Home > The Body > Move Over WHR and BMI: Abdominal Depth Has Entered the Building

Move Over WHR and BMI: Abdominal Depth Has Entered the Building

February 10, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Using photographs and videos of actual women, like the one below, Rilling et.al. (2009) have found that abdominal depth (“the depth of the lower torso at the umbilicus”) and waist circumference are stronger predictors of attractiveness than either waist-hip-ratio or body-mass index. I can imagine the lead story in the science section of the local paper now: “Bodies that don’t look pregnant really are attractive.” As we all know, headlines can be misleading and popular presentations of research can gloss over subtle details. Pregnancy is not the only cause of abdominal swelling (there are actually 420 causes of abdominal swelling – none of which seem particularly desirable or healthy).

Abdominal depth measurement is illustrated below (the black line across the participant’s midsection)

while waist circumference is illustrated in the following image.

The stimulus set reveals strengths and weaknesses:


  • Un-retouched photographs
  • Three-dimensional views
  • Blurred faces/heads

Generally, this stimulus set has excellent ecological validity.


  • Stimuli skewed toward the unattractive end of a ten-point scale (mean of 4.9/10) – making it very hard to draw conclusions about what is actually attractive
  • Leotards and raised arms will flatten breasts, making them appear smaller – possibly leading raters to over-rely on apparent waist thickness, especially in profile
  • Relatively large mean waist circumferences in the stimuli – mean of 69.1 cm compared to 59.1 in Playboy centerfolds
  • Stimulus set contains few figures with optimal waist-hip ratios – making it hard to assess the contribution of the preferred WHR.

In the end, this study does not get us much closer to resolving the WHR/BMI/???? debate. A quick inspection of measures that had statistically significant correlations with attractiveness ratings:  

  • Abdominal depth
  • BMI
  • Chest circumference
  • Chest/Underchest ratio
  • Hip circumference
  • Leg/Stature ratio
  • Mid-arm circumference
  • Pelvic width
  • Stature
  • Underchest circumference
  • Waist circumference
  • WHR  

suggests the perhaps obvious conclusion that raters consider proportionality and size when evaluating the attractiveness of female bodies.  

FYI: Table 1 has a nice summary of correlations between various bodily measures and health. This alone makes the article worthy of a look.

J RILLING, T KAUFMAN, E SMITH, R PATEL, C WORTHMAN (2009). Abdominal depth and waist circumference as influential determinants of human female attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (1), 21-31 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.007

Categories: The Body
  1. Chris
    February 10, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Stimulus set contains few figures with optimal waist-hip ratios – making it hard to assess the contribution of the preferred WHR

    I think this is an excellent criticism of the study, although if the study had focused only on the preferred WHR, this would have been a drawback itself. More research needed!!

  2. Nadia
    May 19, 2009 at 5:47 am

    I know I’m really late on commenting, but I have a couple of thoughts. In terms of the relatively large mean waist circumference, they’re probably comparable to normal weight women in the public health data.

    I personally think WHR is overbilled and gets too much hype, when it has only a moderate relationship with attractiveness.Thornhill and Grammer’s study had a sample with an average WHR of .72, and there were over 80 subjects. Their WHR-attractiveness correlations were similar to the Newcastle group’s “Waveform analysis” paper. Furthermore,in “Body mass index and waist:hip ratio are not enough to characterize female attractiveness”, the authors examined Miss Poland finalists and compared them with a group of college undergraduate women. The Miss Poland finalists had an average WHR of .71 When conducting their discrimination analysis, WHR was did not show particularly strong discrimination power.


    • whooke
      May 25, 2009 at 12:14 pm

      I agree with you – WHR does get over-hyped. That being said, evidence indicates that it does contribute to evaluations of attractiveness – but not as much as was once thought.


  3. July 23, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    I’m absolutely fascinated by getting and keeping my ripped abs (because I believe them to be attractive, for SURE)… and I have a friend who is currently doing some research on the ‘perfect female body type’… so I’m going to send him the link to this post, I think he’s going to find it pretty helpful… Thanks for this.

  1. December 30, 2009 at 8:38 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: