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Can't Decide if That Centerfold Is Really a Perfect 10? Just Do the Math

New York Times
, 20 October 1998

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.

Simplicity itself.

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 waist-hip ratios.

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 scientists.

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.

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