Most beauty research is done using static stimuli: static photographic images are used rather than, for example, dynamic video depictions. Since most real-world interactions with others do not involve static presentations, it is important to know how similar these two types of attractiveness ratings typically are.
Roberts, et.al. (2009) have recently reported finding a positive correlation between attractiveness ratings of static images (neutral photographs) and dynamic images (video recordings). Only a small number of studies have looked at this relationship, with mixed results:
A review of this table shows inconsistent findings in between subjects designs. The Roberts, et.al. study is the first to date to use a within subject design to examine this relationship. The table below shows the various correlations between ratings of static and dynamic stimuli utilizing a within subject design. As you can clearly see, there are strong correlations in this data set.
- The use of a novel design for exploring this research question.
- Stimuli and raters were from college student samples
- As the authors acknowledge, within subject designs – which involve repeated measures – are subject to carry-over effects (the alteration in the rating of the second stimulus (e.g., the video recording) that is a result of having seen the first stimulus (e.g., the neutral photograph).
- The nature of the task performed for the video recording can have an effect on the correlation. In this study, correlations were stronger between the static image and the dynamic images when the stimuli involved a hypothetical self-introduction in a bar setting than when the topic of the dynamic recording was a recent holiday.
In defense of the common use of static imagery in beauty research it should be emphasized that static depictions enable better control over extraneous variables and enable clearer comparisons of the influence of purely structural bodily/facial characteristics.
Roberts, S., Saxton, T., Murray, A., Burriss, R., Rowland, H., & Little, A. (2009). Static and Dynamic Facial Images Cue Similar Attractiveness Judgements Ethology, 115 (6), 588-595 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2009.01640.x
In my last posting, I found myself musing about how WHR would influence ratings of body attractiveness if BMI was held constant. Recent research comparing the relative roles of BMI and WHR have tended to support a more prominent role for BMI over WHR. That is, the total amount of body fat seems to matter more than how that body fat is distributed. One recent study (Cornelissen, et.al., 2009) claims to have resolved the debate, concluding:
that although WHR appears to be an important predictor of attractiveness, this is largely explained by the direct effect of total body fat on WHR, thus reinforcing the conclusion that total body fat is the primary determinant of female body shape attractiveness.
I have found 3 recent or in press publications that have in many ways addressed my question [Singh, et.al. (in press); Dixson, et.al. (2010); and Dixson et.al. (in press)] and each reaches the opposite conclusion from Cornelissen; WHR is more important than BMI in determining female body attractiveness. Each uses before/after images of micrograft surgery in which fat is removed from the waist and implanted in the buttocks/hips (producing results similar to the liposuction on the right). This cosmetic surgery minimally impacts BMI but does reduce WHR. Using this methodology, each study concludes that WHR has a greater influence on attractiveness ratings than BMI.
- Novel methodology
- Results found in several cultures: China (Dixson et.al. (in press); Papua New Guinea (Dixson et.al. (2010); Samoa, Komodo Island, Cameroon, and New Zealand (Singh et.al. (in press)
- Not all before/after stimulus images show that a reduced WHR is more attractive to raters. WHR does not explain all of the variation in ratings.
Dixson et.al. (2010) suggest that studies which have found BMI to be more important than WHR have used stimuli with a wide range of BMI’s and a relatively restricted range of WHR’s – which likely would have the effect of inflating the influence of BMI. These three studies in effect do the reverse: use an expanded WHR range and a reduced BMI range: not surprisingly, they find the reverse outcome. It looks like this debate isn’t resolved after all….
Photo courtesy of Dr. Mordcai Blau and David A. Copeland 2009
CORNELISSEN, P., TOVEE, M., & BATESON, M. (2009). Patterns of subcutaneous fat deposition and the relationship between body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio: Implications for models of physical attractiveness Journal of Theoretical Biology, 256 (3), 343-350 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.09.
Dixson, B., Sagata, K., Linklater, W., & Dixson, A. (2009). Male preferences for female waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index in the highlands of Papua New Guinea American Journal of Physical AnthropologyDOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21181
Dixson, B., Baoguo, L., & Dixson, A. (in press). Female waist-to-hip ratio, body mass index and sexual attractiveness in China. Current Zoology.
Singh D, Dixson BJ, Jessop TS, Morgan B, Dixson AF. (in press). Cross-cultural consensus for waist- to-hip ratio and women’s attractiveness. Evol Hum Behav.
