A new study says seeing the likes of Beyoncé (read: tiny waist, curvy hips) really lights up men's brains.
Soon newspapers across the country
(and the world
) touted it as a victory for women. No longer would we have to bow to the ideal of the waif-y runway model! Now we could have our French fries and eat them, too! But then it turned out the pictures in the study that had men all aglow were women who went under the knife to look that way
Er ... ex-squeeze us? Did we miss something? To find out, we cornered the study's author, Dr. Steven Platek, associate professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College, to ask him: What gives?
Lemondrop: First of all, what gave you the idea to do this study?
There's been a lot of research done about the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) in women, with the optimal WHR being 0.7. Studies show that women with a 0.7 WHR are healthier in general, have better cardiac health, better mental health, less complications during pregnancy, are less likely to die during labor, have less post-partum depression and their offspring experience a slightly higher IQ score. It's such a great cue that women give men.
And you wanted to know if men were picking up on it ...
Exactly. So we found a group of women who were going in to have cosmetic surgery in order to improve their WHR. These surgeries are more commonly known as tummy tucks, liposuction -- all the procedures that encompass reconfiguring the trunk. As a side note, all the women were able to tell their surgeon exactly what they wanted their new WHR to look like and unknowingly they all dialed in on 0.7, so it's clear that women know what's innately attractive. Anyway, we had before and after pictures of the women, which gave us a very controlled set of stimuli. I showed those pictures to 14 men while I was scanning their brains and what we found was that in all of the men, the optimal WHR (or the "after" pictures) activated the part of their brains that is involved in high levels of reward -- the same part of their brains involved in drug addiction.
So are you saying men are actually addicted to looking at bodies like those of J.Lo and Beyoncé?
No, I'm not saying that. We might be able to use this information in the future to help us better understand illnesses like pornography addiction. But for the average guy, who's not a porn addict, I think what this data shows is that these women capture our attention unknowingly. I told one of my students the other day that you could really do this experiment very easily. You can sit a guy down in the cafeteria and ask him to write an intense letter or term paper and tell him he can't look away from the screen. Then systematically have two girls walk by -- one who doesn't have an optimal WHR and one who does. After that, you can go back and look at the number of typos, and I would bet my paycheck that the number would be about four times as high when the optimal female body walked by. What I'm saying is that shape, through our evolutionary history, has trained the male brain to pay attention because the outcome means high reproductive success.
Does this mean we can't get mad at our husbands/boyfriends for looking at women? Because it's instinctive?
Heck no! Listen if you're out with your boyfriend, and he's looking away, then give him a shot to the back of the head. If you and your man are walking hand-in-hand, skipping down the street and Beyoncé comes walking the other way, he will know he should not turn his head and pant like a hound. And he knows you will probably smack him upside the head if he does. But what the study shows is that even though he's consciously inhibiting that action of turning his head and panting like a dog, his brain is actually still paying attention to her.
At first glance, this study seems to be a victory for naturally curvy women, but all of the women in the study were surgically altered in order for the men to be attracted to them. So now we don't have to starve ourselves, but we have to have surgery in order to turn heads?
Great question, and the answer is no. I used the women who had plastic surgery in order to have a controlled set of stimuli -- to show men the exact same body of a woman side-by-side, one having the optimal WHR and one not. But in the real world, this optimal body shape is how women are
designed through natural selection, through biology: We're not designed to sit around and eat Bon Bons and watch "Gossip Girl" and get overweight. And we're not designed to sit around and eat one carrot a day and starve ourselves. We're designed to eat a healthy diet and move around. To keep this naturally occurring WHR, which most women are born with, you have to move the way your body was designed to move. If you think about it, our cavemen ancestors never did bicep curls, but they probably swung an ax at a tree, which engages your core and hips and legs. There's a great workout program called CrossFit
, which trains these functional fitness techniques and actually maintains the optimal female body shape.
So, from an evolutionary standpoint, how do you explain the Kate Mosses of the world, who are just naturally thin?
That's the great thing about this study -- it's not about size. Women who are very thin can still have a WHR of .7. It's not the size of the woman, it's the configuration. You could be a size 2 and still have a WHR of 0.7, or you can be a size 22 and have a WHR of 0.7
. And the best part is men are going to find both of those women more attractive than women who are a size 2 or 22 and don't have the ratio.
Pass the fries.
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