Landmark Study on Curvy Women Proves Nothing

Perception, a British scholarly journal, has conducted a new study suggesting that heterosexual men are more attracted to curvier women than to thin women.
The study asked a gaggle of male students from St Andrews University to look at photos of women’s faces and rate them by health and attractiveness. These young, virile men found women with more facial adiposity, or with curvier, rounder faces, were more healthy and more attractive. Then, Telegraph.co.uk and The Daily Mail then took this study to prove that all men find curvier women more attractive than thinner women.
Better bust out the champagne now! But wait–
This neglects certain facts. First, the polling sample was a group of men from St Andrews University, the alma mater of Prince William. Race data about the student body is unavailable, but the UK now sees growing inequality in retention and graduation rates between white and nonwhite university students, and St Andrews boasts a 98% graduation rate. The university’s secret society, the Kate Kennedy Club, advertises itself as “Penises only.” It is irresponsible for British news sources to extrapolate these findings to all men.
Second, the study really was about health, and the variable of facial adiposity to predict body composition.

“We often remark on how healthy or unhealthy someone looks, but it can be very difficult to say precisely how we know this,” said lead researcher Vinet Coetzee.
“Scientists have been trying to answer this question for decades, and have made many breakthroughs in our understanding of health and attractiveness, but until now they have tended to overlook the influence of weight.”

This is not the first time Perceptions Journal has condoned objectification via research study.


Lastly, it is not empowering for a group of college-age men to tell women what is or is not attractive. It is not helpful for men to point at women and say “This one is healthy, that one is not.” It does not aid in the cause of eating disorders; if anything, it has a deleterious effect. This press coverage is telling young women who have accepted the standard of a very thin body image and translated that into dangerous, unhealthy problems of control, that they must now conform to a new standard of beauty. Out of the pot and into the fire.
And I think that as a feminist, the worst thing I could do is to point to this study and say to all thin women, naturally underweight women, dangerously underweight women, or women with eating disorders, “Now, I am the ideal and you are not.” This is not progress.

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31 Comments

  1. LisaCharly
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    For many women, eating disorders are not just about the very thin beauty standard. Certainly it plays a role for many, but assuming that women with eating disorders are a) young and b) doing it for beauty, marginalized women (and men!) who suffer from them for other reasons or are not young.

  2. Lilith Luffles
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Because we just can’t accept “different people have different likes and dislikes, even though they are the same gender” for an answer.

  3. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get it. what does “curvy” mean? Having big boobs…?
    I keep getting mixed signals from the media. Either we have to be skinny and waifish like supermodels or we have to have large boobs like a Playboy model.

  4. Marj
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    I think we’re supposed to be thin and waifish with C-cups, judging from what I usually see when buying clothes.

  5. pmsrhino
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I think you mean either we have to be skinny and waifsh like supermodels or we have to have large boobs AND be skinny. Curvy does equal boobs but it does not mean you can not be skinny. Oh no, I fear the media is ALWAYS clear on the skinny part. -_-

  6. Ariel
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Exactly. Which is why it’s not necessarily even about beauty itself– sometimes it’s about control. Which is why when I saw feminists tweeting about and linking to this story as if it’s gonna cure anorexia, it was troublesome.

  7. kay.bax
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    “And I think that as a feminist, the worst thing I could do is to point to this study and say to all thin women, naturally underweight women, dangerously underweight women, or women with eating disorders, ‘Now, I am the ideal and you are not.’ This is not progress.”
    A. MEN.

  8. Comrade Kevin
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Full of sound and fury again I see?

  9. daytrippinariel
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Professor David Perrett added: A take home message for young people is that maintaining a normal weight benefits current health and will improve good looks.
    What if my normal body weight has always been a size 0? I’m healthy, I eat, I exercise in a healthy manner. I’m just petite and small, that’s my body type.
    When I took psychology classes as an undergrad I remember learning about study after study that had male undergraduate students rate how attractive their female peers were. With the exception of one study, that compared how women rate men with “manly” faces and “feminine” faces around the time of ovulation, there wasn’t one study that had female undergraduates nitpick the physical attractiveness of their male peers. Granted there were studies that had women rate men based on their income and ability to be a father (seriously), but none that had to do with physical attractiveness. First of all, I don’t really see the “scientific” advancement or point of these studies but if we’re going to have them why not cater some to women and the gay population as well?
    I remember after taking a handful of psychology classes thinking to myself “I’m getting myself $20,000 in debt to learn about what men find attractive? Really?” By then it was too late to really change my major without staying in school for another year.

