Why do men find a lower waist-to-hip ratio sexier?

Summary: Researchers examine why males tend to rate women with a lower waist-to-hip ratio as more attractive or sexy.

Source: Frontiers

Male turkeys famously will attempt to mate with a head on a stick. In fact, gobblers prize a snug snood over the whole hen. How far then can a man’s ideal sexual partner be stripped?

As hopeless romantics we practice a more esoteric eroticism. Nevertheless, there are patterns.

Waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) is a strong predictor of women’s physical attractiveness. The “ideal” value varies, but it is always low relative to men’s or the average female WHR. Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, one woman asks: why?


Over the last 25 years, research on WHR as an indicator of women’s attractiveness has flourished. But its link to female mate value—i.e. how WHR preferences influence a man’s reproductive success—is rarely expressed beyond euphemisms like “health” and “fertility” of low-WHR women. (Note: a low or “narrow” WHR means large hips relative to the waist.)

It is a classic example of “just-so storytelling” in evolutionary explanations of human behavior, says Dr. Jeanne Bovet of Stony Brook University (SUNY).

After combing the literature, Bovet defined specific traits that could link WHR with mate value, to be subjected to empirical scrutiny. She asked: can a man select this trait in a mate, based on her WHR? And will he have more and higher-quality descendants as a consequence?

Sex, age, pregnancy and parity

Most of the mate value-related information provided by WHR is relatively basic, suggests Bovet: “Sex, age, pregnancy and number of children can all be reliably inferred.”

WHR is high in children and men. In women though, WHR drops around the onset of puberty until early adulthood, then rises again with age and number of children. Temporary increases in waist size are the unique reliable visual cue of current pregnancy. As such, WHR tracks reproduction potential, which is null in prepubertal, pregnant and postmenopausal women; peaks in the twenties; and is unreliable in women with many children or none.

Baby fat

One surprising WHR-related trait enjoys particularly compelling evidence of mate value, however.

That a wider pelvis facilitates delivery of big-brained offspring is a widely accepted idea. Alas though, the mechanical demands of bipedal locomotion strictly limit pelvis size—so that most WHR variance is in fact due to fat storage on the hips and waist. But it appears that the distribution of this fat is likewise a major gatekeeper of brain development.

Fat on the hips, thighs and buttocks is special in women. Even with restricted food intake, the body avoids burning it. But in late pregnancy and lactation, the same fat becomes freely available as the main source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids critical for early brain development. Abdominal fat interferes with this: It inhibits production of the enzyme Δ-5 desaturase, required for synthesis of the fatty acids.

This shows a woman holding an hourglass
WHR’s correlation with attractiveness might even prove to be an artifact, with some related physical characteristic like hip size alone, or waist/stature ratio, the real object of men’s desires. The image is in the public domain.

In keeping with this, one study has shown that women with lower WHRs and their children have significantly higher cognitive test scores—and IQ is negatively correlated with birth order, following the loss of gluteofemoral fat with each child.

A moving target

Evolution of preferences for a low WHR in female mates likely involved a number of these traits. Still more—including WHR as a hormone-driven indicator of sexual and maternal behavior, or a warning of abdominal parasites—remain untested.

WHR’s correlation with attractiveness might even prove to be an artifact, with some related physical characteristic like hip size alone, or waist/stature ratio, the real object of men’s desires.

But whether rapid cultural evolution and reproductive technologies will relax men’s preferences for a narrow female WHR—or if “runaway selection” for once-useful traits, and pursuit of gene-propagating “sexy daughters,” will intensify them—is a story that will unfold deep into the future.

About this neuroscience research article

Media Contacts:
Jeanne Bovet – Frontiers
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Evolutionary Theories and Men’s Preferences for Women’s Waist-to-Hip Ratio: Which Hypotheses Remain? A Systematic Review”. Jeanne Bovet.
Frontiers in Psychology . doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01221


Evolutionary Theories and Men’s Preferences for Women’s Waist-to-Hip Ratio: Which Hypotheses Remain? A Systematic Review

Over the last 25 years, a large amount of research has been dedicated to identifying men’s preferences for women’s physical features, and the evolutionary benefits associated with such preferences. Today, this area of research generates substantial controversy and criticism. I argue that part of the crisis is due to inaccuracies in the evolutionary hypotheses used in the field. For this review, I focus on the extensive literature regarding men’s adaptive preferences for women’s waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), which has become a classic example of the just-so storytelling contributing to the general mistrust toward evolutionary explanations of human behavior. The issues in this literature originate in the vagueness and incompleteness of the theorizing of the evolutionary mechanisms leading to mate preferences. Authors seem to have rushed into testing and debating the effects of WHR on women’s attractiveness under various conditions and using different stimuli, without first establishing (a) clear definitions of the central evolution concepts (e.g., female mate value is often reduced to an imprecise concept of “health-and-fertility”), and (b) a complete overview of the distinct evolutionary paths potentially at work (e.g., focusing on fecundability while omitting descendants’ quality). Unsound theoretical foundations will lead to imprecise predictions which cannot properly be tested, thus ultimately resulting in the premature rejection of an evolutionary explanation to human mate preferences. This paper provides the first comprehensive review of the existing hypotheses on why men’s preferences for a certain WHR in women might be adaptive, as well as an analysis of the theoretical credibility of these hypotheses. By dissecting the evolutionary reasoning behind each hypothesis, I show which hypotheses are plausible and which are unfit to account for men’s preferences for female WHR. Moreover, the most cited hypotheses (e.g., WHR as a cue of health or fecundity) are found to not necessarily be the ones with the strongest theoretical support, and some promising hypotheses (e.g., WHR as a cue of parity or current pregnancy) have seemingly been mostly overlooked. Finally, I suggest some directions for future studies on human mate choice, to move this evolutionary psychology literature toward a stronger theoretical foundation.

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