16 November 1998

Children see beauty in numbers

Children's ideas of bodily attractiveness develop between the school years of grade five and grade eight, according to a University of Queensland study.

For her honours thesis with the School of Psychology, Jennifer Connolly investigated at what age children's ideas of bodily attractiveness in men and women began to resemble those of adults.

Previous studies suggest that adults judge women of an average weight with waist-to-hip ratios (WHR) of 0.7 and men of an average weight with WHRs of 0.9 as being the most attractive and healthy.

However, no previous studies have focused on children's connections, if any, between WHR in men and women and ideas on attractiveness and health.

The WHR is calculated by dividing the waist circumference by the hips' circumference. For example, a woman with a waist measurement of 55cm and a hip measurement of 78cm would have a WHR of 0.7.

The thesis was supervised by School Associate Professors Linda Mealey and Virginia Slaughter.

According to Dr Mealey, the 0.7 WHR is thought to have an evolutionary origin.

"This WHR acts as a signal of youth, inner health and reproductive ability. Women in their 20s are more likely to have WHRs of 0.7, a ratio which gets bigger the older you get," she said.

"Although there have been changes in society's ideals about women's weight and we know people are getting taller, this WHR has remained constant. The curves are still there."

Ms Connolly showed 55 adults the silhouettes of men and women with a range of different WHRs in three weight categories. She found most of the adults preferred average-weight women with a WHR of 0.7 and average-weight men with a WHR of 0.9.

Her results supported those reported by University of Texas Professor of Psychology Devendra Singh in his long-running studies showing the same figures to adults in the United States, India and England.

However, Ms Connolly's study represents the first time children's preferences have been surveyed. She showed the figures to 511 Brisbane children and found their preferences for the 0.7 WHR female and 0.9 WHR male developed over time.

"In grade 1, children are indiscriminate in the figures they select as being the most attractive. However, by grade five, the preference for the 0.9 male has emerged among both sexes and the preference for the 0.7 female has emerged by grade eight," Ms Connolly said.

"While it is still unclear as to why there is this discrepancy, one possible explanation could be that as girls mature earlier than boys, a preference for an older, fitter-looking male shape is already beginning to emerge in grade five."

Ms Connolly said her results showed children were socialised into their preferences for particular body shapes.

"This socialisation is probably most influenced by peer group pressure and children's own observations of theirs' and others' changing body shapes rather than by the media or parents," Dr Mealey said.

Ms Connolly will present her findings to the Australasian Society for Human Biology conference in Perth in December. Her paper will then be published in the Perspectives in Human Biology journal.

For more information, contact Ms Connolly (telephone 07 3871 1153) or Dr Mealey (telephone 07 3365 6727).