BMI – the ratio of body mass to height, typically correlates well with ratings of body attractiveness. WHR – a direct comparison of waist and hip measurements – also correlates with attractiveness. Recent research that compares the relative strengths of the two ratios generally finds that variation in BMI accounts for a greater proportion of variation in attractiveness ratings than does variation in WHR. The implication is that, at least in contemporary industrial/technological societies, levels of body fat matter more than how that body fat is distributed. I found myself reflecting on these ratios in relation to women’s body attractiveness today, and wondered how WHR would influence ratings of body attractiveness if BMI was held constant? My guess was that WHR would be more strongly correlated with attractiveness ratings when controlling for BMI in this way. (I couldn’t recall a study that explored this possibility and I also could not find one in the literature – if you know of one please post a link or citation.) My rationale was that if subjects are matched for BMI, then WHR variation would likely result from variation in estrogen efficacy. My hypothesis was that, other things being equal, curviness resulting from estrogen efficacy would more strongly influence attractiveness ratings.
So far my thinking has been pretty predictable. Then I reflected on estrogens’ role in developing the sexually dimorphic features that are found attractive in women’s faces (Smith, et.al, 2006). That’s when I realized that, to date, comparisons of WHR and BMI are done on ratings of body attractiveness alone. This practice is sensible, since cognitively, evaluations of faces and bodies are separate processes. But, since estrogens significantly influence both facial attractiveness and body attractiveness, these two ratings should be related. [There is some support for this relationship (Thornhill & Grammer, 1999).]
These musings leave me wondering: might WHR be a better predictor of overall attractiveness than BMI in women?
Image of the 3rd century Bikini Girls mosaic from the Villa Romana in Sicily courtesy of Roundtheworld. Wikipedia Commons.
Law Smith, M., Perrett, D., Jones, B., Cornwell, R., Moore, F., Feinberg, D., Boothroyd, L., Durrani, S., Stirrat, M., Whiten, S., Pitman, R., & Hillier, S. (2006). Facial appearance is a cue to oestrogen levels in women Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273 (1583), 135-140 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3296
Thornhill, R. (1999). The Body and Face of Woman One Ornament that Signals Quality? Evolution and Human Behavior, 20 (2), 105-120 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(98)00044-0
Using digitally manipulated levels of sexual dimorphism in human male and female faces (like the ones to the right), Glassenberg et.al. (2009) found that, compared to heterosexual women, homosexual women preferred greater masculinization in female faces [Brown-Forsythe t(303.38) = -2.92, p<.01] while heterosexual women preferred greater masculinization in male faces [t(375) = 6.77, p<.001]. Compared to heterosexual males, homosexual males preferred masculinization in both male and female faces [t(520) = -7.42, p<.001 and t(520) = -6.72, p<.001 respectively]. Calculations based on sociosexual orientation were mostly non-significant, though relatively small, significant, positive correlations were found in heterosexual males between unrestricted SO and a preference for feminization in female faces [R(125) = .20, p<.05] while homosexual males showed a positive correlation between unrestricted SO and a preference for masculinized male faces [R(259) = .17, p<.001]. These specifics aside, all raters preferred feminized female faces to masculinized female faces.
- large sample
- rated stimuli consisted of 3 face composites to ensure recognizable individuality. There was no effort to match stimuli for attractiveness prior to manipulating sexual dimorphism, so an attractiveness x dimorphism interaction would be missed in this design.
This study suggests that homosexuals’ preferences are neither identical to nor mirror-images of heterosexuals’ preferences. This data also suggests that researchers should control for sexual orientation when conducting attractiveness studies in which sex/gender are relevant variables.
Glassenberg, A., Feinberg, D., Jones, B., Little, A., & DeBruine, L. (2009). Sex-Dimorphic Face Shape Preference in Heterosexual and Homosexual Men and Women Archives of Sexual Behavior DOI: 10.1007/s10508-009-9559-6
Jessica Simpson will be hosting a documentary/reality series that explores cultural differences in beauty and fashion – apparently by highlighting individual women in different cultures around the world. The series is being broadcast in the US on VH1 and will first air on Monday, March 15th at 10:00pm. I can’t speak to the content, but the series might be interesting/worthwhile for readers of this blog.