Nature or Nurture? An Evolutionary Perspective
by Jennifer Goehring
We have been attempting for years to deconstruct and analyze the roots of modern standards of beauty. Feminism in particular has become quite focused on its negative impact upon women, especially in an age during which we are observing such disturbing rates of eating disorders. Even if we look globally we can see a historic profile of women going to seemingly great lengths to alter their appearance for the sake of beauty; unfortunately, often at the expense of their own health. Whether it’s tight corsets, painfully bound feet or a booming cosmetic surgery industry, we have yet been unable to shed this seemingly permanent phenomenon. Even in modern America, in which the feminist movement has tried so hard to raise consciousness about the avoidable tendency among women to harm their own bodies for the sake of an arbitrary standard of beauty, we still witness an alarming rate of anorexia and bulemia.
Evolutionary theory outlines for us, for the first time in history, a scientific explanation for this gendered phenomenon. In our ancestral environment, as in the evolutionary past of every species, each sex was faced with the challenge of using observable traits to determine the reproductive benefit of one potential mate or another. Since the predominant concern of females had to be the protection, rearing and well-being of her young, she had to become particularly astute at determining, from the look of a male, whether he can provide these things for her. In order to demonstrate that he can provide for her the necessary protection and resources, males in every species had to become experts in showing outward displays of both physical prowess and status, and females had to become quite adept at reading these signals. Males seeking a mate had to do likewise, but along a different profile of characteristics. For him, it is in his reproductive best interest to find a female who is healthy, and able to bear young with minimal difficulty. Physical indications of health became the arena for this type of determination, and hence the evolution of preferences in the dimensions of age, skin complexion, body shape, and other indications of health and (therefore) reproductive capacity.
For instance, a preference for younger women (which is universally documented) evolved for men to narrow the range of potential mates to those still young enough to bear children. As women’s reproductive capacity drops off dramatically, so do men’s ratings of “attractiveness” for her, even if he is only shown her face. Clear, smooth skin, absent of sores and lesions, is another obvious indicator of health. Another surprising result of studies of male preferences indicates one for symmetry; the more symmetrical the facial features, the higher the rating for attractiveness. Research done by Steve Gangestad and Randy Thornhill has shown that, along with repeated environmental stressors, parasites can also cause physical assymmetries. The symmetry of physical features, therefore, was likely used as an indicator of physical health.
For those attempting to combat the harmful affects that standards of beauty have on women’s health, this evolutionary perspective threatens to undermine their long-sought conclusions that these standards are arbitrary and therefore avoidable. After all, how can we possibly wrestle with our own nature? It is tempting to use the evolutionary perspective as an excuse to throw up our hands in defeat, to just accept the fact that women will continue to strive toward these standards to their own detriment.
But before we go and do something rash, or before we start blaming evolutionary theory for undermining our attempts to eliminate female subjugation and inequality, let’s slow down a bit and take a look at reality.
Our biggest clue as to whether certain tendencies or traits have evolutionary roots is whether they are observed universally; that is, across time and cultures. For behaviors or standards that are only observed during a certain era or in a certain culture, it is usually safe to assume that they are culturally influenced, and therefore fluid and not inherent. However, if we observe a certain trait or tendency in, for instance, both the U.S. and an indiginous culture in the heart of South America, the lack of common social custom between the two would lead us to believe there might be more natural, or evolutionary, forces at work. What we do know of standards of beauty is that they vary a great deal across time and culture. For instance, tiny feet is not a beauty trait with which we in America are (or ever were) particularly obsessed; women in China, however, found themselves binding their feet, often very painfully, to achieve this standard for a great many years. Compare the ideal female body shape and size of women in the Victorian era to those of today– we are all quite familiar with the art images of women back then, and that a full and vuluptous figure was the ideal. Today’s models look almost emaciated.
Looking at these examples, we can logically conclude that an emaciated female figure or tiny female feet were not very strongly male-sought standards in our ancestral environment. For most any trait we use as an example, the obvious question to ask is, what reproductive purpose would this trait serve? If there is none, we can usually assume that it was born of culture, and not evolution. For instance, why would we not have evolved a distinguished preference for, say, belly-button shape? Answer: no purpose. The shape of the navel affects absolutely nothing of concern to us in a mate. Adapting to our ancestral environment layed the groundwork for modern standards of beauty, but cultures seem to have their own way of creating new twists and exaggerations to this tendency.
