Curves. Why women have them and why men like them. (And why it’s simpler to be male)
- Credit: PA NEWS
Curves! Women have them – uniquely in the animal world for females – and often worry about the way they look. Men just seem to appreciate them. Quite a lot. So what the heck is going on? STEVEN RUSSELL gets a quick lesson in the science of curvology
David Bainbridge doesn’t do things by halves when he writes a book. He takes a fundamental aspect of existence that we either don’t much think about or try not to think about, and gives our human biology a good hard look from a zoological approach. As he says, “we are the weirdest and most fascinating species on earth. And only by understanding that weirdness can we understand why humans do the things we do, and why being human feels like it does”.
Six years ago I spoke to him about his book Teenagers: a Natural History. All those lovely things – dilemmas about sex and drugs, acne and monosyllabic grunts ? are just the way it’s meant to be, he assured us. All part of the well-honed process to help us grow into adulthood.
Three years ago came Middle Age: A Natural History. A period not to dread ? if only for the fact we’re statistically less likely to die in our 40s and 50s than any other time.
His latest isn’t bland, either. It’s called Curvology: The Origins & Power of Female Body Shape.
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As well as writing half a dozen jargon-lite science books, Suffolk-based David is an anatomist and reproductive biologist at the University of Cambridge. (His main job!) Three questions set him off on his latest voyage of discovery: Why do only human females have curves, how do they affect their lives, and why do they think about them so much? As well as the effects on women’s bodies of adipose tissue (whose raison d’etre is to store energy in the form of fat, as well as cushioning and insulating parts of the body) he looks at its influence on the ways we think. How, for instance, do girls feel about the fact that becoming womanly requires the accumulation of that much-vilified substance?
Then there’s men: evolved over millennia to desire curves. They “know” a curvy mate is most likely to provide healthy children – curvy daughters and curve-loving sons. But how is the male brain programmed to lust after curves?
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David discusses how a body size or shape can be deemed attractive in London or California but ugly in Nigeria, and asks what evidence there is that the media influences women’s opinions of their bodies.
So: is all this actually a problem ? and, if so, what should we do? “The thing about women’s bodies is that it’s so much woven into general life that you almost don’t notice it anymore,” David tells the EADT. “Men’s magazines have women’s bodies all over them and women’s magazines have women’s bodies all over them. It’s the way women are presented. If you look in a newspaper, women are much more likely to be in full-length photos than men are, for example. It’s part of the ‘common cultural currency’, I suppose. What I am trying to do is look behind; to go back in biology and find out why they are the way they are.”
And why are they? “Women are curvy initially because they needed to lay down lots of fat stores to rear our incredibly-slow-growing and demanding offspring. And then sexual selection took over and men started choosing women who looked like that, so it became accentuated.
“There’s quite good evidence that women with larger bums and thighs produce more intelligent offspring, so the men who desired those women have tended to be our ancestors ? because their children survived.”
We can’t escape biology, can we?
“It’s a hard one to resolve. I think knowing what your biology is telling you to do helps a great deal.
“One of the things I talk about is that we live in this amazingly politically correct world and yet most of us still choose our partners on the basis of thinking they’re good-looking. That clashes a bit with how we are ‘supposed’ to be living our lives, but you’d have a hell of a job if you tried to stop people choosing their partners on the basis of that, wouldn’t you!”
So are we at a worrying crossroads or doesn’t it really matter?
“In a way, men are in a much simpler position. They have this desire for curviness built into them. It’s not absolute size; it seems to be body proportions that men are interested in. The problem is that in addition to that we have these societal ideals of women’s size, and as societies get more affluent, that size seems to get smaller and smaller, and so this ‘skinny ideal’ comes up. This seems to be more tied in with economics and the amount of food people have. Men still want women with the same relative proportions but society as a whole ? and to a great extent women ? suddenly aspires to be skinnier. I think that’s where the problem is.
“When you’re a girl, the thing that makes you look more feminine is fat, in various places, and yet we’re very conflicted about fat, because nowadays we think of it as a bad thing ? related to disease and laziness and over-eating and greed. Which just wasn’t true 200 years ago. So women are very conflicted, because the thing that makes them look womanly is also the thing they’re told they shouldn’t have.
