It’s gratifying to see that feminism is back in vogue. You might not think Miley Cyrus – and the rest – are the best spokespeople for women’s equal rights and opportunities but at least the debates are out there and it feels like feminism is no longer a label young women are eschewing because of the perceived connotations of radical, ugly, bra-burning men-haters.
Yeah it’s hard for a bitch out there, but I would take issue with some of her whingeing actually. “If you’re not a size six and you’re not good looking, well you better be rich or be real good at cooking.”
Well yeah and what? To be attractive you have to have something going for you yes? Although I’d extend the potential list of sexy attributes a lot further than these, to cut it you need to have a good helping of what scientists call ‘mate value’. If you want a desirable partner, you need something good to offer – no point in moaning about it – and it’s true of men and women alike.
But the something doesn’t have to be gigantic boobs and a gravity-defying pair of buns.
Agreed we’ve got a way to go, but the good news is that these days there are lots more different ways to be appealing as a mate, if that’s what you want to be. If we’re talking about women; gone are the days, in western societies at least, when the only option is to be a baby making machine and keep home for your husband, with the implication that if you’re rubbish at that then you are, well, rubbish. Because women these days have the option of being and doing so many different things, we have more ways to be attractive.
You could be a top-level athlete for example – that’s pretty damn sexy – but media-induced ideas of the perfect body, along with a bunch of hostile tweets about her size have been enough to reduce poor Rebecca Adlington to tears on I’m a celebrity.
Allen understands this. She said to the Observer it’s all about ownership and empowerment: “I’d like to think that my children’s generation won’t feel like this. Like I do. I want them to realise that not everyone can be fucking ‘hot’. Rather than attractiveness being the end prize, it should be as rewarding to be clever or funny, or, you know,” she says, striding across the studio, “have your, your ‘thing’.”
But y’know you can be ‘hot’ without an ultra-feminine bod. If we’re talking about being attractive to men then it really depends on the man obviously. Different men put different priorities on their partner being clever, funny, ambitious, artistic, hard-working and so on, and these priorities influence what physical attributes they find attractive.
Let’s take a look at waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) for example. Women with small waists compared to their hip circumference – those with an hour-glass figure in other words – tend to be healthier and more fertile than their thicker waisted counterparts, and all else being equal, such a shape tends also to be the most attractive to men. The average WHR for playboy models is 0.68 but the average for regular women in most places is over 0.8.
But anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan of the University of Utah argues that the reason that most women have a higher WHR than is supposedly optimal is that bigger waists have advantages of their own and there’s a trade-off going on. She points out that women with higher WHRs have higher levels of testosterone and cortisol, which she suggests may help them outcompete their wasp-waisted sisters in resource competition, especially under stressful circumstances, and this could be a big advantage where women are charged with bringing home the bacon.
And it seems that men find a higher WHR more attractive during hard times. One study tracking socioeconomic changes from 1960 to 2000 found that the waist circumference of playboy models increased during periods of recession.
Cashdan also points out that the importance men place on an hour-glass figure varies depending on sex roles in a given population. She cites studies showing that in relatively gender-egalitarian countries like Britain or Denmark, men place less value on a low WHR than do men in countries such as Greece, Japan and Portugal. The best shape to be depends on who’s looking and what else you’re offering.
So ‘if you’re not size 6 and you’re not good looking’ then you better have something else for sure. But perhaps one of the important jobs for feminism these days is to convince both women and men that we can all be hot in our own way – if we even want to be.