What we all want in our perfect partner, says Devendra Singh, is an ideal waist-hip ratio. David Charter checks out his figures
Devendra Singh has a high waist-hip ratio. He is living proof (thanks to surgery) of the research into vital statistics which has brought him notoriety. According to Singh, anyone whose waist size exceeds their hip measurement (ie whose waist-hip ratio is greater than one), is much more at risk from diseases such as heart problems and diabetes.
Furthermore, he claims to have shown that women with certain waist-hip profiles have universal appeal as potential partners because their body shape transmits signals about health, fecundity and fertility. This, says Singh, fits in perfectly with Darwinian evolutionary theories of human mate selection, which contend that "both men and women select mating partners who enable them to enhance reproductive success", thus ensuring the survival of their genes into the next generation.
Singh has identified the ideal female ratio as 0.7 (ie, the waist is 70 per cent of the hip measurement), which he confirmed by detailed analysis of Playboy centrefolds as well as icons as diverse as pre-Christian goddesses and Barbie dolls. For males the ideal is more like 0.85 or 0.9.
The 56-year-old professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin admits that if he had realised the significance of this as a younger man, he might have been able to avoid the two heart attacks and five bypasses he has had to endure. "I am in very bad health and definitely not a fit mate," he says, adding coyly, "but a man doesn't disclose his waist-hip ratio," only confirming it is more than one. "Anyway, as you get older your waist-hip ratio goes up as the skin starts to sag."
Singh's work below the belt began with investigations into obesity and anorexia nervosa, the slimming disease. This led to an interest in mating strategies and the question of how starvation, which suppresses fertility, plays a part in mate selection. In 1992 he focused his attention on fat distribution in curvaceous females.
In a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, Singh used slides of juvenile silhouettes to show how male and female forms are indistinguishable at an early age. "By the time of puberty the female is gaining a lot more body fat. It is getting the female ready for reproduction," he says. "At puberty, females start distributing body fat which is feminine fatness, if you permit me that term. From the age of ten you have no problem realising which is the male and which is the female, without looking at the face, without looking at the breasts. The distribution of body fat is what makes the human body so unique." He adds: "By looking at the female waist-hip ratio, you know she is of reproductive age. It is a very reliable signal of post-pubertal and pre- menopausal woman."
At this point Twiggy tends to be thrown at him by those who find this hard to stomach. But Singh is ready for the leggy 1960s supermodel. "I am always bugged by Twiggy. I am sick and tired of this," he says. "Her waist-hip ratio was 0.73. She was in the perfect range. She just didn't have any breasts." (Twiggy's vital statistics were 31-24-33).
Singh supports his hypothesis with images of big-hipped Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of sacred prostitution, and the 32,000-year-old Venus of Dolni Vestonice, who also features a pronounced pelvis. Then he produces the original 1959 Barbie doll, with a waist-hip ratio of 0.59.
He concludes: "The dream woman for everybody is 0.7. It does not matter where you go and ask this question." To prove it he has quizzed Indonesian Muslims. He has also tested women's reactions to a series of body shapes. All those surveyed concur on hourglass supremacy.
Even when the question to his male subjects was phrased in terms of the perfect marriage partner as opposed to the most beautiful woman, the results were repeated, the world over. Or as Singh puts it: "Nobody likes overweight women". He adds: "I don't care how many times in starving countries fat symbolises lots of things. It does not symbolise marriage."
The graph plotting the vital statistics of Playboy centrefolds over the years shows a 20 per cent decline in plumpness - but a consistent waist-hip ratio of 0.7.
Singh's brand of Darwinianism explains nuns' habits and other customs of couture. "I firmly believe religious orders choose very loose clothes because they don't want unwanted attention," says Singh. "If you do want attention you can deceive men by making your waist as small as possible," he adds, showing a slide of an inter-war babe splashing about in Warners' Rust Proof Summer Corset.
Sexual maturity is only the first of three fundamental signals which Singh believes are sent out by waist-hip ratio. Next is health. A ratio of one or more shows you are susceptible to heart disease and other disorders, including diabetes. "Higher waist-hip ratio increases the correlation with hypertension, independent of body weight," says Singh.
