Good news from England: Statistical criteria may make it
easier for a man with stunted perceptual ability to
decide whether a woman is sexually attractive,
unattractive or just so-so.
This breakthrough in sexiness assessment was reported
in a renowned British journal, The Lancet, in two papers
by Dr. Martin J. Tove, a psychologist, and his colleagues
at Newcastle University. The gist of the two reports, one
published in November and the other in August, was that
sexual attractiveness in women was a function of body
weight compared with height.
Naturally, working this out requires some arithmetic.
The sexiness quotient proposed by the Newcastle group,
called the body-mass index, is calculated by measuring a
woman's weight in kilograms and dividing it by the square
of her height in meters. Got that?
For Americans, this means we must divide a woman's
weight in pounds by 2.205 to get the kilograms, and
multiply her height in inches times 0.0254 to get the
meters. Then we multiply that number times itself and
divide the result into the weight.
After culling various journals (including Playboy,
which the authors cited as "a source which has been used
by previous researchers and which is judged reliable"),
they compiled a table of average body-mass indices as
follows: fashion models, 17.57; other models (including
centerfolds), 18.09; anorexic women, 14.72; bulimic
women, 23.66; normal women, 21.86.
Investigators in the past had theorized that feminine
attractiveness was best gauged by a woman's hip-to-waist
ratio, on the grounds that a nice big ratio supposedly
signaled fecundity, a quality these scientists equated
with sexual attraction.
But the Newcastle team tested this hypothesis and
found it wanting.
Forty male undergraduates at the university served as
a panel rating the sexiness of full frontal color
pictures of 50 naked women of assorted shapes and sizes,
depicted without faces. A graph representing the
students' rankings was compared with graphs of the
women's body-mass indices and with their waist-hip
ratios, and it was found that the students' perceptions
matched the body-mass ratios much more closely than the
Science marches on.
Not to be outdone, the University of Liverpool
reported that women who need anthropometric help in
picking sexy mates should look above the belt, at their
prospects' hands. This conclusion, reported by the
magazine New Scientist, came from a study by Dr. John
Manning and his associates, who focused on male patients
in a fertility clinic.
It turned out, he reported, that the men with the
lowest sperm counts and poorest sperm motility also had
the least symmetrical hands. Dr. Manning's group also
discovered that men whose ring fingers were longer than
their index fingers often had elevated levels of
testosterone, and we all know what that means.
Despite the scorn that has been heaped on
"anthropometrics" by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould (author of
"The Mismeasure of Man") and scores of other leading
scientists, the urge to learn about people by measuring
them seems to be a deep-seated human impulse. From the
phrenologists of the 19th century to the heat-sensitive
"mood rings" of the 1960's, measurement systems fascinate
and entertain even skeptics.
But while anthropometric systems are harmless fun for
some, they have also kindled bitter disputes.
Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, was a
pioneer in the field of measuring people. Sir Francis
might have avoided intense criticism if he had restricted
his studies to sexual attractiveness, but he took a
different line, seeking to measure intelligence. Having
concluded that intelligence was a hereditary trait and
that the breeding of stupid people should be discouraged,
Sir Francis threw the fat into a sociological fire that
still blazes intensely.
Despite the bad name anthropometric systems have in
some circles, they are sometimes useful to forensic
Alphonse Bertillon, a 19th-century French
anthropometrist, devised a system of forensic
identification based on the dimensions of parts of a
body, especially the head, left arm and left foot. His
method impressed Arthur Conan Doyle so much that in "The
Hound of the Baskervilles," Sherlock Holmes exhibited
jealousy of the famous French scientist.
Although most of Bertillon's techniques eventually
proved unreliable, the field of forensic anthropology
that developed from his ideas still thrives, with varying
degrees of success. Still, even the modern version can
yield false conclusions.
Among the body parts found in the aftermath of the
Oklahoma City bombing was a leg whose owner could not be
identified. Forensic anthropologists measured and studied
the leg and finally concluded it was probably the leg of
a white man. But another and more reliable method was
available: DNA analysis. To the embarrassment of the
anthropometrists, DNA showed that the leg probably came
from a black woman.
So, dear reader, if your body-mass index or
finger-length ratio is less than ideal, do not despair.
Anthropometrists have been known to err.