideals of attractiveness. The results of the study showed no age trends: the same WHR was found attractive by all age groups. Figure N7 was again rated as most attractive, healthy and as having the highest reproductive potential by both younger and older subjects. The study showed that WHR signals good health, but that overall body weight is a major factor. But both factors are needed together for defining features of attractiveness.

Fat deposits in women are almost exclusively used during late pregnancy and lactation, providing energy for the development of the foetus and continuing to provide a great amount of nourishment to a child after birth. Ancestrally males would mate with females with the most chance of reproductive success and this trait would be favoured over time. Gynoidal fat and its measure, WHR, became attractive because of their linkage with the concealed reproductive value of the female (Singh, 1993: 303). WHR is a more reliable measure over breast size because as Singh pointed out true hermaphrodites have fully formed and developed breasts but are infertile, and have male-like WHR. The body feature most altered by pregnancy is the waist – a high WHR mimics pregnancy and this is less sexually attractive. So for optimal reproductive success women need a WHR of between .67 and .80 – the range found most attractive by males, but also a normal body weight.

Singh (1995: 1089) has proposed that women chose men as mate based on ‘good genes’, ie healthy. If healthiness is the defining feature of male attractiveness then males need a way of conveying this information to potential female mates. Body symmetry is a key characteristic and linked with this idea is the sexual dimorphism fat distribution during puberty that gives men android, and women gynoid body shapes. These sex-specific body distributions are not easily altered and are not limited to a particular society or climate. Testosterone stimulates fat deposits in the abdominal region and inhibits fat deposits in the places women predominantly do (buttocks and thighs). WHR has a graphical distribution with two peaks meaning that men and women maintain distinct and non-overlapping WHRs.

WHR can be used as a health identifier in men also. Men suffering from hypogonadism and Klinefelter syndrome, where they have lower testosterone levels and elevated oestrogen production, have lower WHRs like women. Men with very high WHR (.95 or higher) suffer from peptic ulcers and addictions. Risk factors of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death is related to the distribution of fat rather than the total amount of fat. Stress also triggers a change in fat distribution and WHR can be indicative of adverse developmental conditions.

Singh (1995) to see if women have evolved mechanisms to detect and use WHR conducted two studies in evaluating a male’s mate quality. The first study similar to Study 2 (1993) using male figures shown to women, showed that female-like WHR (.70, .80) were ranked as less attractive than WHR of 0.9 and 1.0. Low WHR in males was associated with heaviness or obesity as the fat was deposited in areas not usually associated with healthy men. The figures shown were also rated on personal attributes like before. Health, attractiveness, intelligence, leadership and ambition were found to be related to WHR, while kindness, understanding and being a good caring father were linked to body weight. Men seen as faithful, kind and understanding had more of a female-typical WHR. Desires for children, being a caring father, and sense of humour was related to the overweight figures along with aggression, strength and power. Attractiveness, sexiness and health were matched closest to normal weight men with WHR of 0.9 –1.0. As in the female figures youthfulness went with being underweight. The results showed that WHR and overall body weight are the factors in male attractiveness. But attractiveness was viewed with being self-centered ie not kind and understanding (hence the caring, kind attributes being associated with overweight figures).

The second study was based on WHR, financial status and women’s choice of men for various levels of commitment or relationship. The higher a man’s WHR and his income the more attractive he was perceived by the women in the study. No matter which age group of women went for which type of relationship all wanted high WHR and high income. The study showed that high financial status does increase desirability but does not compensate for a low WHR.

For ancestral women living in a hunting-gathering society, mate’s good health would have assured that the man can be a good provider and defender of her children. But with the changes in society women would have evolved mechanisms to evaluate a prospective mate for signs of both good health and resources. WHR, unlike stature, masculinity, and other signs of physical maturity, reliably signals present health status and future risk for various diseases and thus can be used as an indicator of mate quality. When a man also has a high financial status, he approximates the ideal mate. In the study, the fact that women with different educations and ages exhibit similar mate preferences strengthens the inference that when women have a choice, their mating selections are influenced by mechanisms that evolved to solve the problems faced by ancestral populations. (Sing, 1995: 1100)

The old saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is still a valid statement. No offence intended, but I find myself often wondering how two particular people ended up together. There is obviously something in each other that has attracted the two people together. Taking the arguments for WHR into account, not everybody falls into the range of preference and perhaps these people cling together as such. But the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ mentality is also valid. Misconceptions based on appearance are rife in our society today and many people find physical features unimportant in a relationship. So called ‘ugly’ people in history have turned out to be great minds, great comedians, and probably excellent mates who connect on an intellectual level. It has been found that arranged marriages are just as likely to succeed as when each person can choose their partner. Many people find love on the Internet and get married as a result, without having seen each other until a considerable time into their relationship. So I agree with Singh on the basis of WHR being used as an initial filter for potential mates, but I also believe that social pressure and images around us have significant importance in our choice of potential mate.

Our own cultures decide to some extent who we will find attractive. Nobody really likes to go against the system and so we take cues from our environment. Whether it is magazines, TV, our parents, or others around us, we follow what we know. For example black Americans like ‘overweight’ women by white American standards. In ancestral times it was important to pass on as many genes as possible and so a strong sexual strategy was required. It is very easy to see how using WHR as an effective tool in measuring reproductive potential and health status would have evolved. It is not as obvious today that we need such a strong strategy for mate selection. Obviously, from Singh’s research, WHR is an in-built cue that we naturally look for without realising. However in tribal societies a reliance on physical cues would be less important because individuals have direct access to information about mate quality (reputation, medical history, genetic quality) and so obvious physical features are less important. In large urban cultures where potential mates may be strangers physical appearance may be of more use in assessing the reproductive capability of potential partners. (Neave)

Personally I do believe that, unconsciously, we judge or rate people on their WHR. But there cannot be enough said about getting to know a person and how they tick and what they are really about. If all you are concerned about is passing on as many of your genes as possible or mating with the most attractive person then you would become obsessed with physical ‘beauty’ and WHR/body weight. But if instead you are looking for happiness and quality of life and fulfilment of your soul then maybe it is other factors that draw you to your prospective mate. Of course you could find true love in the arms of an N7 or N9, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I don’t believe we should judge people on physical appearances only. As I myself have already said, I am guilty of that. I also don’t think Singh was meaning that WHR is the only factor that is involved in our mate selection. In fact: "obviously men do not select women for mating solely on the basis of WHR. However, WHR may be involved in initial stages of mate selection such as the decision to seek and initiate contact with the woman. WHR could act as a wide first-pass filter, which would automatically exclude those women who are unhealthy or have low reproductive capability." (Singh, 1993: 304) All of this information is of course based on the fact that you want to actually have reproductive success in a relationship. There are also lots of examples of couples who do not want to have children, so in their case WHR is not as essential, although it does give clues to overall health status.

All this information however does make you think about how we look at people, and why we think the way we do about the people we see. I don’t think I will look at another person the same, now that I have been let in on the secret of mate selection, one of many I am sure.

References

Furnham, A. (1998). The role of body weight, waist-to-hip ratio, and breast size in judgements of female attractiveness. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, August 1998.

Mate Choice Lecture Notes. www.psych.ucalgary.ca

Neave, N. (date unknown). Evolutionary Psychology: Male Mate Preferences. http://psychology.unn.ac.uk

Schneider, D.J. (date unknown). Attraction and Attractiveness. www.ruf.rice.edu

Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 293-307.

Singh, D. (1995). Female judgement of male attractiveness and desirability for relationships: Role of waist-to-hip ratio and financial status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1089-110.