With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.
It may be an adult mind’s preoccupation and a voyeuristic notion that ‘women take more time to dress because they have to slow down on curves’, but for Cambridge University’s reproductive biologist David Bainbridge, the female curve is a work of evolution and biology. Women are the only females in the animal kingdom to have curvaceous bodies. Were it not so, the modern society’s obsession with the female form would not have adorned billboards, magazine covers and museum artefacts.
Being curvaceous adds to women’s public image and societal performance, and a heavy price is often paid to keep the curves in desired shape. With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.
In an entertaining analysis, superimposing cutting-edge behavioural science over evolutionary biology, Bainbridge lays the foundation of ‘curvology’, which has yet to gain recognition as an exact science. Yet, he draws some compelling inferences. Why are women locked in a prison of self-surveillance, enchained by the idea that they must view their bodies as others view them? Why do women experience body-dissatisfaction as reflected in their innate desire to alter their curves? Not only gender psychology but women’s biology conspires against them, argues Bainbridge, which keeps their body shape and body image under consistent change. Trapped in this biological reality, women often feel torn between the body they live in and the body they must aspire for. After all, physical attractiveness determines women’s social dominance.
Opinions are likely to be divided on this matter, as not every woman will subscribe to such analogy. However, studies indicate that some 60 per cent women experience increased body-dissatisfaction — and are ever-eager to reshape their curves. Added to this is the most confusing question: Why do some women volunteer to suffer bouts of starvation to have a specific body weight and shape? Curvology provides multiple insights to this conundrum: how the female form evolved, how human mind views it, and how the world at large influences the body-mind dichotomy.
The female body is a biological marvel. Even after evolving over several million years, the woman’s body has yet to gain a definitive shape as it keeps reconstructing. Research indicates that not only girls accumulate fat twice as fast as boys; averaging 27 per cent adipose tissue compared to 14 per cent in boys, they continue to keep it unevenly distributed across distinct storage spots in the body. That this is done to negotiate specific requirements during puberty, reproduction and post-natal period is evident, but it isn’t yet clear why these storage spots become curvaceous hotspots for the probing eyes.
It is here that the author enters a contentious territory. Says he, “Male visual fixation on female form seems to have contributed to evolution of curves, meaning thereby that sexual selection has worked hands-in-glove with natural selection.” It may sound politically incorrect but Darwin too had found that his theory of natural selection was inadequate to explain the reason for peacocks to carry the inordinate weight of feathers on their tails. He had thus stumbled upon the idea of sexual selection, which posits that despite outweighed disadvantage, colourful feathers provided an advantage in the competition for mates.
Loaded with complex and unnerving facts, Curvology is a study of one of the most complex species on this planet. We seem to know enough about women, and yet remain adequately ignorant. For instance, why do the breasts of women remain swollen throughout whereas in other mammals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, the mammary glands only swell with pregnancy?
Some of this trivia cries out for further explanation. While an unsubstantiated case for male desire sculpting women’s bodies has been made, it is surprising that, for women, it does not seem to matter as much. Surveys indicate that women apply their cosmetic war-paint to impress other women, and not men. Some feminist writers have even argued that society’s body-chauvinism is the woman’s own creation. Yet, there cannot be two opinions that the age-old power of female body shape continues to be stronger than ever before.
The book leaves the reader craving for more: why women love and hate those curves, desire them and reject them, feel valued and devalued because of them? At the end, it is clear that there is no perfect female body shape, except the one that doesn’t exist.
by David Bainbridge
Portobello Books, UK
Extent: 227, Price: £9.99
This review was first published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Nov 12, 2016.
(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is Director, Ecological Foundation, New Delhi, India)