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Waist-to-hip ratio and attractiveness in women: addressing confounds
A number of women would be interested in what waist-hip proportions are “ideal” or the most attractive as far as heterosexual men are concerned. The purpose of this entry is to show that it is meaningful to talk about an attractive range, albeit narrow, of waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) – as far as the preferences of most people [in Western societies] are concerned – rather than a strict value. In some comparisons, a woman with a slightly thicker waist/higher WHR would be more appealing. This entry should once again help make the case that beauty does not lie in some simple rules of thumb.
We will need to address some of the major papers published on the topic.
The first major paper was published by Devendra Singh(1; pdf). Singh showed, using the following drawings, that men rated a WHR of 0.7 to be the most appealing.
The drawings above have some problems such as a confound between weight and WHR, and also limited WHR range. One could also mention that it would have been preferable to use actual pictures of women.
Subsequently, Louis Tassinary and Kristi Hansen(2; pdf) decided to use drawings where there was greater variation in WHR, variation in body weight, and WHR was varied as a function of both waist size and hip size independently. They used the following image series, and reported that WHR is hardly relevant to attractiveness since attractiveness could be made to either increase or decrease with increasing WHR depending on the body weight, hip size or waist size chosen.
The study by Tassinary and Hansen was subsequently critiqued by Ronald Henss(3; pdf), and also Sybil Streeter and Donald McBurney(4; pdf); both critiques also addressed some of the naïve theoretical assumptions of Tassinary and Hansen.
Henss pointed out the crudeness of the line drawings used by Tassinary and Hansen. He decided to use pictures of actual women, and varied their WHR by digitally manipulating the waist. The pictures that he used are shown below. The middle figure in each series represents the actual picture; the one to its left has a reduced waist and the one on the right has an expanded waist. Based on the photos, the WHR of the women in front view ranged from 0.7 to 0.79. The manipulated WHRs ranged from 0.68 to 0.85. For each of the six women, the lowest WHR was rated the most attractive by the judges.
Streeter and McBurney used the picture of an actual woman, varied the WHR in the picture from 0.5 to 1.2, and varied bust-plus-hip- and waist-sizes independently. Their picture was taken from Ronald Henss, i.e., it was either one of the above images or something similar. They asked their participants to estimate the weight of the woman shown, and then adjusted her attractiveness rating with respect to the weight estimate, thereby controlling for a WHR-weight confound. Tassinary and Hansen’s study had a WHR-weight confound notwithstanding their much more extensive range of drawings. Streeter and McBurney were able to show that both men and women rated a WHR of 0.7 as the most attractive, after controlling for the weight confound, regardless of whether WHR was varied by changing hip size only or waist size only, though the attractiveness ratings between a WHR range of 0.6 to 0.9 did not vary greatly. In short, Streeter and McBurney showed that WHR does indeed contribute to female attractiveness; read their paper to understand more of the shortcomings in the study by Tassinary and Hansen.
Tassinary and Hansen, as well as Streeter and McBurney, reported that variation in hip size made a stronger contribution to attractiveness rating than variation is waist size.
On the other hand, Malgorzata Rozmus-Wrzesinska and Boguslaw Pawlowski(5; pdf) showed that Western men are more strongly influenced by waist size than hip size when it comes to rating the attractiveness of women. These authors used a woman with a WHR of 0.65 and manipulated her WHR from 0.60 to 0.85 by either varying the waist only or the hips only. Men were asked to rate attractiveness in both front and back views. When only the waist was manipulated, as shown below, men most strongly preferred a WHR of 0.6.
When only the hips were manipulated, as shown below, men most strongly preferred a WHR of 0.7.
The ratings above did not vary between front and back views. When WHR was varied by altering waist size, the figure with a WHR of 0.6 was rated as the lightest by 90% of the men, but when WHR was varied by altering hip size, 92% of the men rated the figure with a WHR of 0.6 as the heaviest. Hip size increase beyond a certain point would suggest that the woman is overweight, which would diminish her attractiveness rating, which in turn would explain why a higher WHR was preferred when WHR was varied using the hips only.
When WHR was varied by manipulating the hips only, the most strongly preferred WHR was 0.9 in Tassinary and Hansen’s study and 0.7 in the study by Streeter and McBurney. Tassinary and Hansen’s study obviously had multiple shortcomings, as addressed above, but there are two other issues:
- In the line drawings used by Tassinary and Hansen, they altered the waist and hip dimensions to try to adjust for the fact that the protrusion of the buttocks makes a significant contribution to the hip circumference. However, this resulted in the front-view WHRs to be lower than what they reported. In other words, a WHR reported as 0.9 by Tassinary and Hansen does not exceed a value of 0.8 in other studies such as Streeter and McBurney’s.