This is not to say that some of our culturally-based preferences are completely arbitrary; at times, the current era’s preferences in a mate reflect important concerns. For instance, we find that in cultures during times of famine or even less severe need (but need, nonetheless) that the ideal standard of beauty for women is a much larger body size. Larger size and more body fat reflect status; it means she is well fed and healthy during a time that thinness would reflect malnutrition. However, during times of plenty, (like here in America), plumpness is not a reflection of status. Likewise, during eras in which lower-class laborors toiled predominantly outside for hours a day, tanned skin was an indication of lower status, and therefore the ideal standard of female beauty was very pale skin; women during those times actually used white powdered cosmetics to exaggerate the paleness of their skin. Now, however, tanness is a reflection of leisure time (and higher status), so women strive for darker skin tones.
It is difficult for individuals affected by these standards to understand the reality of how their particular culture is influencing their supposed free choice. Although the preferences might not be evolutionary, they are still difficult to extinguish. For instance, try telling a man in the U.S. that, had he been born in France, he would not demonstrate a preference for women with clean-shaven legs. It is hard for him to believe you. These preferences are deeply ingrained, even if they are cultural and not biological. Or try to get him to explain why he thinks that clean-shaven legs are inherently more beautiful. Or try to get him to admit that, had he been born during the Victorian era, he would be most attracted to women that outweigh him by 50 pounds with an exaggerated hourglass figure. It’s not easy.
As I mentioned before, for anyone preoccupied with trying to convince women to ignore society’s supposed arbitrary beauty standards, scientific inquiry and theory as to the evolutionary roots of those standards would tend to raise a red flag. After all, being the free-willed individuals we are, we certainly hope to strive toward positively influencing the direction toward which we head as a society. The last thing we would want is for some scientist telling us that the tendencies we’re hoping to un-teach are, in fact, inherent and biological in nature.
Fortunately, for the most pressing concern we have in the U.S. currently regarding standards of beauty, this scientific perspective has something worthwhile to offer. Notice that my list of universal beauty preferences included a mention of body shape, and included no evolutionary-based discussion of how thinness might have been adaptive in our ancestral environment. It wasn’t. In fact, in studies of preferences regarding women’s bodies, the only universal ideal found was for the ratio of waist size to hip size. Healthy, reproductively-capable women have a waist-to-hip ratio of between .67-.80. A ratio of .70 was found to be the average ideal, across time and culture, regardless of the woman’s overall body size and weight. And, for sound scientific reason. Women with higher ratios have significantly more difficulty becoming pregnant, and do so at a later age. It is also an indication of other long-term health concerns; diabetes, heart problems, hypertension, stroke and gallbladder disorders have all been linked to the ratio of distributed fat, as opposed to overall weight. In addition, a higher ratio is also obviously indicative of pregnancy, which would be of particular concern to a man seeking a mate with whom to bear children. And, contrary to popular opinion, men have been found to universally prefer the average-sized female figure, as opposed to one that is particularly thin or fat.
Now, unfortunately, women in the U.S., when asked to rate female figures toward the “ideal,” consistently choose thinner figures than even their male counterparts. Given the average, emaciated shape of our current media models, this is understandable. Women’s natural search for a mate requires them to keep abreast of what the men in their environment want, and with media images permeating almost every square inch of our environment, we cannot help but be influenced by those images and adjust our “goals” accordingly. In our ancestral environment, living in much smaller groups, it was predictably easier for women to look around them and determine the “average,” as well as the ideal, for something like beauty standards. In our modern environment, it becomes much more difficult. I have heard the argument describing how negatively men are influenced when flooded by images of thin, beautiful models being gaped at by other men, but women are actually more influenced by these images than men are. The women are the ones taking special note, because their search for a mate requires them to understand the exact nature of the competition.
On the positive side of all of this, we can at least find hope in the fact that our preference for thinness is, in fact, just a trend. It is not universal, as it lacks an evolutionary basis. And most current quirks in the cultural beauty standard always will be just that. They tend to be exaggerated ideals of a dimension of beauty that usually have little evolutionary basis (if any) to begin with. Theseare the ones that are accompanied by entire generations of women abusing their own health and comfort to achieve them. Remember, evolutionary standards all evolved for a reason, and if they had been at all unhealthy, they would not have withstood the test of time. For a trait to evolve, it must be adaptive; and although sacrificing health for the sake of “beauty” might be considered helpful in attracting a mate, it will not last as a standard, and we are not evolutionarily “wired” to strongly resist the un-teaching of such arbitrary standards.
So, as far as finding an effective strategy for eliminating detrimental and unfortunate phenomena like anorexia and bulimia, evolutionary psychology does what feminism never thought it could do. Although an evolutionary standard of beauty does exist, it is not to blame for women en masse abusing their own bodies. That, my friend, is the role of culture. Evolutionary psychology helps guide us through our deconstruction of cultural standards. It tells women, “Men want health, health, health!!” It can help women sift through the health-deteriorating suggestions that seem to surround them regarding their own bodies.
That is, if we let it.