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Caution: Curves Ahead

January 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

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….

Wayne Hooke

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.

Categories: Methodology, The Body
  1. February 3, 2010 at 4:33 am

    A few points regarding Caution: Curves Ahead

    1) BMI and WHR range effects.

    Smith et al. (Smith, K.L., Cornelissen, P.L. & Tovée, M.J. (2007) Colour 3D Bodies and Judgements of Human Female Attractiveness. Evolution and Human Behaviour, 28, 48-54) used colour videos of women, who were rotated twice through 360 deg, as stimuli in an attractiveness rating paradigm. The relative range for WHR and BMI in these stimuli can be described by looking at the range of their z-scores: -2.55 to 2.72 and -1.70 to 1.89 respectively. In other words, there was more variability in WHR than BMI. However, the correlations between attractiveness and WHR / BMI in this study were -0.28 (p=0.06) and -0.73 (p<0.0001) respectively.

    A similar result was reported in Tovee et al. (Tovée, M.J., Warren, T.T.L., Hancock, P. & Cornelissen, P.L. (2002). Visual cues to female attractiveness: Waveform analysis of body shape. Proceedings of The Royal Society, B Vol. 269, No. 1506., 2205-2213). In this study, using 2D gray level images in front view, stimuli were picked deliberately so that the WHR range outweighed the BMI range by a factor of ~3.

    In conclusion, using videos / photos of whole bodies, we have repeatedly found that we can’t get WHR to work in explaining attractiveness ratings even when it has a bigger relative range than BMI.

    2) False positives.

    If Caucasian males were to rely primarily on WHR for mate choice when judging the bodies of potential partners, they would be prone to making false positive errors; sometimes they would pick women with amenorrhoea as partners who are infertile. As Fig. 1 shows in Tovee et al. (Tovée, M.J. and Cornelissen, P.L. (1999) Visual cues to female physical attractiveness. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 266(1415), 211-218), it is perfectly possible to find individual females with optimally attractive WHRs but who have extremely low body fat, and who have amenorrhoea as a consequence. So, it is hard to see how WHR alone can be treated as a reliable signal.

    3) Micrograft surgery BMI / WHR manipulations.

    Clearly this is an elegant paradigm in principle. Indeed, based on their Fig. 2A, I would be hard pushed *not* to agree that the post-operative figures in Dixson et al. are more attractive (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 Anthropology DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21181). However, my reason for this decision would have to include the fact that the post-operative images are aesthetically more pleasing because they are rounder and smoother. This image property was neither quantified nor coded qualitatively in any way, and no such measures were included in the analyses either as outcome variables or covariates. Moreover, from an image analysis point of view, a smoothness metric could be obtained without having anything to do with WHR. Therefore, it would be useful to check that roundness / smoothness is not a confound in future research of this kind.

    Secondly, even if the conclusion from these experiments is correct, we still have to explain why WHR fails as a cue when photos/videos of the *whole* body are available. Are we really suggesting that the answer lies in males *only* making their mate selection choice when they have a close up view – because that is the implication.

  1. February 6, 2010 at 9:57 am

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