“Not only are they told to aspire to this societal ideal, they’re never really told what it is, because that ideal keeps changing. Are you meant to look like Kate Moss or are you supposed to look like Sophie Dahl? It’s a moving target.”
We can’t avoid the issue of eating disorders. David writes about how for 99.9% of human existence we have scrabbled to find food, but that’s changed. We have brains designed for starvation, but our world now overflows with calories.
For women, the dilemmas are particularly stark. From childhood they learn to restrain their appetites and to prepare food for others. They learn that “small is attractive”. Food means opposite things: health and disease, comfort and guilt, being small and being curvy. Paradoxes laid out on the dining table.
David points out something he describes as alarming: the assumptions many sufferers hold ? that society wants females to be thin, that we’re judged on body shape and that looks are associated with success ? are actually true, “which means none of us is really that far away from having an eating disorder.
“We all, when we eat something, think about whether it’s going to put on weight, and that’s a completely unnatural thing to think. We’ve all got a little bit of an eating disorder inside us; it’s just a question of why it affects some of us more than others.”
He talks of studies showing we are more likely to get to university, land a job and be taken on as a tenant if we’re deemed attractive. “All these terrible assumptions people make” – about the criteria on which we’re judged ? “are unfortunately true!”
Arrgh! How do we deal with that? “This is why I think it’s important to accept what your brain makes you do, because only then can you really ‘fight’ against it. The problem is that we’d all like to be attractive people with an attractive partner and attractive children, but humans don’t like to admit it. Once you know the evidence, perhaps that gives you something to fight.”
Sounds like the survival of the fittest... “We use appearance as a cue for genetic health, and general health. What we’re looking for is people who are well fed; nothing wrong with them; who are intelligent ? because they’re the people we want to mix our genes with. That’s a very strong urge. This is what our ancestors did. Each of us is the product of that happening thousands of times. That’s where we’ve come from; that’s why it’s built into us.”
I still can’t work out if we need to quash that biological genie within us or just trundle on as we are.
“Biologically, I think things are very much as they always were. What it is is that we’ve got to decide if we’re happy with that and whether we want to change that, and base what we do on something else” – such as rating intelligence over looks.
“If we do, then the ‘biology’ becomes a problem. If not, the biology just carries on as it always has.
“It’s quite a post-feminism thing to do: to accept that we can’t just ignore the fact that men like looking at women’s bodies, but we have to decide what we are going to do about it within society as a whole. That’s not a simple process – as all the debates about page three have shown, for example.
“It’s complex. Biology will always be there in the background, but it’s up to us to decide if we want to fight against it.”
Curvology is published by Portobello Books at £14.99
‘It’s a lot simpler being a man’
One of the most intriguing questions David addresses is why women think about body shape so much. Surprisingly (perhaps) it’s not all about nabbing a man.
“I’ve canvassed women about this and asked ‘What percentage of the time are you thinking about attracting men?’ and they usually say about 5%, 10%.
“The rest of it is wanting to look good so they feel better in themselves, or wanting to look good for other women.
“One of the reasons women want to look good is that it very clearly puts them higher up in the social dominance hierarchy. Lots of studies have shown that, within women, attractiveness is one of the things that gets you to the top. It’s rather depressing, really!
“With men, it’s physical prowess or wealth. The one bit of attractiveness you can change for real if you’re a woman is body size, and that’s why I think it’s become such a potent symbol in modern society.”
Tough on women, isn’t it?
“There are philosophies that say men are defined by what they do; women are defined by how they appear. It does make things very difficult. If an attractive woman does very well in her career, we’re likely to assume it’s partly because she was attractive, rather than because she was able.
“It’s a lot simpler being a man, I think. But, then again, with the women I interviewed for the book, I often said ‘Would you rather be in a man’s body?’ and they’d say ‘Oh no, it’s really difficult being a man!’
“I think maybe they think it’s more complex than it actually is!”
David Bainbridge came from Essex
He read zoology and veterinary medicine at Cambridge
Then had a year at a veterinary practice in Shenfield
Studied for a PhD at the Institute of Zoology at Regent’s Park Zoo.
Came to Suffolk in 2003
He and wife Michelle (who hailed from the Fens) have children Eleanor, 17; Edward, 14, and Rose, 12
They live in a west Suffolk village