Another Cinderella Effect? The Attractiveness of FeetPublished 6 March, 2012
The story of Cinderella, according to Wikipedia, was first published in French (by Charles Perrault), and it was called “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,” In the well-known Disney film, the artists took the adjective “little” seriously; in the picture, you can see that Prince Charming’s pointer finger looks nearly the same length as Cinderella’s foot. Indeed, it was Cinderella’s tiny feet that allowed the Prince to identify her as the woman who fled the fancy ball at midnight. Everyone else’s feet were too big to fit the slipper.
So, for those of you who thought that the contribution of the story of Cinderella to evolutionary psychology was illustrating just how bad step children have it, the story raises another question: why do men seem to like women with small feet?
A recent paper in the March issue of Evolution and Human Behavior by Dan Fessler et al. sets out to answer this question, starting, of course, with the prior one: is it true?
To investigate this, building on prior work on aesthetic preferences in feet – who knew there was prior work on the aesthetics of feet? – they produced images of men and women who varied in the size of their feet. (See the picture.) Studies were run in America, Austria, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, China, Colombia, and Greece– which seems like it’s horribly biased toward the beginning of the alphabet – and in each sample subjects were shown the five images randomly arrayed from left to right – both men and women – and asked to point the most attractive one and the least attractive one.
Looking at the female data regarding which feet are regarded as most attractive, smaller feet have an advantage. I’ve also shown the data for male feet regarded as particularly unattractive. Here, men at the extremes are penalized – you can see the U-shape of the distribution – suggesting a preference for average male feet. It’s interesting to note that subjects were not told that the study was about feet, and the paper suggests that many subjects claimed that the images all look the same, making the finding that much more impressive.
Fessler et al. conducted a substantial number of follow-up studies, mostly showing similar patterns, with one exception. In an Indonesian population, women with large feet were preferred. This finding seems to imply that multiple factors might influence foot aesthetics, and the economic importance of walking around in this rural population might influence what is seen as attractive in this ecology.
When one sees asymmetrical preferences, sexual selection comes immediately to mind, and indeed Fessler et al. propose that the reason for this second Cinderella effect – preference for small feet in women but average feet in men (with one cultural exception) – is intersexual selection: men’s preferences for smaller feet driving selection for smaller (proportional) feet in women.
Why should men prefer smaller-footed women? One possibility is that smaller foot size is a cue to age, and of course other data strongly imply that men prefer women with cues that correlate with youth. Related, foot size might increase relative to body size when a woman is pregnant, so relative foot size might be a cue to having had fewer offspring, a finding that would again fit with prior research on attractiveness.
On a more personal note, I confess that I have often been mystified at the attention that women pay to their footwear, particularly given that my experience of the world is that I am more or less indifferent to this particular feature of a woman and the details of how it is clad. Still, one of the studies they conducted they showed men and women the experimental stimuli, and asked them after the study if they could identify how the images differed from one another. Nearly 40% of male subjects correctly identified feet as the factor that differed, while less than 20% of the female subjects were able to do so. This makes women’s attention to their feet that much more comprehensible, I suppose..
Fessler, D. M. T., et al. (2012). Testing a postulated case of intersexual selection in humans: The role of foot size in judgments of physical attractiveness and age. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(2), 147-164.