Evidence That Really Matters

Shapely centrefolds? Temporal change in body measures: trend analysis

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.325.7378.1447 (Published 21 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1447

Questionable data overlooks a deeper significance

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: No competing interests

27 May 2003
Stephen J Lewis
Senior Lecturer (Biological Sciences)
Chester College. CH1 4BJ
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