The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Are Waist-Hip Ratio Preferences Adaptive? An Analysis of the Female Figure in Artwork


Human Biology Program, University of Indianapolis

March 27, 2015 1:45, Grand Ballroom A/B Add to calendar

Beauty, or sexual attractiveness, is both a cultural obsession and an evolutionary problem. The female waist-hip ratio (WHR) has been regarded in evolutionary literature as an indicator of overall health and fertility and it has been proposed that males have been selected to find an ideal WHR of approximately 0.70 to be most attractive. Simultaneously, however, it is observed that women often compromise their health in order to meet perceived standards of beauty. This research explores representations of women in 1045 examples of Western and non-Western, contemporary and ancient art produced for a variety of audiences in order to understand how the WHR is depicted across cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries. WHR measurements were taken from digital versions of artwork using ImageJ software and statistically analyzed using Microsoft Excel.

Overall, artistic representations of women tend to depict unrealistically low WHRs. The distortion is not just a modern or Western phenomenon and can be seen in ancient art as well as fine and popular art. Additional comparisons between digitally altered commercial images of models and their originals suggest a directional preference towards a lower, less realistic WHR. Because this directional preference does not correspond to optimal fertility, we infer a strong influence of non-evolved cultural and individual determinants. We further suggest that WHR communicates multiple meanings that operate at different levels of behavior and abstract fantasy. The role of natural selection in determining ideals of attractiveness has been greatly overstated.