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Evolutionary Psychology and the Beauty Myth?. Charles Crawford Department of Psychology Simon Fraser University Burnaby, BC, Canada, V 5A 1S6 E-mail: crawford@sfu.ca Website: http://www.sfu.ca/faculty/crawford. A Central Problem for Humans. How can we set up societies

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evolutionary psychology and the beauty myth

Evolutionary Psychology and the Beauty Myth?

Charles Crawford

Department of Psychology

Simon Fraser University

Burnaby, BC, Canada, V 5A 1S6

E-mail: crawford@sfu.ca

Website: http://www.sfu.ca/faculty/crawford

a central problem for humans
A Central Problem for Humans
  • How can we set up societies
    • that are founded on moral principles, and yet
    • are pliable and comfortable enough for people so that the society will persist?
  • Example: Collapse of the USSR
  • Resolving “naturalistic” and “moralistic” fallacies
  • Is there a role for evolutionary psychology?
the beauty myth
The Beauty Myth
  • Standards of human physical beauty are arbitrary.
  • Individual3s are very susceptible to cultural pressures to conform.
  • The media in western cultures impose beauty standards.
  • Men somehow use the “beauty myth” to control and oppress women.
blame for standards of beauty
Blame for Standards of Beauty
  • “Oh my God, we are so sick in this society.”
    • “Better watch out girl. You're getting a little broad across the beam.”
  • “I believe in sin, therefore in a sinner; in theft, therefore in a thief; in slavery, therefore in a slaveholder; in wrong, therefore in a wrong-doer.” William Lloyd Garrison/Naomi Wolf The Beauty Myth
today s talk
Today’s Talk
  • Physical beauty: What it may tell us
    • Fluctuating body asymmetry
    • Waist-to-hip ratio.
  • The thin female physique
    • Reproduction suppression model of anorexic behaviour.
    • empirical support for it.
assessing quality of prospective mate
Assessing Quality of Prospective Mate
  • Qualities: May not be directly observable
    • Resources
    • Fertility
    • Parental care
    • Parasite resistance
  • Assessing health, fertility,...
    • Body asymmetry
    • Waist-to-hip ratio
fluctuating body asymmetry
Fluctuating Body Asymmetry
  • Genes produce the basic design of organs.
  • Environmental conditions and genetic quality impact on expression of the design.
  • Many traits bilaterally symmetric in design.
  • Asymmetry results from imprecise expression of the design.
  • It can indicate poor genes or high levels of environmental stress.

What is being


dev singh waist to hip ratio
Dev Singh: Waist-to-hip Ratio
  • Ratio of waist to hip measurements
  • Women: WHR = 0.7
  • Cross cultural evidence
  • Indicator of health
  • Body scarification
adaptations tools for ancestral survival and reproduction
Adaptations: Tools for Ancestral Survival and Reproduction
  • Fever fighting parasites
  • Upright walking
  • Assessing Waist-to-Hip Ratio in choosing a mate
  • Assessing Fluctuating Body Asymmetry in choosing a mate
  • Detecting cheaters on social contracts
adaptations as information processors
Adaptations as Information Processors
  • a set of genetically-coded developmental processes that enabled ancestral organisms to implement cost-benefit analyses in response to specific sets of environmental contingencies, and
  • that organized the effector processes for dealing with those contingencies so that the allele(s) producing the decision processes were reproduced better than alternate allele(s)
  • examples: recognizing kin, forming social contracts, deceiving oneself, choosing mate,...
evolutionary psychology defined
Evolutionary Psychology Defined
  • Problems humans encountered in the EEA
    • Finding high quality mates.
  • Psychological adaptations that evolved to help solve those problems
    • Assessing Waist-to-hip ratio/Symmetry.
  • The way those adaptations function now
    • Women in advertisements, TV, & movies
anorexic behaviour
Anorexic Behaviour
  • Disturbance in way body weight/shape is experienced
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Amenorrhea
  • Most common in:
    • Young women
    • Industrialized countries
    • Upper status women
non evolutionary explanations
Non Evolutionary Explanations
  • Sociocultural
  • Taking control
  • Family pathology
  • Political:
    • Men want power over women.
    • “Juvenile” women easier to control.
    • Men “juvenilize” women to control them.
  • Others...
unanswered questions
Unanswered Questions
  • What is it about industrialization that encourages a thin standard of beauty?
  • Why do some girls progress to very thin levels of emaciation?
  • Why do we not see “pathologies” associated with other aspects of attractiveness, i.e. eyelashes?
  • What environmental variables drive the passion for thinness?
  • What are the relations to the physiology of ovulation, menstruation, and hunger?
adaptive reproductive suppression
Adaptive Reproductive Suppression
  • Female reproduction is very costly.
  • Individuals can improve their lifetime reproductive success by delaying reproduction if current conditions for reproducing are poor, but are expected to improve.
  • Value of body fat for women:
    • Insulation
    • Storage of calories
    • Regulation of reproduction
hypothesized stresses that may make delay adaptive
Hypothesized Stresses that May Make Delay Adaptive
  • High levels of:
    • Female-female competition
    • Attention from undesirable males
  • Exacerbating conditions:
    • Fat-rich diet
    • Work needed to raise body fat level
    • Early puberty relative to social maturity
female female competition initial naive predictions
Female-Female Competition: Initial Naive Predictions
  • 1. Incidence will be positively correlated with social status
    • Reason: Female-female competition is more intense in upper status groups.
  • 2. Incidence will be increasing in societies where the age of puberty is falling
    • Reason: Changes in diet, etc. producing earlier physical maturation do not necessarily cause earlier psychological maturity.
female female competition initial naive predictions1
Female-Female Competition: Initial Naive Predictions
  • 3. As the level of female-female competition increases women are expected to increasingly value thinness.
    • Reason: Since reproductive suppression mechanisms are being activated at a low level in many women thinness will become attractive to many women.
  • 4. As women gain political and social skills incidence will begin to decline
    • Reason: Avoidance of stresses
how do we validate evolutionary explanations
How do we Validate Evolutionary Explanations?
  • by modeling ancestral selection processes to determine if the adaptation could have evolved
  • cross cultural studies to determine how the adaptation functions in different environments
  • experimental studies to make causal statements about psychological mechanisms
  • locating the basis of the adaptation in nervous and endocrine systems to give biological credibility
modeling ancestral fitness costs and benefits
Modeling Ancestral Fitness Costs and Benefits
  • Explain: Contribution to ancestral fitness
  • Predictor variables:
    • Reproductive effort - Now/Later
    • Reproductive success - Now/Later
    • Reproductive value - Now/Later
  • Parameters:
    • c = cost of delay
    • k = effect of reproducing now.
environmental variability in standards of beauty
Environmental Variability: In Standards of Beauty
  • Human Relations Area files
  • 63 societies
  • Dependent variable: Standards of beauty
    • plump/fat, moderate fatness, slim.
  • Independent variables: Predictors of standards of beauty for several hypotheses
    • latitude, protection of girls, menstrual taboos, value of women’s work,...
some hypotheses
Some Hypotheses
  • Whims of fashion
  • Food security
  • Latitude
  • Battle of the sexes - control of fertility
  • Value of female work
  • Adaptive reproductive suppression
food security climate
Food Security & Climate
  • Independent variable: Food
    • Results: Societies with unreliable food supply have plump standard of beauty (r = 0.28)
  • Independent variable: Latitude
    • Results: Societies with high latitude have plump standard of beauty (r = 0.273)
battle of the sexes fertility male female battleground
Battle of the Sexes: Fertility Male-female Battleground
  • Independent variables: Dominance, Machismo, value of female life, courtship choice, control of sex
  • Results:
    • Strong emphasis on machismo have plump standard of beauty (r = 0.433).
    • Husbands dominate wives (r = 0.426).
value of women s work
Value of Women’s Work
  • Independent variables: value of female work, menstrual taboos
  • Results:
    • Few menstrual restrictions (r = 0.377)
    • Female work (r = 0.284)
adaptive reproductive suppression protection
Adaptive Reproductive Suppression: Protection
  • Independent variables: Risk associated with reproduction
  • Societies with high probability of adverse consequences of sexual maturation have slender standard of beauty
    • Exposure, premarital sex, illegitimacy attitude (r = 0.234)
    • Sexual expression, permission (r = 0.325)
adaptive reproductive suppression female dominance
Adaptive Reproductive Suppression: Female Dominance
  • Multiple regression of beauty on dominance measures for 62 societies
  • Results:
    • With female dominance (R2 = 0.423)
    • Without female dominance (R2 = 0.209)
  • Female power associated with slender standard of beauty.
experimental studies of psychological mechanisms
Experimental Studies of Psychological Mechanisms
  • Causal statements about psychological mechanisms
  • Experimentally manipulate:
    • Nature of delay: Indeterminate / Determinant
    • Reproductive stress: Female-female competition, undesirable male attention
    • Non reproductive stress: Gardening, Hospital visit
  • Susceptibility measures