  10. LisaCharly
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know that was the context you were replying to. I was just compelled to correct you on what I thought was an incorrect assumption of yours, but it seems we’re on the same wavelength anyway and I just misread you! Cool.

  11. cat
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m a great fan of Feministing and have been reading for years, but this is the first time I’m commenting, and it’s because of this:
    This is not the first time Perceptions Journal has condoned objectification via research study.
    Seriously, in a post directly addressing journalistic responsibility, you’re making this statement? I see no evidence whatsoever of your claim in the linked abstracts. The fact that mainstream news sources might misrepresent a study in a misogynist way is not, to me, an obvious reason to accuse that study of misogyny. There are a lot of complicated issues involved in the ethics and social role of scientific research, but this post addresses them superficially at best. (For the record, I’m in full agreement with your last paragraph, but I don’t think that justifies the accusations you’re making elsewhere.)
    I really don’t get the hostility towards science that keeps showing up on this site. It seems as if the reaction is always either “This finding is obvious! Why did anyone need to do this study?” — never mind that giving empirical, statistical proof of obvious things is an important way in which science is useful — or “This finding is being/could be misreported in a sexist way! Thus, it’s a sexist finding!”
    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding some of what you’re saying here, but I really have no idea why you’re going after the researchers and the journal when the problem seems to be entirely in the mainstream news coverage.

  12. a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Faces with more fat in them are more youthful looking. Many studies have found that men find more youthful looking faces on women attractive. One particular study in the UK determined that the face shape the average man found most attractive was the average face shape of a 14 yr-old girl.
    What does this prove to me? Nothing much, really. We’ve idealized people to the point where in the media, women are portrayed as having softer features than the average woman does, and men are portrayed has having more chiseled features than the average man really does. Because we like to see male and female as opposites. That I don’t think is healthy.

  13. dawn_of_the_bread
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree 100%, but remember we’re talking about a paradigm that only converges sporadically and opportunistically with the scientific method.

  14. Ariel
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s why i’m saying the study was about health, not just attractiveness– i think the study might have implications perhaps in the measurement or study of obesity as it pertains to fat distribution in the face. Why would I reject science? I’m just saying, the other studies i linked to seem to have no scientific value, and are asking questions– even in asking those questions– that reinforce body image problems and objectifying principles

  15. cat
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure I know what you mean — I suspect these researchers would be the first to admit that it’s harder to do a good, solid, controlled experiment with this sort of issue than it is in physical chemistry. But that’s always going to be the case in the “softer” sciences; I don’t see how that in itself is grounds for dismissing the work.

  16. cat
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m not trying to be difficult here but I’m really wondering what you think the point of science is in the first place. How can you say that these other articles “have no scientific value” or “condone objectification”? I don’t see how this makes any sense unless you’re saying that studying these issues is problematic in the first place, which does seem anti-science to me. Just to pick a random example from the other articles you linked to: the title of “Smiling reduces masculinity” is an overly glib and reductive summary of a study on culturally-specific perceptions, I fail to see how that research itself supports social constructs of masculinity.
    Put in a different way, I don’t see how this research “condones” objectification any more than H1N1 research “condones” respiratory illness. Yes, it’s a little tricky to ask undergraduate men to rate attractiveness, and yes, a lot of people are taking this article to further their own particular agenda, but the fact is that people do judge each other based on appearance. While I’m sure we agree that that’s problematic, the very fact that it happens is what makes it worthy of scientific study. I mean, that’s what science is.
    What the Daily Mail says in its (terrible) summary of the research, or even what the researchers themselves say to the Daily Mail, is a different issue entirely. Again, there are a lot of real, important issues here — why this gets funded but we don’t see many studies on attractiveness judgments by anyone other than straight men (as daytrippinariel points out), for instance, or why it is that the Daily Mail is so excited about this. And I do think scientists are often on tricky ethical footing when it comes to this sort of study, given that the mainstream media sensationalize any and all research involving gender and sex. I’m really having a hard time understanding what you think good research would look like, though.

  17. cat
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Pardon me, this should be in response to Ariel’s comment above.

