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What actually determines an attractive women's figure? For most people the answer is absolutely clear: An attractive woman must be above all slender. It is no wonder than, most women judge themselves as being too big and are not content with their own figure. Although this ideal of attractiveness seems natural to us, historically seen, this ideal is new and unique.

The modern slimness ideal 

Before the beginning of the 20-th century, most women who were considered to be attractive had bodies richly equipped with typically feminine curves. For instance much quoted “Rubens women” are an extreme example which portrays women not only consistent with the social trend at that time, but most likely reflected the personal taste of the painter. A glance at the paintings and sculptures of the old masters clearly shows that for centuries feminine figures which were once considered to be appealing, would be regarded today as being too fat.
 

 

"Three graces", here in a painting of Raffael (1505), a motive popular in the art history which shows the beauty ideal actual in each case at a certain time in the form of three women. All "grace representations" of former centuries show more corpulent women than it to our today's ideal corresponds (see picture on top!).

Researchers have stated that in former times the ideal of attractiveness, or being fat, was considered to be a status symbol. Only the well-to-do could afford to eat well, while the poor remained slender from lack of food. However today, the supply of food is abundant and fat has lost its value of information as a sign of prosperity.  To a certain extent, this correlation has reversed: for instance in the US obesity has become a problem of the lower class. 
 

On the left: "Venus before the mirror" (1615) of Rubens with excessively baroque figure. 
On the right: A model after the modern slimness ideal. 

If the preference of slimness has something to do with economic prosperity, people should then prefer fatter bodies in economically poorer countries. And thus it is. A worldwide study in which 62 different cultures were examined showed that being slim is preferred above all in countries where people do not think twice about their daily bread. In poor countries, however, heavier women are judged as being more beautiful (Anderson, 1992). 

Also the social position of the woman seems to play a role in body size: In traditional cultures where women are primarily housewives and mothers, more corpulent figures are preferred. In cultures where women have more political power and more economic participation and employment, slender figures are preferred. Barber (1998) showed that during the 20-th century this connection also existed in the western world. The more traditional the women's role, the more curvaceous was the ideal figure. The greater the economic growth and the women's role in the educational system and employment, the less curvaceous was the ideal body. 

The waist-to-hip ratio 

However, the ideal figure is not completely dependent on social influence, but rather derived from a numerical ratio, namely the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). If does not matter whether a person is fat or slender, the ideal relation should approximate 0.7. This value is calculated by dividing the waist circumference by the hip circumference. Example: 63 cm of waist circumference by 90 cm of hip circumference whiche makes 0.7. 
 
 

A waist-to-hip ratio of 0.6, 0.7 and 0.8 (from the left to the right). According to theory the middle figure with a WHR of 0.7 should be most attractive. 

The WHR is gender specific. Women tend to have a lower WHR compared to men. Until the beginning of puberty, the relationship between waist and hip is almost identical in boys and girls (nearly 0.9). Later the influence of estrogen causes the pelvis to grow in women. This results in the typical female fat distribution where fat accumulates in the buttocks and upper thighs, causing the WHR to deviate from 0.7. In males the hip in proportion to waist remains small (the ideal is here 0.9). 

Devendra Singh, researcher specializing in attractiveness, carried out numerous investigations in the waist-to-hip ratio in the nineties. He discovered that all winners of the "Miss America contests" from 1920 until the 1980`s had a WHR between 0.72 and 0.69. He also found that playboy's models WHR was between 0.71 and 0.68. For decades the ideal waist-to-hip ratio was consistently 0.7, despite the changing body weight of these models. Thus, in spite of their different weight classes the beauty icons Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Twiggy and Kate Moss all had at least one thing in common - a WHR of about 0.7.
 

The painting "Liebeszauber" ("magic of love") of an anonymous artist from the Lower Rhine (around 1470) shows a bride with a figure corresponding to the medieval beauty ideal: Tight pelvis, wide waist circumference and small breasts.
However, it is not so simple. Recent investigations have questioned the validity of the magic 0.7. In non-westernized cultures the preferred WHR is roughly 0.9 (in the direction of male proportions).
Different WHR preferences have also been found in westernized cultures. While in the middle ages a more corpulent waist was in vogue, the renaissance and baroque eras brought popularity to the hourglass figure. It was additionally emphasized by clothing such as corset and crinolines. 
In the 1920's, boy-like figures were popular among women and the feminine waist was concealed by loosely fitting clothes. In the 1950's the "wasp's waist" was desired.

