Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Women's Curves Explained. Or Wonders Never Cease.

Caitlin Flanagan has written a book review in the Washington Post.  That's not in itself very surprising, but two things about the book review made me go oooh and aaah.

The first one is that the book (The Origins and Power of Female Body Shape),  telling us what women's curves are for (hint, they are for men's benefit the same way a door handle is for the benefit of those who use the door), is by a veterinary scientist, David Bainbridge.   Now, veterinary scientists clearly are experts in the evolutionary theories about women's bodies, clearly.

The second surprising reason is that Caitlin Flanagan seems to be writing from my side of the aisle!  She's even somewhat surprised that Bainbridge comes across as an MRA warrior type. Flanagan is, after all, famous for her hatred of women's rights, a firm proponent of male supremacy in the family and adamant that all women should be housewives.  So kudos where it belongs.  Perhaps Caitlin is seeing the light?  Though she still says this:

“Evolution is not feminist,” he tells us soberly. Neither is he, apparently, which gives the book a refreshing frisson. Most pseudo-scientific books aimed at a female readership (as this one clearly is) are devoted to proving the superiority of women or at least their full equality to men. The “I’m just telling it like it is” tone of “Curvology” is appealing: What dark truths have we been unwilling to face? Read a chapter or two, however, and you discover that “Curvology” merely — and mildly — repeats the assertions of the manosphere: Evolution has caused men to like big breasts, big buttocks and small waists. We know, we know! Didn’t the Commodores teach us long ago that 36-24-36 is a winning hand?
I never quite understand how someone can get a refreshing frisson when preparing to read how she herself will be deemed inferior to the other half of humanity.  I get a chilling frisson wondering what could have happened in her own life to make her so capable of cutting herself away from the rest of the womanhood.

And then there's the idea that the pseudo-scientific books in this field are telling women that they are at least equal to men if not better*:

Did Flanagan read Louann Brizendine's  pseudo-scientific books about the male and female brain, I wonder.  The subtext in those books is much more dangerous than superficial skimming might suggest, because they trot out iffy (sometimes very iffy) evidence, pick certain studies over others and then state that the biological differences between men and women are now (insert today's date, any date) quite understood (and immutable).

Sure, the books might have been marketed on the basis of some weird type of grrrl power (I may be dumb in maths but I'm really really good at personal relationships!), but in their core they are about reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.  Very much like the old guides that sprouted from John Gray's pseudo-scientific Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

Flanagan's review is not about the pseudoscience Bainbridge appears to practice, as the above quote shows, and that is the one flaw in the review.  There's  evidence from several studies that some constant, perfect waist-to-hip ratio isn't a universal ideal, there's  evidence that cultural norms affect which aspects of women's bodies are deemed most erotic and so on.

But inside the weird kind of evolutionary psychology, the kind I use capital initials for, the cult of the waist-to-hip ratio rules untouched.  Mostly because external criticism cannot enter a sealed bubble.

It is that lack of scientific critiques in Flanagan's review which makes me feel the old horrible guilt (like a Jesus-syndrome):  I should immediately go and read Bainbridge's book to tell you everything that is wrong with it.  But life is so very short and the criticism is probably already available in my blog archives.  Besides, Flanagan's final quote from the book makes me want to run screaming right off this planet:

There is exactly one truly happy female in “Curvology,” an unnamed girl who appears in two italicized passages that Bainbridge has dreamed up as a sort of homage to “Clan of the Cave Bear.” We meet her in “the rust-red light of another dawn.” Her family has traded her to a tribe of strangers, which might seem like a raw deal, but her full thighs and round bottom have led to the assurance that “she would be cherished by her new tribe and her man.” Indeed, this man has already planted his seed in her. All this — the human trafficking, the rape, the pregnancy — leads to the deepest delight: “She cupped her breasts in her hands. They seemed to be getting slowly larger ever since the wiggling thing in her belly had appeared. She could not explain why, but this made her laugh out loud.”

*Just as an aside:  Almost all Evolutionary Psychology (EP, see post above for definition) articles tell women how impossibly inferior we are, and that goes for many of the books which popularize EP, too.   That may be the reason I had to read Flanagan's assertion twice before I got what she meant (the focus on a narrowly tailored concept of pseudo-scientific books aimed at women).  She hasn't evidently spent her time getting refreshing frissons and learning dark "truths" the way I have.  But I guess that whole field of literature consists of pseudo-scientific books aimed at MRAs.