  18. daytrippinariel
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t get the hostility towards science that keeps showing up on this site. It seems as if the reaction is always either “This finding is obvious! Why did anyone need to do this study?” — never mind that giving empirical, statistical proof of obvious things is an important way in which science is useful — or “This finding is being/could be misreported in a sexist way! Thus, it’s a sexist finding!”
    The question “why did we do this study in the first place when the finding is obvious?” is part of my problem with the social sciences after going to school for psychology and working in a social psychology laboratory. This is of course my opinion but, some studies are very important to understand social problems such as studies on under performance, stereotype threat, stress, mental illness, etc. We need to do these studies so that we have the scientific data to tackle social injustice.
    On the other hand, studies on physical attractiveness and mate choice, to me, seem somewhat unimportant. I don’t really see the importance of studies on facial symmetry or hip-to-waist ratio. This is my opinion, but what are these studies really contributing anything to society or social problems? Obviously these studies are driven by curiosity, but considering how difficult it is to get empirical data in the social sciences because of the huge number of confounding variables I see these studies as somewhat as a waste. And if we’re going to do these studies why aren’t there more studies that look at female preference for male physical attractiveness? Or preferences among homosexuals and how they may differ? I would still see these studies as somewhat of a waste, but if we’re going to do them there should be more inclusion of who participates in these studies.
    Ultimately, though, I don’t understand the importance of trying to scientifically quantify attractiveness. As we know attraction is more than skin deep and individual. I don’t know what greater good these types of studies contribute to.

  19. Quelle
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    The results of the research aside. How is the fact the Prince William is an alumnus relevant to your evaluation of this study- or the fact that there is an all male society? The Kate Kennedy Club is by no means secret, sexist yes and a minority. We also have two all women societies, and a feminist society. Now of course the daily mail is idiotic to suggest that the responses of the men in this sample would be the same as all men in the UK/world – but thats because its irresponsible to do that to any findings that stem from a small sample of data and its got nothing to do with Prince William attending the university.
    I would like to point out that The psychology dept here in St Andrews uses people from the local community as well as the university in their experiments and research, and there is a wide range of social-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds here.
    Oh, and there are more women than men here too, and St Andrews was one of the first (if not the first but I’m not sure) universities in the UK to admit women as both under and post graduates (in 1892).
    I’m sorry if this is way off topic,(feel free to delete) I’m just fed up of my university being presented as some all-male, upper class relic of history because prince William came here and we have an unaffiliated all male club. It is not like that at all and its not that hard to find that out. As a long time reader of this site (4 years and counting!) I’m surprised that feministing has made such general and sweeping statements about my university without just a little bit of double-checking.

  20. zombierat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Well, fair enough to double check, but these things are a good indicator of the character of the university.
    It’s fair enough to ask not to all be tarred with the same brush as the Kate Kennedy Club wankers, but it is wholly accurate to describe St. Andrews university as an upper class institution. Also, I think the way you talk about using people from the local community for the Psychology department is a little disingenuous. I’m not disputing that you do so, or that you have a local community, but I think the tone and use of it is an attempt to suggest that the uni keeps in touch with some more ‘down to earth’ community, when St. Andrews in general is middle/upper class.

  21. Quelle
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    I included the comment about using members of the local community in such experiments and research not to show that the university ‘keeps in touch with some more ‘down to earth’ community’ but to demonstrate that the sample might not be as narrow as the original post insinuated.
    I’m sorry that my tone insinuated that I am some kind of toff trying to prove that I have some form of connection with ‘the great unwashed’. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, because I’m from the working classes myself.
    I would go into a long spiel about your use of ‘middle/upper classes’ and how there are about a million and one definitions and everyone defines themselves and others differently, (I for example define myself as coming from a working class background, but others may-well consider me to be ‘middle class’) but thats for another post.
    As for the Kate Kennedy club and Prince William being a good indicator of the ‘character’ of the university – I think having a Principal who said that she didn’t think class or gender had any relation to someones intelligence is a far better indicator of the institutions ‘character’.

  22. a.k.a. Ninapendamaishi
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I actually think that YOU are the one who has a more idealized view of scientific research, if you really don’t think that politics or human error frequently plays a role in determining what studies are done or what their results are.
    That has not been my experience, as someone who has known some researchers in the field of behavioral sciences.

