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Methodological issues in judgements of female body Attractiveness

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Melissa BatesonORCiD, Dr Piers Cornelissen, Dr Martin Tovee


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Evolutionary models of mate choice predict that we should be sensitive to the cues in a potential partner that signal honest information about their mate quality (i.e., their health and reproductive potential). Individuals displaying cues indicative of high quality should be judged as more sexually attractive than those signalling lower quality. In recent years, much research in evolutionary psychology has focussed on applying this approach to understanding variation in the attractiveness of female body shapes. Several features of a body’s size and shape have been suggested as potential indices of mate quality based on biological data linking these indices to measures of health and fertility. In order to prove the relationship between a specific index of body shape and attractiveness, the research strategy typically adopted has been to generate a series of bodies varying in the index of interest and investigate whether this variable explains attractiveness judgements. These studies tend to use artificial stimuli in the form of either line-drawn figures or digitally-manipulated photographs for two reasons. First, if stimuli are generated artificially then it is possible to exaggerate the variation in the index of interest, thus ensuring that the variation is sufficient to affect attractiveness judgements. Second, it is assumed that if only the index of interest is varied and other features that might play a role in attractiveness judgements are not explicitly altered, then it follows that any correlated variation in attractiveness judgements must prove that the explicitly varied index must be the cue used in making these judgements. These two goals produce two interrelated problems. First, extreme variation in an index may result in unrealistic bodies. Second, variation in one index of body shape is difficult or impossible to achieve without simultaneously varying other indices. This co-variation problem can make it difficult to disambiguate which physical feature is responsible for producing a change in the attractiveness percept. In this chapter we discuss these problems inherent in the use of artificial stimulus sets, and demonstrate how they can lead to misleading conclusions about which physical features are the true focus of attractiveness judgements. We explore how these problems can be reduced by the use of stimulus sets based on naturally occurring variation in female body shape.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Bateson M, Cornelissen PL, Tovée MJ

Editor(s): Furnham, A; Swami, V

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: The Body Beautiful: Evolutionary and Socio-cultural Perspectives

Year: 2007

Pages: 46-62

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Place Published: Basingstoke, UK

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780230521865