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Nurture Trumps Nature in Rural Indonesia Where Men Adore Big Feet

Update Date: May 30, 2013 01:11 PM EDT

Delicate features like small feet, smooth skin, and hourglass figures are signs of feminine beauty and reproductive health in most cultures. However, anthropologists studying the Karo Batak people in rural northern Indonesia revealed that men there find bigger feet to be the sexiest.

Lead researcher Geoff Kushnick of University of Washington said that this preference for big feet goes against evolutionary psychology theories that humans are hard-wired to prefer a universal set of physical features that evolved thousands of years ago.

Researchers explain that petite feet signal a potential mate's youth and fertility and the Kao Batak fondness for big feet suggest that culture, not just genetics, plays a significant role in deciding what makes a mate attractive.

Kushnick, an expert on the evolution of human reproductive strategies, said that the Karo Batak liking for big feet might be linked to the society's ecological context. The Karo Batak people live in a rural and agricultural environment with limited exposure to Western media.  Therefore, they may prefer larger feet in their partners because it suggests greater strength and productivity when working in flooded rice paddy fields.

He believes that other rural societies that have not really been exposed to western media or western ideals of the perfect woman may also show similar preferences.

Previous research on societies around the world revealed an overall preference for women with small feet.  In 2005, a study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior found that respondents from Iran, Lithuania, Brazil, United States and India rated women with small feet more attractive.  However, people from Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania preferred women with big feet.

Kushnick and his team were curious why small-foot preferences weren't universal.

He and his colleagues showed 159 Karo Batak adults five drawings of barefoot women.  The drawings were identical except for subtle differences in foot size.  Researchers found that both men and women taking part in the study judged the drawing of the woman with the largest feet most attractive and the woman with the smallest feet least attractive.

Next, the researchers compared the latest study results with the results from the 2005 study to look for an association between societies' foot-size preferences and three potential causes - patriarchal values, rural versus urban ecology, and exposure to western media.

Researchers found that both rural ecology and less exposure to Western media showed a statistical association with the preference for women with larger feet, whereas small feet were more desirable in urban societies with more exposure to Western media. However, researchers found no link between patriarchal values and foot size preference.

"Universal features of physical attractiveness are typically thought to suggest that mate choice criteria are hard-wired in humans and that they evolved tens of thousands of years ago," Kushnick said in a news release. "This new research supports that idea that cultural transmission of mate preferences allows humans to adapt to local environments, and this may trump hard-wired preferences."

He said that the latest findings published in the journal Human Nature support the theory that culturally transmitted preferences that allow people to adapt to local environments can override evolved preferences.

Researchers said the findings offer a glimpse into how humans continue to evolve.

"The study adds more evidence of the potential for culture to drive human evolution," Kushnick said.

"Since mating preferences drive sexual selection, it is possible that male-female differences in relative foot size are the product of recent evolution," he concluded.

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