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Women’s body size preferences among men in Britain, Malaysia and Samoa
Here are two studies on cross-cultural comparisons.
In the first study,(1, pdf) pictures of British women’s bodies in profile (side view) were shown to men in London, Sabah (Malaysia) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). The London and Kula Lumpur groups were men with high socioeconomic status (SES), and the Sabah group was a low SES group from a village. The results are shown below.
Fig. 1. Attractiveness ratings as a function of body mass index (BMI; weight in kilograms divided by square of height in meters). In figure a, the Sabah men’s ratings are represented by the stars and red, dotted line, and the Kuala Lumpur men are represented by the triangles and blue, solid line. In figure b, the Sabah men’s ratings are represented by the stars and red, dotted line, and the British men are represented by the squares and green, solid line.
Fig. 2. Attractiveness ratings as a function of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). In figure a, the Sabah men’s ratings are represented by the stars and red, dotted line, and the Kuala Lumpur men are represented by the triangles and blue, solid line. In figure b, the Sabah men’s ratings are represented by the stars and red, dotted line, and the British men are represented by the squares and green, solid line.
Judgments by men in Britain and Kuala Lumpur were similar. The optimum BMIs for the three groups were 20.35 (Kuala Lumpur), 20.74 (Britain) and 25.15 (Sabah). Sabah men had a liking for heavier women. Men in Kuala Lumpur preferred women with lower WHRs. A similar trend can be seen in the British sample, but the find wasn’t statistically significant. In the Sabah men, there was also no statistically significant relation between attractiveness ratings and women’s WHRs. For the stimuli used, BMI was much more strongly related to attractiveness than WHR.
The authors noted that the cross-cultural comparisons using photos of women in front view (another study) resulted in similar finds to that in the present study, and then had this to say–
Why, then, did Marlowe et al. (2005) find a preference for lower profile WHR among the Hadza of Tanzania than among American men? The answer may lie in the stimuli they used. In their line drawings,WHR and body weight were covaried: the line drawings with lower WHRs (more protruding buttocks) also appear to have heavier body weights, and Hadza men may consequently be showing a preference for heavier figures rather than, or in conjunction to, lower profileWHRs. In other words, the apparent preference for low profile WHRs found by Marlowe et al. (2005) could be explained by a preference for a heavier body mass, low WHRs or both.
The Hadza are a sub-Saharan African population. Swami et al.(1) have referred to these stimuli used by Marlowe et al. (2005).(2)
The answer that Swami et al. are looking for does not lie in the nature of the stimuli used but in anatomical differences between European and sub-Saharan African women. Sub-Saharan women have wider waists plus narrower hips in front view, and more protruding backsides compared to European women. So aesthetic preferences regarding waist-hip proportions may differ along these lines. In another rural population from Bakossiland, Cameroon (Sub-Saharan Africa), men’s optimum female WHR in back view was 0.8, clearly higher than among European men.
In the second study,(3, pdf) photos of British women in front view were shown to adolescent males in London, a high SES group from Apia (Upolu, Samoa) and a low SES group from Savai’i, Samoa. The optimum BMIs reported by the males were 20.87 (Britain), 21.29 (Apia) and 21.30 (Savai’i). Males from Savai’i had higher ratings for overweight women. Males from Britain and Apia preferred women with lower WHRs, but this was not documented among the Savai’i group. Traditionally, a large body size has been favored in Samoan women,(4, link) but exposure to Western culture has resulted in some change.
So these two studies offer additional evidence for the impact of Western culture, but this should not be taken as people’s preferences being heavily shaped by culture. Most Westerners strongly prefer above average femininity in women and a body size clearly larger than what is seen among the typically masculine and very thin high-fashion models, women with the highest status among models. Instances of culture appearing to mold preferences are any of the following: 1) intrinsic majority preferences manifesting as culture, 2) peculiarities associated with high socioeconomic status, 3) trivial issues and 4) a people more clearly realizing latent preferences upon contact with another people/culture.
- Swami, V., and Tovee, M. J., The relative contribution of profile body shape and weight to judgements of women's physical attractiveness in Britain and Malaysia, Body Image, 4, 391 (2007).
- Marlowe, F., Apicella, C., and Reed, D., Men's preferences for women's profile waist-to-hip ratio in two societies, Evol Hum Behav, 26, 458 (2005).
- Swami, V., Knight, D., Tovee, M. J., Davies, P., and Furnham, A., Preferences for female body size in Britain and the South Pacific, Body Image, 4, 219 (2007).
- Pollock, N. J., Cultural elaborations of obesity - fattening practices in Pacific societies, Asia Pacific J Clin Nutr, 4, 357 (1995).