Curvology: the Origins and Power of Female Body Shape
Kate Chisolm on a study that seeks an evolutionary explanation for the shape of a woman's body
This book sets out to seek "the origins and power of female body shape". Inevitably, in such a study there is much discussion of curvaceous bosoms and equally alluring bottoms. How else, perhaps, could the human female shape be described? Yet in these supposedly enlightened times it's odd to find yourself reading a book that talks about women with such blokeish reductionism. What are we supposed to make of comments like: "You might expect that a few thousand years of sexual selection by men would result in every woman having a body like Beyoncé or Bardot"?
The book's author, David Bainbridge, is a veterinary surgeon who moved from healing animals into a broader study of animal behaviour and from there into the realms of evolutionary biology. His previous books, which include Teenagers: a Natural History and Middle Age: a Natural History, have investigated human behaviour from the perspective of his zoological training, with surprising and often controversial results. Teenage behaviour, for example, was portrayed not as a social construct, a product of the wealth and leisure of the late 20th century, but as a consequence of evolution. That long period of rebellion enables brainpower to develop, helping us to succeed as individuals. Just what the parents of teenagers want to read.
Curvology, in contrast, appears to have been written deliberately to infuriate half its readership. "This is a book about the female body," Bainbridge begins, "and why it has turned out to be the strangest thing in existence." Strange? To whom? He says that one of the reasons he wanted to write the book was to find out why we were the only species in existence "with curvy females". Is that true? Bainbridge's only justification for saying so is that we would never think of describing a she-monkey as "curvaceous" or a female pig as "buxom". But what does this tell us?
He wonders why women spend so much time thinking about their bodies "and to a level of complexity and subtlety which amazes most men". But he then tells us that "a picture is emerging, and perhaps a slightly disheartening picture, which places visual appearance at the centre of human female life". Studies, which he does not identify, have apparently shown that "people are more likely to help, employ, give a reduced prison sentence to, want to be friends with, or admit to university, attractive women with high status". If you're one of the 9pc of women blessed with an hourglass figure, with a bust and hip size almost the same, complemented by a tiny waist, then it seems you're more likely to be successful.
Is it any wonder, then, that a reported 87pc of women attempt to enhance their body shape by dieting?
Bainbridge is a victim of our own confused understanding of the relations between the sexes (in spite of equal pay and the possible eventual scrapping of Page 3 in the British tabloids). He wants to believe that his response to the female shape is part of our evolutionary heritage, and that "the elements which make the female body look so distinctive are not just superficial adornments".
Those curvy breasts and bottoms ensure the future health and intelligence of the next generation. That's why they've become the determinants of attraction. How reassuring for a man. But what about for a woman? Why are so many women dissatisfied with their body shape if it's to their evolutionary advantage to be curvaceous? Bainbridge promises to answer this tricky question by the end of his book, but I'm not sure he does.
To be fair, his initial discussion of the body and explanation of why we women have curves is illuminating to me, a non-biologist. He claims that during puberty women lay down between 10 and 20 kilograms of extra adipose tissue (fat to you and me), most of which goes on to the buttocks and thighs. Much of this is later converted into breast milk, which in turn is used by the suckling babe to build up brainpower (unusually in nature, the human brain grows mostly after, rather than before, birth).
As we age and go through the menopause, this fat is lost or moves into the waist area, which makes women more physically efficient. What a female athlete would make of this I'm not sure, but it's cheering news to those of us of more mature years who've discovered fat moving into places we've never seen it before.
More troubling to me was his chapter on eating disorders, in which it soon becomes obvious that Bainbridge is uncomfortable with the idea that these might be mental illnesses. At the same time, he has to concede that they cannot be thought of as a modern condition, a response to the cult of thinness that has beset our contemporary world. They've been around for centuries. Indeed, in his struggle to find an explanation, he suggests that women who voluntarily denied themselves food, visibly shrinking in size, were at one time "like canaries in a coal mine", warning the tribe of impending famine. This could perhaps explain the almost primeval aggression that anorexics arouse in those who are supposed to be treating them. Yet at the same time he suggests that a genetic basis for the condition might be found in autism, without providing any research basis for this.
Such confusions beset this strange and, some might say, worrying book. The first section, setting out the biological arguments for curves, is top-and-tailed with an imagined scene from our evolutionary past: "In the rust-red light of another dawn the girl gazed down at her thighs. She pinched them. . . and she felt them sway slightly whenever she walked. . . She cupped her breasts in her hands."
There's no explanation for these passages; they just appear at the beginning and end of that section. We are presumably meant to take ourselves back into that past, to recapture a world in which body fascism was yet to emerge. But it sits very oddly within a study that intends to work out scientifically why women's bodies are far more shapely than they really need to be and why women dress to impress other women, rather than the men they hope to attract.
Origins and Power of Female Body Shape
Portobello, pbk, 227 pages, £14.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350