Home > Methodology, The Body > More on BMI v. WHR

More on BMI v. WHR

February 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Piers Cornelissen has offered some pointed objections to concluding that WHR (waist-hip ratio) is more important than BMI (body mass index) in the evaluation of women’s body attractiveness. He posted these objections as a response to Caution: Curves Ahead. Since comments are easily overlooked on this blog due to the nature of the site’s formatting, I have decided to highlight his argument by reproducing it here.

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.

Oh snap!

Wayne Hooke

Categories: Methodology, The Body
  1. March 16, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Ahaha! You said, “Oh snap!” :oD

  2. kites_puppies
    April 23, 2010 at 5:32 am

    I just want to add in another concern. WHR is likely harder to evaluate in a moving body, and we do more often than not encounter people in motion than still.

    • whooke
      April 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm

      Definitely accurate – though in most real-world contexts (for example, mating decisions) that don’t involve concealed figures it seems likely that there is ample opportunity to evaluate both body fat levels and sex-specific body fat distribution.


  1. March 6, 2010 at 7:33 pm

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