 

From the 16-th century a tight waist was stressed by the fashion. The corsage was invented and allowed the so-called "wasp's waist" by stringing the corsage tightly. It was followed by the corset, which remained in vogue till late 19-th century.


A part of  Singh's (1993) stimulus material. The waist-to-hip ratio was changed here only by manipulating  the waist. However, the hip remained unchanged. In this experiment the left figure with a WHR of 0.7 was strongest preferred by the experimental subjects (besides WHR with 0.8 and 0.9).

In addition, the methodology for obtaining the results of the waists-to-to-hip ratio has been criticized. In most experiments the change did not focus on the WHR, but rather the altered waist size. If the waist is made smaller, the WHR decreases. However the ratio would also be reduced if the waist size remained the same but the hip was made wider.
However, it is doubtful whether the experimental subjects would still find a figure with broader hips and normal waist as attractive in contrast to a figure with the same WHR but with a normal hip and narrow waist. 
Nevertheless, with the famous experiments of Singh only two variables were changed on the shown female dummies: The corpulence (underweight - normal-weight - overweight) and the waist width (0.7 to 1.0).

The role of the bust size 

However, there's more to a woman’s figure than corpulence, waist and hip. The suitable bust size also belongs to the beauty of a women's figure. However, what suits? It is also worthwhile to review historical preference: In previous centuries an ideal woman’s figure emphasized small breasts. At first ideal breasts were small and round (see pictures on top!) - in the middle ages the ideal breasts were compared to apples. Today, however, the ideal figure incorporates a big bust (especially in westernized countries). 

It is also fascinating that in previous centuries, the woman needed to be rather youthful-girl-like on top with a graceful bust and with a feminine bottom and upper thighs that were rich in fat. Today, however, the ideal is exactly reversed: Now a great bust is desired and is paired with a narrow, rather of a little bit androgynous hip. The irony of all this, is that back then, like today, both beauty ideals were barely attainable, because they were extremely unrealistic. Either a woman's figure has a great deal of fat and her figure is luxuriant below as well as on top, or she is slender and has narrow hips and slender thighs with small breasts. 

Today in contrast to former times, there is the possibility to annul the rule of body fat distribution (either fat everywhere or nowhere) with which we were born. Thus it is not surprising that more and more women "amend" their figures with the help of surgical breast implants. Also, the trend seems to move towards a fuller bust size, at the implants used during the last several years have become bigger and bigger. Front-runners of this trend is the US and it seems to influence other countries with their beauty ideal, for example in breast size. 

In Brazil, for instance, women traditionally had a curvaceous pelvis, a fuller bottom and a small bust. They were considered to be beautiful. For Brazilians, large breasts were regarded as vulgar. However, in the last several years the Brazilian beauty ideal has approximated the American ideal, and breast implants in Brazil have become larger.
 

Long legs

The last important feature of a beautiful woman’s figure is long legs. It's actually quite obvious, since legs have been artificially lengthened for decades by high heel shoes. However, although this criteria is important for the general public, up until now, it has rarely been examined in research dealing with attractiveness. Singh's investigations did not include legs as a factor and simply faded out this important variable. 

In our online experiments dealing with the ideal female figure, we have taken into consideration all five mentioned variables: Corpulence, pelvic width, waist width, bust size and leg length. Each feature of our stimulus material exists in three variations (e.g., broad - middle - narrow), and all variations are combinable independently of each other – therefore, there are 243 possible combinations (3 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 = 243). Also, we did not use outline drawings, but rather photo material which we have changed with the help of morphing software. The online experiments of the University of Regensburg are unique because of the realistic nature and variety of the stimulus material and are now available worldwide.

We expect to receive more exact knowledge from the data regarding the ideal figure rather the different ideal figure of different societies. The first results suggest that there are different ideal types depending on the observer. 
 

a

b

c

d

(a) the average women's figure with "standard measures" 
(b) classical 90-60-90-Typ with hourglass figure 
(c) the sportive type: masculine, tight pelvis, but big breasts 
(d) the "Barbie type": thin, big breasts, tight pelvis, long legs 
 

In addition, the extremely differentiated stimulus material enables to investigate interaction between the various body features. If a certain body feature is changed, it also has influence on the perception of other features. Example: The figures b and d have exactly the same leg length. Nevertheless, with figure d they look longer, because the body is thinner and has a smaller pelvis. Just such interactions make the investigation of attractiveness so complex. 

You can also take part in the figure experiments of the University of Regensburg. Test your own figure ideal! With 243 figure variations your ideal is certain to be present! 
 
 

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Last modified: 13-07-2007, Webmaster
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