Experimental Design

Control group Experimental group

Pre test

Yes Yes



Low High

Post test

Yes Yes

pre and post tests
Pre and Post Tests
  • Pre tests: Indicators of susceptibility on:
    • Interoceptive awareness
    • Interpersonal distrust
    • Ineffectiveness
  • Post tests: Effects of the imagined stress on:
    • Drive for thinness
    • Body dissatisfaction
    • Maturity fears
female female competition
Female-female Competition





unanswered questions1
Unanswered Questions
  • What is it about industrialization - thin standard of beauty? Stress: Duration & intensity
  • Why do some girls progress to very thin levels of emaciation? Vulnerability, stress
  • “Pathologies” associated with other aspects of attractiveness, i.e. eyelashes? Reproduction
  • What environmental variables drive the passion for thinness? Competition, attention, others
  • What are the relations to the physiology of ovulation, menstruation, and hunger????????

Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth

Anorexia is spreading because it works. Not only does it solve the dilemma of the young woman faced with the hunger cult, it also protects her from street harassment and sexual coercion; construction workers leave walking skeletons alone. Having no fat means having no breasts, thighs, hips, or ass, which for once means not having asked for it.

Woman’s magazines tell woman they can control their bodies; but women’s experiences of sexual harassment make them feel they cannot control what their bodies are said to provoke.

members of evolutionary psychology laboratory
Members of Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory
  • Charles Crawford, Judith Anderson
  • Sally Walters, Joanne Nadeau
  • Maria Janicki, Gerald Beroldi
  • Martin Renaud, Windy Brown
  • Laura Dane, Larua Ward, Erica Nance,
  • Oonagh Zuberbier
naturalistic fallacy what is is what ought to be
Naturalistic Fallacy: “What is, is what ought to be.
  • Women are more caring than men...
  • Men are more sexually aggressive than women...
  • Men’s sexual jealousy...
  • Women care for children...
the moralistic fallacy what ought to be is what is
The Moralistic Fallacy: “What ought to be is what is.”
  • Women ought to be more caring than men...
  • Abortion ought to have no negative effects...
  • Coercion ought not to be involved in sexuality...
  • Men and women ought to have the same sexual agendas...
wilson on natural selection and the human mind
Wilson on Natural Selection and the Human Mind
  • Camus said that the only serious philosophical question is suicide. That is wrong even in the strict sense intended. The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions--hate, love, guilt, fear, and others--that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil. What, we are then compelled to ask, made the hypothalamus and limbic system? They evolved by natural selection. The simple biological statement must be pursued to explain ethics and ethical philosophers, if not epistemology and epistemologists, at all depths. (Edward O. Wilson, 1975)