Psychologists love studying sex. Questions about the psychology of sexual attractiveness, monogamy vs. polygamy, and the various and sundry details concerning the art of getting down have aroused the interests of psychologists for centuries. Studies in recent years have focused on the genetics of sexual attraction; that is, the innate physical attributes that are most often associated with sexual attractiveness and adaptive fitness. These are the traits that sometimes guide our decisions on Saturdays at 4am, indirectly put your accident uncle onto the earth when your grandparents met under a dim street light in 1943, and are partially responsible for the over-populating of the world and the nauseating amount of humans that are everywhere multiplying, becoming a fast-spreading plague of upright-walking semi-hairless-ape earth-killing machines.
Facial symmetry and pheromone communication are big ones (see this famous shirt-sniffing study connecting the two), but perhaps the most oft-cited traits are the shoulder, waist and hip ratios of the human torso – specifically, the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) in women and the shoulder-to-hip ratio (SHR) in men. Apparently, nothing gives us the randy willies like seeing someone with the "right" measurements.
Female WHR ratios have been shown to have universal, cross-cultural significance in terms of their role in attractiveness among both men and women. People tend to rate relatively low WHRs as more attractive than higher ones, with the "ideal" WHR hovering around a value of .7. WHRs have also been shown to be indicators of, sex hormone levels, success in pregnancy, and less risk for major diseases. In men, SHRs have a similar role in perceived sexual attractiveness, and high SHRs are linked to physical strength and testosterone levels, which are important traits in sexual selection. The "ideal" SHR hovers around 1.4. There is too much written on these ratios to cover it all now, but I'll sum it up simply. According to much psychological research, those sexually attracted to men are essentially into this:
And those sexually attracted to women are into this:
Aside from the examples of real-life men and women with the desirable ratios (Marilyn Monroe is often cited), cartoons are a good place to spot psychologically appealing physical traits because they are so often exaggerated. Stephen Jay Gould made a case, in 1980, for the amplification, by Disney, of the size of Mickey Mouse's eyes in order to make him look younger and thus elicit more sympathy from his growing audience. Are the torso ratios similarly represented in animated pop culture?
Perhaps more than psychologists love to study sex, advertisers love to sell it. This is obvious and everyone knows it – just look around. Advertisers prey on our innate preferences for certain physical traits (whether they read psychology journals or not). Not surprisingly, flesh-and-blood male and female models are thought to posses the body ratios and facial symmetries we consider ideal. But what about the cartoon characters of advertising? Inspired by Gould, I was hoping to find the same exaggeration of biologically significant traits in animated corporate spokespeople as he did in Mickey Mouse. Let's take a look.
The Green Giant may sell unsexy items like frozen peas and green beans, but his makers imbued him with, according to my partially-scientific measurements, a sturdy 1.4 SHR, which has been shown in a few studies to be the heterosexual female ideal.
Joe Camel, who has been dead for fifteen years due to the ethical issues of advertising cigarettes using a kid-friendly cool-guy who looks like the Fonz, measures up to a nicely exaggerated 1.6 SHR. I wonder if Joe sold extra packs of Camels among women who couldn't resist his masculine ungulate charms.
And then there's Tony The Tiger, who likely guides many young, cereal-eating girls into puberty with his ridiculous 2.0 SHR.
It was harder to track down modern humanoid female cartoon spokespeople, but Chicken Of The Sea's mermaid measures up similarly to Marilyn Monroe, with a .6 WHR.
And just to creep you out, here's the sticky, sweet, pseudo-cartoonish, senior-citizen syrup vixen Mrs. Butterworth measuring in at the "ideal" .7.
I am cheating a little with Butterworth because she's wearing a dress, which brings up a good point: most staples of men's and women's fashion accentuate the sexy ratios. Men's suits are big in the shoulders and taper off at the hips, and women's dresses, among other garments, are often tight in the waist and loose in the hips.
Of course, there are individual differences in what people perceive as attractive, and cultural preferences are prone to shifts (i.e. ideal female body weight now versus the 17th century). None of the data are perfectly clean, as they rarely are in psychology. But these ratios seem to matter to us, and the physiological connections the ratios have to fecundity, health, and hormones make a strong case that they have a role in the genetics and evolution of sexual attraction.
So, next time you find yourself blankly looking at the Michelangelo-built tiger-man on your Frosted Flakes cereal box, or clutching Mrs. Butterworth's curvy mature body as you slather your pancakes in High Fructose Corn Goo, reflect on the fact of your apish biological predilections.