TABLOID newspapers take a prurient interest in women who flaunt their curves. The role of the media, and other cultural forces, in constructing notions of female beauty is often discussed. But “Curvology”, a new book by David Bainbridge, focuses on the part played by evolution in men’s—and women’s—understanding and appreciation of the undulations of the female form. Men’s and women’s bodies differ more than is necessary simply to gestate, bear and nourish children. Why?
The simple answer, suggests Mr Bainbridge, a British reproductive biologist and veterinary anatomist, is that those curvy bums and boobs, the straight “enviable pins” that newspapers salivate over, ensure the future of humankind. They are proof that a woman was well-nourished while growing up and carries good child-feeding genes. He explains in such terms the changes in women’s bodies throughout their lives: it makes evolutionary sense for new couples to plump up—in comparison with when they were single—as this provides both of them with a fatty fallback for when they begin the arduous task of reproducing the species.
For many this book will be uncomfortable reading. Humans are uneasy with the idea that they have overcome so few of their baser urges and that appearance matters so much, argues Mr Bainbridge. But these urges have existed for as long as people have desired each other enough to want to have sex. That long heritage cannot be erased, he writes, “just because it makes us queasy”.
Curvology: The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape. By David Bainbridge. Granta; 227 pages; £14.99.
The author raises interesting questions about the evolutionary explanations for eating disorders—though his answers are highly speculative. Episodes of bingeing and starvation were normal features of pre-agricultural life; some animals still reduce their intake in winter. Eating disorders, the author writes, could be “evolutionary relics of a time when our food supply was unpredictable”.
Some of his other observations will seem facile, especially to female readers—the notion that clothes do more than passively shroud and protect a person’s body but become part of their psychology comes as no revelation. But the book’s ultimate question, what does it mean to be a woman and to balance the “ancient conflicting demands of food, shape and success in a modern, unnatural world”, is one worth asking, even if Mr Bainbridge does not quite answer it.
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