- The male participants in Tassinary and Hansen’s study, and also the study by Streeter and McBurney, had an average age of 18 years, whereas the average age of the participants was in the early- to mid-thirties in the study by Rozmus-Wrzesinska and Pawlowski. In Rozmus-Wrzesinska and Pawlowski’s study, men in the 20-21 age range, totaling 30, most strongly preferred a WHR of 0.8 when WHR was manipulated by changing hip size only, whereas, as noted above, this value was 0.7 for the entire sample. In other words, these results suggest that preference varies by age, with younger men preferring higher WHRs than older men when WHR is manipulated by changing hip size only, apparently because younger women are less curvaceous and have smaller hips. A preference for a low female WHR takes time to develop; from childhood to late adolescence, there is a gradual shift toward a greater proportion of children (both boys and girls) preferring low WHRs in women, first noticeable around puberty(6).
Body weight, waist size, hip size and WHR all make contributions to the attractiveness ratings of women. If one were to select stimuli where body weight varied greatly but WHR varied to a smaller extent, then it should not be surprising if body weight explains more of the variance in attractiveness ratings than WHR. Similarly, depending on the stimuli selected, waist size or hip size can make a greater contribution to attractiveness ratings. These studies generally show that men and women judge female attractiveness similarly.
Note that in the photos used by Henss, the women do not have physiques as feminine as that of many women in the attractive women section of this site; specifically note their broad rib cages and also their not-too-feminine frames; two of these images were taken from fashion catalogs and the remaining were downloaded from the internet (source not specified). When one uses the kind of images used by Henss, diminishing WHR to 0.6 by decreasing the waist size can make the woman approach cartoonish looks if the rib cage and other features are not simultaneously altered to reflect the global effects of estrogens, which would prevent WHRs in the 0.60-0.65 range from being rated as more appealing than a WHR of 0.7. Of course, the lowest manipulated WHR in Henss’ study was 0.68. Similarly, diminishing WHR toward a value of 0.6 by increasing the hip size of a woman that does not have a feminine frame would make her look overweight quickly, which would once again lead to WHRs closer to 0.7 rather than 0.6 being rated most appealing.
Table 1 shows some lingerie models from the fashion world, with feminine-looking -- some even impressive -- front-view WHRs. However, how feminine do these women look? Table 2 shows some glamour models with unimpressive front-view WHRs; compare their overall femininity with that of the lingerie models in Table 1.
Table 1. Lingerie models (from the fashion world)
Table 2. Glamour models Models featured, from top to bottom: Charlotte from model palace, Vanessa from teenrotica and Julia Cerkonova from karupspc.
The overall appearance of the lingerie models in Table 1 is less feminine than that of the glamour models in Table 2, even though the front-view WHRs of the lingerie models are lower. The lingerie models have more masculine faces, a manlier skeletal frame, greater muscularity, relatively larger hands, etc. Clearly, very low front-view WHRs are neither necessary nor sufficient when it comes to overall femininity/attractiveness. On the other hand, if one were to take a feminine glamour model and digitally give her a very feminine WHR, as shown below for Charlotte from Table 2, one would almost certainly observe Western heterosexual male preference for female WHRs closer to 0.65 than 0.7 in studies. Indeed, in Rozmus-Wrzesinska and Pawlowski’s study, a woman with a WHR of 0.65 was used, and men rated a WHR of 0.6 as most appealing when WHR was manipulated by altering waist size only. In other words, there is surely nothing magical about a 0.7 WHR preference in Western societies as some would like us to believe.
Table 1 on the eating disorders page cites a study where the WHR of Playboy centerfolds averaged 0.68 and that of fashion models averaged 0.71, and the authors interpreted this to mean that fashion models generally have an hourglass figure! The same page cites evidence of increasing masculinization in Playboy centerfolds from the 1960s to 2000, i.e., they are not the best choice to contrast fashion models with, and this page also addresses why the 0.71 WHR, if truthfully reported, does not imply a feminine appearance.The lingerie models shown in Table 1 above once again show just how tolerant gay fashion designers are of femininity in their models. They know that boyish looks are not appropriate among lingerie models, and they do get non-skinny ones who may also have some curves, but these models generally still don’t look feminine enough [for the job].
- Singh, D., Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: role of waist-to-hip ratio, J Pers Soc Psychol, 65, 293 (1993).
- Tassinary, L. G., and Hansen, K. A., A critical test of the waist-to-hip ratio hypothesis of female physical attractiveness, Psychol Sci, 9, 150 (1998).
- Henss, R., Waist-to-hip ratio and female attractiveness. Evidence from photographic stimuli and methodological considerations, Personal Individ Diff, 28, 501 (2000).
- Streeter, S. A., and McBurney, D. H., Waist-hip ratio and attractiveness: new evidence and a critique of a "critical test" Evol Hum Behav, 24, 88 (2003).
- Rozmus-Wrzesinska, M., and Pawlowski, B., Men's ratings of female attractiveness are influenced more by changes in female waist size compared with changes in hip size, Biol Psychol, 68, 299 (2005).
- Connolly, J. M., Slaughter, V., and Mealey, L., The development of preferences for specific body shapes, J Sex Res, 41, 5 (2004).