April 17, 2010

BEAUTY ISN'T SUBJECTIVE:

The Anatomy of Desire (DANIEL BERGNER, 4/12/10, NY Times Magazine)

The two mannequins stood side by side in the back of the white van. Johan Karremans, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, along with his student and collaborator, Sander Arons, clothed the plastic women identically in tight black tops and dark skirts. Arons then drove the van around the country to the homes of blind men.

The cargo van is one of two mobile labs belonging to the university’s psychology department. Sometimes, outside an elementary school, children climb into the back of a van to have their brain waves tested on a encephalogram machine. But this experiment, the results of which will soon be published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, dealt with desire — in this case the desire of heterosexual men — and was an attempt to gauge the force of culture, to weigh the learned and the innate, in determining sexual attraction.

The headless mannequins, which Karremans bought, he told me recently, “on the Dutch version of Craigslist,” have adjustable waists and hips, and the researchers set each body differently, so that one had a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 and the other of 0.84. Based on a range of studies of male preferences done by other scientists, Karremans chose the lower ratio as an ideal, a slim yet curvy paragon, at least among Western populations. The higher ratio, by contrast, doesn’t represent obesity, just a fullness that falls close to the average woman’s shape.

The study involved men who had been sightless from birth. The idea was that the bombardment of visual media — of models on billboards and actresses on television and porn stars online — which may be so powerful and even dominant in molding desire, couldn’t have had any direct effect on these men, who emerged from the womb into a congenital dark. Would their tastes in women’s bodies match those of men who could see? [...]

Amid all the conflicting evidence, Karremans sent his mannequins around the Netherlands. The blind stood before them; they were told to touch the women, to focus their hands on the waists and hips. The breasts on both figures were the same, in case the men reached too high. The men extended their arms; they ran their hands over the region. Then they scored the attractiveness of the bodies. Karremans had a hunch, he told me, that their ratings wouldn’t match those of the sighted men he used as controls, half of them blindfolded so that they, too, would be judging by feel. It seemed likely, he said, that visual culture would play an overwhelming part in creating the outlines of lust. And though the blind had almost surely grown up hearing attractiveness described, perhaps even in terms of hourglass shapes, it was improbable, he writes in his forthcoming journal paper, that they had heard descriptions amounting to, “The more hourglass shaped, the more attractive,” which would be necessary to favor the curvier mannequin over the figure that was only somewhat less so.

But, with some statistically insignificant variation, the scores of the blind matched those of the sighted. Both groups preferred the more pronounced sweep from waist to hip.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 17, 2010 6:55 AM
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