"So when people say, 'Why don't you lose weight?', it might not help. What you really need to do is redistribute your body fat."
Third there is fertility. Singh has measured testosterone levels in women and found they increase with waist-hip ratio. A woman's waist is distorted from the first month of pregnancy - leading to the obvious conclusion for Singh. No Darwinian male is going to choose a pregnant mate and thus have to provide for the perpetuation of another male's genes.
This thesis is supported by slides of African women with a waterborne disease which distends their bellies. Pregnant or sick, the Darwinian conclusion is the same - no partner possibilities there.
In another piece of controversial evidence, Singh uses a study of the waist- hip ratio of women who conceive successfully through artificial insemination. The rise in the ratio coincides with a fall in the success rate.
Therefore, according to his theory, "If all this information is discernible from an individual's waist-hip ratio, it is very difficult to believe that humans have evolved without taking up and making use of the information from this signal. Once you have gone through this initial selection you can include the rest of the body and opt for facial expression, soul, etc."
This all brings rather exasperated cries from his audiences. What about breasts? Or as a questioner at the LSE put it: "Quite a lot of men are interested in the bit between the waist and the shoulders."
Singh asserts: "Waist-hip ratio is the only body morphology with a correlation with disease." Which got the epidemiologists in the LSE audience leaping up and down. They say the diseases Singh cites as being linked to high waist-hip ratios are not relevant in the mating game. Diabetes and cardio-vascular ills predominantly afflict older women. "I felt his emphasis on disease was suspect," said Aubray Sheiham from University College London, after seeing Singh's LSE presentation. "Historically the diseases he mentions are relatively recent disorders."
His UCL colleague Yoav Benshlomo added: "One thing I think he has demonstrated is the universality of the appeal of 0.7. That is a very robust finding. He is trying to suggest it is because of increased fertility and being a good mother. The fertility sample showed results from insemination data, but you have to ask why the woman is infertile in the first place.
"The other question is whether the woman is able to survive the ordeal of pregnancy and bringing up the child. But all the diseases he mentioned are post-menopausal."
Singh defends his position: "This is really not a meaningful argument because our forefathers lived to 30 or 40 and there was nothing called menopause. In the last quarter of their lives they had disorders we don't even know about."
He will also soon answer some of his more politically correct critics, who have noticed he spends most of his time sizing up women, by publishing more detailed research into male waist-hip ratios later this year.
Singh uses the male form to reinforce his 0.7 finding in reverse. Lining up three images of Michelangelo's David, two of which have been distorted, he challenges his audience to pick the original. No-one opts for the slim-waisted and clearly more feminine version. Most choose the solid-trunked straight sided form. But it is in fact the middling profile with a discernable yet still masculine waistline which Michelangelo carved.
The curvy figure had a 0.7 ratio, the real thing 0.86, and the bulky David was a one.
Beyond this 0.7 observation, Singh's ideas remain controversial. If the waist- hip ratio which he has shown is a factor in universal male perceptions of the perfect female form does not indicate freedom from disease or fertility, then just what does it signify? An intriguing idea came from Caroline Pond, reader in zoology at the Open University, who has looked for sex differences in the distribution of fat among other species without finding any evidence for it in the animal kingdom. "This leads me to conclude it is something to do with mate selection, not for fecundity or good health, but for humanness," she said after hearing Singh at the LSE.
Pond speculates that the waist-hip ratio played a role in the evolution of humans from among the apes, in that the ideal form identified by Singh signalled proto-human female's erect posture and her ability to give birth to large-brained upright-walking offspring. "The walking mechanics of humans is quite unique," said Pond. "It is quite different from any other bipedal primate. The mechanics of walking is related to the mechanics of the pelvis and femur."
She concluded: "Are we actually looking at a vestigial form of selection for a correct pelvis shape which was important in the evolution of humans?" Singh, deferring to Pond's extensive work in adipose tissue, commented simply: "I wish I had said that."