  23. zombierat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Look, I’m not looking for a fight here and I never called you a toff or anything like that.
    Yes, class is a very complicated issue, but the vast majority of students at St. Andrews are from a privileged background; it is an institution of choice for well off parents, and that’s just a fact. All I was saying was that it’s not at all unfair to say that St. Andrews University is a privileged institution with largely privileged students, because it’s true.
    And yes, I actually think it’s great that the new Principal at your uni told the Kate Kennedy club where to go and has made several other encouraging statements on gender equality. However, one individual does not change the fact (and it is a fact, sorry to repeat myself) that St. Andrews has a largely well off student body.
    That shouldn’t be read as me somehow calling YOU a ‘toff’ (a word I doubt I’ve ever used in my entire life), or saying you’re somehow bad or whatever – it’s just a factual statement about the make up of the uni. You disputed that assertion in the original post, and I felt you were incorrect.

  24. zombierat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Oh, also, just a quick note; the thing that spurred me into commenting in the first place was the idea that Prince William going there isn’t telling of the makeup of the uni.
    He went there because it’s in a small community, far enough away from the media for him to get RELATIVE privacy, but still be in a suitably privileged university.

  25. Charybdis
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    yes, exactly!

  26. dawn_of_the_bread
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    The paradigm I’m referring to is that of the OP, and of Feministing in general. As a long-time reader, I don’t believe that many of the beliefs espoused here are grounded in science, although science is often used to conveniently support an argument. For example, a lot of emphasis seems to be placed on individual women’s experience. Equally, studies which might be interpreted in a way which casts doubt on feminist assumptions are ridiculed, undermined or ignored.
    I’ll leave it to you as to whether this is positive or not.

  27. anteup
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Curvy: skinny, just with more boob and butt.

  28. cat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I actually think that YOU are the one who has a more idealized view of scientific research, if you really don’t think that politics or human error frequently plays a role in determining what studies are done or what their results are.
    I thought I’d pretty much stated outright that I do think that, in my last paragraph. My apologies if that wasn’t clear.
    Anyway, I’m not disputing that this happens, or that it’s a problem. It’s clearly a major problem — it means that only certain segments of the population end up being studied, and it means that discouraging experiences like your own undergraduate experience are unfortunately common.
    Those aren’t problems with psychology itself, though; they’re problems with research funding and academic politics and the like. The fact that a study on rich straight white men’s attractiveness judgments is conducted at the expense of another study doesn’t invalidate the results, nor does it make the methodology itself fundamentally questionable. Saying that we need to be careful with these results is quite different from claiming that there’s no scientific value in researching concepts that we find problematic.

  29. cat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    My mistake, I completely misunderstood your comment (I thought you meant psychology was only tangentially related to the scientific method, which is the claim I responded to in my last comment).
    I don’t necessarily think there’s a problem with the valuing of individual experience — there are a lot of policy decisions, among other things, where the ethical decision might be to worry more about the individual case than about the general one. For instance, many people would agree that a capital punishment system that executes one innocent victim for every 99 guilty victims (just a hypothetical, I’m not suggesting that the US justice system is close to this ratio) is unjustified, even though from a statistical viewpoint that system isn’t especially error-prone. That seems like sound moral reasoning to me; the problem is when you take the individual-centered moral view to be an argument against the statistics themselves.
    We’re mostly in agreement here, I think.

  30. cat
    Posted October 29, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    These are fair enough points, but I don’t see “this is a waste of time” as being equivalent to “this is junk science”.
    I won’t disagree that there are other research topics that have more obvious potential benefits. I think you may be dismissing the (potential) significance of this work too easily, though. I’m not saying that evolutionary psychology is the way to go, of course, but studying attraction seems like a pretty fundamental issue — after all, it’s at least related to reproduction, and that’s somewhat central to evolution. Considering how little we really know about how cognition works, I can’t see how learning more about this area is a bad thing.
    On top of that, I’m not fully comfortable with the implication that research should be focused on things we identify as practical — that sort of thinking leads to cutting out the humanities in schools. Not that you’re suggesting doing that, but there’s definitely a place for scholarship without immediately apparent practical applications.

  31. Ariel
    Posted October 30, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Hey Quelle!
    The Daily Mail and The Frisky mentioned that this survey was specifically of undergraduate males at St. Andrews– not trying to make generalizations, just saying that whenever you’re only surveying one small slice of the population, it cannot be generalized to “all men.” This would apply to students, really, at any university– unless you’re 100% confident that the economic and racial makeup of the sample from St. Andrews was representative of the U.K. as a whole.

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