An hourglass figure isn’t all that it is cranked up to be. When it comes to survival in a competitive world, a tiny waist, big breasts and large hips are not quite what the doctor ordered.
It seems the hormones that make women physically stronger, more competitive and far better able to deal with stress, also give them an androgynous figure by redistributing fat from the hips to the waist, reported anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan in the December issue of the journal, Current Anthropology.
Simply put, if you are a woman with a wide waist, you are more likely to be strong, tough, competitive and successful. This perhaps also explains why the curvy Marilyn Monroe did not run for president – no pun intended here – and Hillary Clinton did.
What dictates body shape is the body’s levels of androgens, a group of hormones that includes testosterone. These hormones give men their apple-shaped body by increasing fat deposits around the abdomen, and do the same for women. They also increase strength, stamina and competitiveness, traits conventionally associated with men. Cortisol, a hormone that helps the body deal with stress, also increases abdominal fat.
That’s the reason why in cultures where women are career girls and work under the same pressures as men, says Cashdan, they are more likely to be cylindrical than hourglass-shaped. On the other hand, women tend to be buxom and curvy in societies where they are protected from the big, bad world outside.
This is good news indeed for generations of women like me who grew up with the Scarlett O’Hara complex: Scarlett had a 17-inch waist; no real woman does, not even the size zero-girls who make Barbie appear overweight.
This argument marks a shift from Playboy pin-up ideals as well as established wisdom that a waist to hip ratio of less than 0.7 (meaning a waist much narrower than the hips, say waist measuring 26 inches and hips, 37 inches) indicates higher fertility (the child-bearing hips myth) and lower risk of disease such as heart disease and diabetes.
While Playboy centrefolds have an even lower waist-to-hip ratio of 0.68, data from 37 countries — 33 non-Western and four European — show that real women have an average waist-to-hip above 0.8 (the waist is 30 inches, the hips are 35 inches).
Men in different cultures, too, show what they seek in a mate. In countries where women tend to be less economically independent — such as Japan, India, Greece and Portugal — men place a higher value on a woman’s thin waist than men in Britain or Denmark, where there tends to be more equality, Cashdan said.
Even in non-Western societies such as China where food is scarce and women bear the responsibility for finding it, men actually prefer larger waist-to-hip ratios.
It may still be too early for working women to put waist sizes on resumes, but it appears that wider waists may make a comeback in this competitive world.
But you can’t have too much of a good thing. Wider waists doesn’t mean that you don’t stop the spread: waists larger than 31.5 inches (80 cm) put women at risk or heart attack and diabetes, so ensure you get the competitive edge without threat of disease.