Sunday, May 30,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 4

Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

Fat Hopes

Women lament this unfairness but it has to do with their mother role. And beauty is no guarantee of happiness. It's best to find your comfort zone

FAT is, of course, not a feminist issue, but a mammalian one. All mammals store fat, and it is only well-fed humans who fret about it.

We all love a burly bear. But did you know that bears only eat plenty of fish and put on a lot of weight just before they hibernate in winter, and that during spring and summer, they eat fewer fish despite the abundance in the lakes and streams?

They don't want the fat to weigh them down and heat them up when the weather is warm. Bears can't have will power, or so we'll like to believe, so it must be a chemical switch in their brains which turns on the springtime self-control. If only humans are blessed with that switch, you sigh.

Fat, sadly, is all about location. Women don't mind, or in fact welcome, fat in their breasts, but when it starts jiggling in the thighs and buttocks, they can get into a blue funk.

Let me start with the breasts: Human females are the only mammals who develop rounded breasts at puberty and keep them, whether or not they are producing milk. Other mammals have breasts that swell only when they are full of milk, collapsing when breastfeeding is over.

Since sex is all about reproduction, not recreation, breasts aren't sexy to, say, chimps or gorillas, because they indicate a pregnant and, hence, infertile female.

But why is the human female bosom a sexual turn-on?

Sex for many women and men today may not be about reproduction, but evolutionary change hasn't caught up with the great cultural shift of the second half of this century, when the introduction of the pill and the emancipation of women in developed countries have led to radical changes in the relationship between the sexes.

For 99 per cent of the history of our species, we lived as hunter-gatherers, and over hundreds of thousands of years, we have evolved body signals to advertise our potential for reproductive success, much like the peacock does with its otherwise biologically-useless tail.

An ample bosom may be an honest-to-goodness signal to advertise the fact that it has enough fat reserves to see through a pregnancy.

But at least one anthropologist maintains that breasts evolved really as deceptive signals, to give females the appearance of having a good supply of milk. This is, of course, challenged by those who say that men are not going to get excited by a woman's breasts if they remind him of milk jugs only.

Desmond Morris -- he of The Naked Ape fame -- has a more interesting take on the subject. He says that men find large, upright breasts appealing because they mimic the appearance of sexual excitement, when breasts get firmer and more rounded and the nipples pointier.

Don't laugh, but the whole thrust of the learned gentleman's argument rests on the premise that this mimicry evolved only because humans developed face-to-face bonding.

To keep men and women face to face during sex instead of glancing behind or elsewhere, breasts serve as attractors where men's eyes are. Most animals mate from behind, and so have evolved brightly coloured or fleshy rumps.

Those women whom nature is less generous with may lament their lack, but those who are favoured, may not always be grateful for it. For a large top can often get in the way of even something as mundane as moving the arms to reach for the salt on the other side of the table, not to mention the backache its weight can often cause.

Those of you who read us here -- and many thanks for the indulgence -- may remember my colleague Sumiko Tan's brave front on the topic recently. Her happy conclusion is that many men still prefer an Audrey Hepburn to a Pamela Anderson.

But thin as Hepburn may be, her 31.5-22-31 figure still yields a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7, which is the same as that of Marilyn Monroe's voluptuous 36-24-34. Which is also the ratio that men have an innate preference for, although they may not be conscious of it, as researchers have found.

Twiggy, who supposedly launched the trend of the Thin Model in the '60s, might have weighed only 92 pounds in her heyday. But her 31-24-33 figure gave her a near-ideal ratio of 0.73.

A small waist-to-hip ratio has been found to correlate with youth, health, fertility, not being pregnant and never having been pregnant.

It is the "callous reckoning of natural selection", as Steven Pinker, the celebrated author of How The Mind Works, puts it, but young women who have not yet produced children are the best wives because they have the longest reproductive career ahead of them and have no children from another man tagging along.

Besides in the breasts, fat in women is also located mainly in their buttocks and thighs. Again, this has to do with reproduction, or so says the cognitive psychologist Nancy Etcoff in her book, Survival Of The Prettiest -- The Science Of Beauty (1999).

Fat is stored in these regions so that the body has enough calories to complete a pregnancy and lactation successfully, even during an ensuing famine. And this is precisely why diet will tend to take weight off the upper body and the breasts before the thighs and buttocks. Fat here is rarely used by the body except during pregnancy.

THIN is in, at least on the TV screen and in women's magazines. But Etcoff points out that there is no evolutionary precedent for the thin ideal today. Natural selection should work against such a preference since women with eating disorders suffer disruptions in fertility and reproduction.

Recent experiments with rats and mice though may offer interesting implications for the modern woman. The laboratory animals placed on severely restricted diets, but with all the necessary nutrients, have been found to live longer (up to 30 per cent longer), and their fertility remaining in a state of suspended animation. They can reproduce once they are given food. Middle-aged mice which have been put on the diets actually have ovaries that age more slowly.

So some psychologists are now saying that restricted eating by women may be an unconscious strategy to delay reproduction. Which sounds plausible, since many women in developed countries choose to marry later.

But to be thin and beautiful is not a guarantee of happiness, just as to be fat does not mean a life of misery. Each of us has a genetic set point in our weight, and another in our temperament. All we can do is to try to live just above or below those set points, whichever is the better, and be comfortable with ourselves.


Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia