Shapely centrefolds? Temporal change in body measures: trend analysis

Questionable data overlooks a deeper significance

27 May 2003

Editor,

Having obtained and worked with Playboy centrefold data, I am very much aware of their limitations and must question their veracity. These data consist of date and place of birth, height, weight, and bust, waist and hip circumferences. At best these data can only be described as self reported - but how are they determined?

Are we to assume that the model, when asked, gets out a tape measure and measures herself? (One doubts whether the journalist who collects these data does it for her.) But there is surely no standardised technique. It is also noticeable that measurements are usually rounded to the inch. Measurements to the half-inch have been reported but infrequently. We must be very weary when so many measurements fit exactly to our unit of measurement. Furthermore, bust measurements are most frequently even numbered with relatively few odd numbered (and even fewer half-inch) sizes reported. Since bras tend to be sold in even numbered sizes (that rise in 2” increments), this suggests that the bust data reported may simply be a statement of bra sizes. In fact, how else is the centrefold going to be able to report cup size! The same goes for the other circumferences, which may well be derived from clothe sizes.

I am informed that dress sizes can vary markedly. For example, one designer’s size 8 is another’s size 10, yet both can fit the same woman perfectly. Confronted with being able to get into two different sizes, and having to go public about one’s measurements, what is the model to do? In the fiercely competitive world of modelling, what are the influences that lead her to choose which measurements to divulge? Does she pick the larger or smaller size? Does she perhaps pick and mix, choosing perhaps the size 10 bust and the size 8 waist and hips? Thus, we must be very circumspect concerning inferences about the bodies that occupy the clothes that describe them.

The data may suggest that the values for calculated body mass index are sometimes worryingly low but do the models actually look emaciated? I am unaware of any author of papers using ‘centrefold’ data ever having admitted to looking at the pictures. Just as the centrefold data are freely available on the Internet (Playboy’s own website even provides such a resource – http://www.playboy.com/playmates/directory/yearmonth.html), so too are all of the centrefold images - one does not have to buy or thumb through library copies of every issue. Although it may not appear seemly to have looked (or, at least, to admit to having done so) with due professional detachment, it is not inappropriate to survey the centrefold image in pursuit of what it is conveying. This I have recently attempted to do {1} – a brief report having been presented at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Human Biology at Cambridge.

Centrefold models are, I believe, conveying a biological message about why men should be interested in them. They may be what we call ‘sexy’ but first and foremost they are healthy. As I suggested at the SSHB meeting – ‘there is no sex appeal without health appeal’. Looking at a centrefold model, there are no external physical signs of anything untoward - quite the opposite. The image is carefully constructed so as to give the best possible impression.

Singh {2} suggests, "psychological mechanisms used to assess body shape should be designed to detect relative variation rather than some absolute optimum." That (to use his phrase) "local conditions" influence attitudes about attractiveness is no doubt true but the extent of the relativism within the psychological mechanisms must be questioned. The impression that the centrefold has on her viewer is much greater than what the reported data could be made to infer. In terms of her physique, she may be said to occupy a place within the greater ‘morphological space’ of all female physiques. The centrefold resides in the area of that space that is deemed ‘attractive’. Styles and tastes may change and the ‘attractive’ area may shift within the overall space but it will never swap places with the area deemed ‘ugly’. This, I suggest, is because we have innate responses towards other people’s bodies that gravitate us towards ‘attractive’ and (perhaps more importantly) away from ‘unattractive’ body types. There is adaptive advantage in this. Whether or not Voracek and Fisher {3} are right in their conclusions about temporal changes in the physique of centrefold models, I believe one thing will always remain constant: that the ‘attractiveness’ of the centrefold model reflects a fundamental optimum biological state that we call ‘health’. Until very recently, we have only been able to assess another’s biological state by judging their external appearance. This is exactly what mate choice relies upon. Choosing the best available partner with whom to share one’s genes (in the form of shared offspring) is an important biological decision.

Helena Cronin {4} remarks in ‘The Ant and the Peacock’ that “fruit tastes sweet, not nutritious” (p189). That is, biologically, we are geared to like sweet food and as a consequence, by seeking out the same, we unwittingly obtain the nutrients essential at cell level. Biologically, males are geared to prefer attractive women. By seeking out attractive women, men unwittingly obtain healthy partners with whom they can produce healthy, viable children essential, as it were, at gene level.

References

1. Lewis, S. What the ‘body-beautiful’ might be telling us about the ‘body-healthy’ Ann. Hum. Biol. [ABSTRACT IN PRESS] Transcript available at: http://www.chester.ac.uk/~sjlewis/DM/May03Paper.htm

2. Singh, D. Evolutionary explanations of attractive female body shape require greater temporal perspective. BMJ.com, Rapid Response, 22nd Feb. 2003.

3. Voracek, M, and Fisher, ML. Shapely centrefolds? Temporal change in body measures: trend analysis. BMJ 2002; 325: 1447-1448.

4. Cronin, H. The Ant and the Peacock. 1991; Cambridge University Press.

Competing interests:   None declared

Competing interests: None declared

Stephen J Lewis, Senior Lecturer (Biological Sciences)

Chester College. CH1 4BJ

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