CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 49, Number 6, December 2008
Waist-to-Hip Ratio across Cultures: Trade-Offs between Androgen- and Estrogen-Dependent Traits
A gynoid pattern of fat distribution, with small waist and large hips (low waist-to-hip ratio, or WHR) holds significant fitness benefits for women: women with a low WHR of about 0.7 are more fecund, are less prone to chronic disease, and (in most cultures) are considered more attractive. Why, then, do nearly all women have a WHR higher than this putative optimum? Is the marked variation in this trait adaptive? This paper first documents the conundrum by showing that female WHR, especially in non-Western populations, is higher than the putative optimum even among samples that are young, lean, and dependent on traditional diets. The paper then proposes compensating benefits to a high WHR that can explain both its prevalence and variation in the trait. The evidence indicates that the hormonal profile associated with high WHR (high androgen and cortisol levels, low estrogens) favors success in resource competition, particularly under stressful and difficult circumstances, even though this carries fitness costs in fecundity and health. Adrenal androgens, in particular, may play an important role in enabling women to respond to stressful challenges.