Another female feature that can be singled out for cultural emphasis is the wider hip. In West Africa, Cameroon women take special care to pad out their skirts to give the impression that their hips are even wider and therefore more child-bearing than they already are. In Western cultures, a slimmer, more juvenile silhouette is generally preferred, now that breeding has been dramatically slowed down, but in the Cameroon, where the breeding rates is 4 times higher than in Europe, maternal signals are still given precedence over juvenile ones.
            In the Western world, generous hips may not be so popular but generous breasts are still in favor. Because the hemispherical shape of the female breast is such a powerful sexual signal for our species, it is not surprising to find that some cultures take steps to enhance this feature of the body. In the United States, in particular, breast implants have become immensely popular with show girls. The effect is to create breasts that are firm and almost rigidly rounded, no matter what actions their owners perform. This creates a powerful visual image but whether these improved breasts feel sexual is another matter. In the context of a sex club, however, this is of little importance because touching is strictly taboo.
            Throughout history different cultures have selected different aspects of the body for exaggeration. In China it used to be the custom to improve on nature by exaggerating the smallness of the female foot. Excruciatingly painful foot-binding was started in childhood. Mothers would demand that their daughters, from the ages of seven, would bind their little feet with a special bandage, 5 cm ( 2 in) wide and 3 m (10ft) long, curling the smaller toes tightly back and under, leaving only the big toe free. As the bandage wound tighter and tighter, it also pulled the sole of the foot closer and closer to the heel. After several years of this treatment, the feet became permanently deformed, crushed up and stumpy, almost like a little hoof. They would then fit inside the tiny, exquisitely embroidered shoes that were made for ladies of high status which were only a few inches long.
            The minute, hoof-like foot, known as the Golden Lotus, was seen by Chinese men as the height of erotic beauty. During lovemaking they would caress the Golden Lotus, suck it, nibble it and even take it completely into the mouth. It became the focus of erotic longing. Because women have smaller feet than men it followed that to exaggerate this difference created a super-feminine female. Only peasants had flat feet, or ‘duck feet’ as they were scathingly called. (And it is not surprising to learn that the story of Cinderella whose ugly sisters failed to squeeze their large feet into her tiny shoe-originated in China.)
            The custom of Chinese foot-binding lasted nearly a thousand years, from the tenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, when it was at last put a stop to as cruel and barbaric. Its persistence over such a long period was due to a double significance, for the foot not only acted as an erotic zone, but also became a badge of high status. This was because no woman with bound feet cold ever perform manual labour. To walk on a pair of Golden Lotuses meant an entire life of courtly restraint, enforced inactivity and fidelity.
            We may raise our hands in horror at the idea of crippling young girls in that way, but we ourselves have not been completely immune from this type of exaggeration. The well-heeled Western shoe, although a pale shadow of the Chinese footwear, is nevertheless a gross distortion of what nature intended. Like the Chinese shoes, the Western high-heeled shoes incapacitate the wearers. They are far less extreme, of course, but they still make the wearer look more delicate, more vulnerable and therefore more likely to arouse the protective instincts of the human male. As with the lip exaggerations, it is only a matter of degree. The principle is just the same. (Interestingly, a larger female foot is regarded as a sexual turn-off to such an extent that a whole song has been written on the subject Fats Waller’s ‘Your Feet’s Too Big!’ which ends with the famous line: ‘Your pedal extremities are obnoxious’.)
            Whether we like tit or not, individual beauty now plays a vital role in a mate selection. And, a strange way, it has lost its primeval common sense. Today, a woman with a stunningly beautiful face will be more appealing as a potential mate than one with a plain face, regardless of her maternal qualities. Even if she has narrow hips, is barren, bad-tempered and vain, an exquisitely beautiful woman will still be able to compete for a mate with a homely, but otherwise highly compatible and fertile rival. The same is true for the male sex. A handsome man with a hugely dubious personality will always be able to compete with a plain man who is loyal and kind. (And this extends beyond mate selection into the more general world of employment and staff selection. One recent survey revealed that ‘beautiful people’ on average earn five percent more than their plainer counterparts. Another investigation put the figure as high as 12 percent.)
            In other words, status is given precedence over breeding. In any other species this bizarre situation would be unthinkable, but in our over-crowded human communities the emphasis on breeding potential has dwindled and the desire for a public status display has risen. In the complex social hierarchy of today, it is the sexual companion capable of making rivals envious that is preferred over the one who promises to be an ideal breeding partner. This shift is one of the main complicating factors in modern mate selection. The young adult not only has to find a mate, but also has to find one who satisfies special almost unattainable qualities of physical glamour.
            It is little wonder that there was been a recent rebellion against this new tyranny. Unfortunately this rebellion has been rather one-sided and has been made a feminist issue rather than a more general, human one. American author Naomi wolf comments, ‘There is no…biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women…The beauty myth is not about woman at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power.’
            Her criticism of the beauty myth is absolutely correct, but her explanation of what lies behind it is strongly reminiscent of what someone referred to as ‘campaign gibberish’. To suggest that concepts of beauty derive from some kind of male plot against women overbooks two important points. First, male appearance is just as much a part of the myth as female beauty. Is this a female plot against men? Secondly, the female beauty myth is kept alive as much by women as it is by men. This is not a battle to be fought in the gender wars, it is a matter of concern for both sexes.
            Having said this, it must be admitted that the situation is not quite as simple as it may first appear. On closer examination it emerges that there are two relevant kinds of beauty. The first has to do with the subtle local nuances of what makes the sexiest, most glamorous face, be it male or female. These will vary from place to place and also from time to time, as role models and fashionable idols change. This is the film-star beauty, the model-girl glamour, the mystique of the handsome male hunk. It is the kind of perfectionist beauty that has more to do with sculptural aesthetics and hero/ heroine worship than with genuine, down-to-each mate selection. This is the competitive, high stakes beauty that has invaded family life and made a mockery of reproductive biology.

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