Sumatran men who love big feet challenge notion of universal beauty
Karo Batak women at work in the fields. A new study that found men of the same culture prefer big-footed women suggests that notions of beauty are not universal. (Photo credit: Geoff Kushnick, University of Washington)
Let's make one thing clear right now: if you got here through furtive googling of the words "feet" and "attractive," you are sure to be disappointed. Off you go.
Everyone else: this is a story about the work of a University of Washington anthropologist named Geoff Kushnick, whose study of the Karo Batak people in North Sumatra, Indonesia, challenges the theory that norms of attractiveness are universally held.
A camp of evolutionary psychologists has argued that standards of beauty -- like waist size and skin texture -- should be shared by all cultures, because they reflect mating preferences that natural selection has encoded into our species from when all homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers. Smooth skin reflects youth, for example, and and therefore also a woman's ability to produce and care for offspring.
Foot size is one of those supposedly universal traits. As Kushnick cites in his paper, previous studies have shown that feet are another "potential index of nubility" because they give away a woman's age and previous pregnancies -- foot size increases as women get older and give birth to more children.
So some anthropologists have argued that the male desire for small feet should be universal: men have evolved to select partners who are at their most fertile and don't have other children to compete for rearing-time, and feet are a signal of those qualities. In fact, a 2005 study of men in nine different cultures showed that the majority of men preferred women with small feet.
But the Karo Batak upend that notion, according to Kushnick's new study, which is published in the most recent issue of the journal Human Nature.
Kushnick tested 159 Karo Batak men and women, an agricultural society living in north Sumatra with low exposure to Western culture. The men were asked to choose the most attractive image from a range of five different subtly altered pictures of women: one with "baseline" foot size, two with feet slightly smaller than that image, and two with feet larger. The photos were otherwise identical.
The Karo Batak men "revealed a striking preference for images of women with big feet," Kushnick notes. His results were the exact opposite of the 2005 study that sampled nine different cultures: the mean most attractive image was one of a woman with bigger feet than the baseline image.
Kushnick theorizes that preference for large feet may have something to do with exposure to western media (less of it) and living in rural societies, where larger foot size has greater value. As Kushnick quotes one man overheard by his research team: "Why would anyone like a woman with small feet? How would she work in the rice field?"
The research, Kushnick says, shows that its possible for culture to drive mating preferences and natural selection.
In re-examing the 2005 study, Kushnick also broke down foot-size preference by culture. While it is true that in aggregate most men across the cultures preferred smaller feet, more men in Iran, India, Lithuania, Brazil, and the U.S. preferred small feet while more men in Cambodia, Tanzania, and Papau New Guinea preferred women with large feet. Two of the cultures sampled in those last three countries were rural, which Kushnick says is statistically significant.
Kushnick doesn't debate, however, one rather discouraging finding:
"It appears to be universal that females put relatively more weight on mating with males with greater social status, and males put relatively more weight on the attractiveness of potential female partners."
"Perhaps the rules of the mating game are transmitted socially but constrained, or otherwise influenced, by a set of innate preferences that are themselves universal."
Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.