December 10, 2008

Is An Hourglass Figure The Ideal? Only If You're Weak And Stupid

sexy pirate.JPG

I may have my own sexual preferences, and they may or may not involve rum and the high seas, but I know a political agenda masquerading as a journal publication when I see one.

I.  Bigger Is Better, According To Science

and according to this bit of sophistry:

Until now, scientists (and apparently Western society) thought a curvy figure trumped other body shapes. The idea was based on results from medical studies that suggested a curvy waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 or lower (meaning the waist is significantly narrower than the hips) is associated with higher fertility and lower rates of chronic disease.

See the "Until now"?  Elizabeth Cashdan, Professor and Chair at the University of Utah, does not agree with this, nor with the medical studies that do.  "Until now" means we are about to learn why all that is wrong.

An imperfect body might be just what the doctor ordered for women and key to their economic success, an anthropologist now says.

While pop culture seems to worship the hourglass figure for females, with a tiny waist, big boobs and curvy hips, this may not be optimal...

Now, she doesn't actually go back and find problems with the old medical studies.   No, she's reasoned it out.

II. Biochemistry Will Explain All

Before I explain what she's discovered, let me walk you through her logic.  Women with "imperfect" bodies will be healthier and more successful because that thing which makes them "imperfect" also causes economic success and better health.  If that doesn't seem improbable to you, wait till you hear her explanation: androgens.

Androgens, a class of hormones that includes testosterone, increase waist-to-hip ratios in women by increasing visceral fat, which is carried around the waist. But on the upside, increased androgen levels are also associated with increased strength, stamina and competitiveness.

So masculinized women are stronger and smarter than feminized women.  Or: paint will stain your fingers; paint can also make a beautiful painting.  So if you see stained fingers, expect to see awesome art.

The biochemistry isn't even accurate.  "Androgen" is more than just testosterone.  Testosterone can increase or decrease visceral fat, depending on what you start with, whether you are taking the testosterone exogenously; or whether increased fat leads to insulin resistance and overproduction of testosterone as a consequence; etc.  Are bodybuilders loading up on androgens so they can increase visceral fat?  Do women with larger waists have higher levels of androgens?  Etc.

The science only needs to be partially accurate, so long as she generates the conclusion she wants: 

Cortisol, a hormone that helps the body deal with stressful situations, also increases fat carried around the waist.

Saying cortisol helps the body deal with stressful situations is like saying getting shot in the face helps you deal with the pain of being shot.

III.   The Bell Curve

It's important to understand that she's not trying to promote a theory that androgens are good-- if she was, she'd measure them directly, or use a better proxy (muscle mass, bone density, etc)- she's trying to come up with a justification for why an "imperfect body" is better than an hourglass.

In addition, past research has revealed that men prefer a ratio of 0.7 or lower when looking for a mate. The preference makes perfect sense, according to evolutionary psychologists, because the low ratio is a reliable signal of a healthy, fertile woman.  Along those lines, Playboy centerfolds tend to have a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.68, Cashdan found.
So if all this is true, what lead her to think that larger waist size was a health and economic advantage, not simply unrelated, or even a disadvantage?  You're going to want to lie down; within any scientific article that isn't scientific lurks a social agenda, and here it is:

Until now, scientists (and apparently Western society) thought a curvy figure trumped other body shapes... However, women around the world tend to have larger waist-to-hip ratios (more cylindrical than hourglass-shaped) than is considered optimal by these medical and social standards.

That's it.  Don't bother looking for more, there isn't any: most women don't have hourglass figures, ergo it's not optimal.

Here's what's wrong with America, right here:

Specifically, Cashdan compiled data from 33 non-Western populations and four European populations, finding the average waist-to-hip ratio for women was above 0.8. So if 0.7 is the magic number both in terms of health and male mate choice, Cashdan wondered why most women exhibit a significantly higher ratio.

She can't understand why the ideal isn't the same as the average.  So she wants to create reasons why the average is the ideal. 

"Waist-to-hip ratio may indeed be a useful signal to men, then, but whether men prefer a [waist-to-hip ratio] associated with lower or higher androgen/estrogen ratios (or value them equally) should depend on the degree to which they want their mates to be strong, tough, economically successful and politically competitive," Cashdan writes.
Got that? If he prefers the hourglass figure, it means he wants weak and submissive women.  If he prefers the larger type, he wants someone strong who votes.

She's replacing old stereotypes with new ones. "All blondes are dumb" may be a heuristic we use, but we have the common sense not to admit it because it's a debasement, like currency: you artificially lower its value so you can get more from it.  What makes Cashdan's stereotype particularly dangerous is it is a debasement pretending to be a positive.  Here's the reverse of Cashdan's argument: "See? being dumb is good, because then you don't have to worry about all that science!  A man will handle all that!"

These are just empty words, asserted as fact.  Unfortunately, asserted by one with authority.

IV. "You're Paranoid Again."

You say: who cares about this study?  First, that this sophistry is an an academic journal is bad enough-- it takes on the the status of "knowledge"-- and people can even use it as support for more sophistry.  Deny this isn't possible:

It has been shown that androgens can increase strength and economic advantage in women (Cashdan 2008.)
And then dare to try and publish against it.

Worse, the article made it all the way to the popular press-- or was that the point?-- even Newsweek crowed with glee, "Hourglass Figures: We Take It All Back"-- which means it becomes part of the knowledge base of people.  Even if they're skeptical, they have to contend with it.

Do you think this is about making women feel better, or bashing male stereotypes?  It's about taking one's own opinions about society and using "science" to affirm them. You'll be seeing a lot of this in the era of Keynesian Psychiatry.  Debasements pretending to be positives.  Explanations using "evolution," or worse, "evolutionary psychology."  And, of course, the insistence that someone pay for it.