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Something remarkable has happened to women, something unique. Of all the creatures in the animal kingdom, human females stand out as having one special, powerful feature: curves. That may be good news for men, but it makes life complicated for women.
Why do only human females have curves, how do they affect their lives, and why do they think about them so much? It was these simple questions which set David Bainbridge, a popular science writer and Cambridge anatomist and reproductive biologist, on a evolutionary, biological, psychological and socio-cultural quest to discover how female curviness lies at the centre of our species’ success – what it means to be human, and what it means to be a woman.
Curvology follows an arc through human history, from the evidence of our ancestors’ bones picked from the African dust, to the cult of the pre-clubbing selfie. One half of the members of our species live their lives in a body unlike any other in the animal kingdom, and this body exerts remarkable, pervasive effects on their movement, fertility, longevity, thought, mood, and even success.
Divided into ten chapters the book is a focused, novel, humane and accessible approach on the female body, rooted in the authors ‘zoological’ approach to this most distinctive aspect of human appearance.
1. Where women’s bodies came from
If women are unique in having waists, hips, bottoms and breasts, then why are they only creature to have got that way? What were the forces which took our newly-bipedal species, and completely reconfigured its females’ bodies? Why do women need to have twice as much adipose tissue as men, why do they store it where they do, and what limitations does this put on them?
2. Where women’s bodies come from
Female babies are not born curvy. In fact, apart from baby boys being slightly longer and leaner, the two sexes start off with remarkably similar body compositions. What are the processes which allow the wonderfully distinctive human female form to be re-made anew, as each girl grows up? Why do women’s bodies vary so much? And how do girls feel about the fact that becoming womanly requires the accumulation of that much-vilified substance: fat?
3. The power of curves
Considering the powerful forces that have driven the evolution of female body shape, it is perhaps unsurprising how much it affects women’s lives. However, only recently has it become evident that different curves exert different effects – adipose tissue in buttocks, bellies and breasts have different, and sometimes protective, effects on women’s likelihood of suffering from killer-diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, as well as many other conditions. Also, the role of fat in female fertility now appears to be far more complex that we ever suspected.
4. What men want and why it doesn’t matter
Because curves are so important in women’s health, over the millennia men have evolved to be hard-wired to desire them. They ‘know’ that a curvy woman is most likely to provide them with healthy children – curvy daughters and curve-loving sons. So what exactly do men seek in a partner? How is the male brain programmed to lust after curves? Why are most men attracted to a wide variety of female body sizes but a relatively restricted set of body shapes? And have aeons of male lust sexually selected women to be more curvy than, strictly speaking, they need to be?
5. Trapped in a vessel of flesh
Does it feel different to inhabit a woman’s body rather than a man’s? Can we ever really know? Surprisingly, this age-old question is now being addressed by experts in psychology and robotics. For example, building thinking machines is showing us just how much the functioning of a brain is influenced by the shape of the physical ‘body’ in which it is located. And disorders in which people feel detached from their own body or even their own existence have started to show us how a woman’s body may affect her sense of body-ownership, self and existence.
6. Comfort and discomfort eating
For 99.9% of human existence, we have been scrabbling around to find food, but now all that has changed. We have brains designed for starvation, but the world around us overflows with calories. For women the dilemmas are particularly stark – from a young age they learn to restrain their appetites, to prepare food for others rather than themselves, and that ‘small is attractive’. Food means health and disease, comfort and guilt, being small and being curvy. Can these conflicts ever be resolved?
7. A malaise of shapes
How did our species get to the point where large numbers of us, mostly female, starve and binge their way to death, sickness and serious injury? What are eating disorders, and why do some of us get them but not others? When did we start getting them – are they a new thing, or as old as our species? Most of all, what strange evolutionary forces lie behind our propensity to suffer eating disorders, and were those forces once beneficial rather than harmful?
8. Following the fashion
Men may be irrevocably hard-wired to desire certain core elements of the female form, but what about humans’ more transient preferences for women’s shapes? Why is a body size or shape deemed attractive in London or California but thought ugly in Nigeria? Why was heroin chic replaced by Sophie Dahl and Beyoncé? Why does thinness become the body-ideal in certain places in certain decades? And what is the actual evidence that the media really do influence women’s opinions of their own bodies?
9. Covering up and tucking in
Clothes, shoes, jewellery, depilation, piercing, tattooing, and now surgery. Far more than the male, the female body is seen as something to be concealed, exposed, altered, corrected and accentuated. Why do we think this? When do girls learn it? And how, exactly, do women do it? This chapter includes a radical new theory of what each and every item of female clothing is actually designed to achieve. It also investigates how surgery, once synonymous with treating severe disease, became an acceptable form of body enhancement.
10. Why women care and why it’s complicated
Throughout the book, the theme emerges that the central biological role of female curvaceousness in our species has led to it becoming built into every aspect of human life – women’s health, their sense of self, men’s desire, control of eating and guilt, body fashions and fashion for bodies. Finally, the author addresses the question of why women think about their bodies so much, and in such complex ways. The Darwinian idea that they wish to impress men is soon discounted, and instead the true reasons why body shape is central to female life and individual life-success are laid bare.
Publication of Curvology has led to
– Features in the Sunday Times (18th January 2015), the Daily Mail (18th January 2015), the Express Tribune (22nd January 2015), the Times (5th February 2015), Bild Am Sonntag (8th February 2015), Corriere della Sera, and Cosmopolitan (March 2015)
– An invited article in Port magazine
– Interviews and features on a variety of UK, EU, US and other radio stations.
Invited talks and literary festivals:
Ways With Words Festival, Keswick – 8th March 2015
Oxford Literature Festival – 26th March 2015
Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival – 27th April 2015
Bradford Literary Festival – 16th May 2015
Hay Literary Festival – 24th May 2015
…more to follow.
Reviews and comments
But then it happened. A rare, life-changing moment. After hearing Bainbridge talk about his radical new book, Curvology, I found myself seeing female bottoms clearly for the first time… I have never found evolutionary biology very enlightening about gender politics. However, just a few pages in, Curvology had me looking at my relationship in a new light. .. One of the bravest parts of his book is an attempt to understand eating disorders from an evolutionary point of view.
Helen Rumbelow, The Times
A well-rounded argument on fat, form and fertility. So there we are. For men, women’s bodies are “a diverse smorgasbord of curvaceousness”, and for women an endless struggle.
David Sexton, Evening Standard
An engrossing scientific study of the female figure. It takes a brave man to venture into the vexed fields of female body shape and body image. Yet David Bainbridge, with his “evolutionary and zoological approach” (his words), has lots of new light to shine on old problems… In a fascinating chapter he looks at the emerging science of brain chemistry…
Eleanor Mills, Sunday Times
Right, I’m going to be honest with you – I love David Bainbridge a bit. Yet even despite my predisposition to liking it, I was still shocked by how good it was… the really startling news, certainly from my perspective, was that the sometimes bonkers demands women make of their own bodies are in fact imposed by other women.
Natasha Devon, Daily Telegraph
This look at female body shape is wry, clever and infuriating. [At times] I wanted to hurl the book across the room, or hit my husband over the head, but at the same time it is compulsive, fascinating reading… All in all, this is a stimulating, uproarious and irritating read on a subject that is never going to go away.
Paula Byrne, The Times
Curvology gives an insight into how women evolved to be, in some cases, so self-destructive when it comes to body image. As a woman’s woman, it was, at times, uncomfortable reading. But identifying what motivates our more competitive behaviours will (hopefully) help us all forge better relationships with other women and our own bodies.
Interspersed with many intriguing statistics… The answers offered by this book are both very simple and very complicated.
Helen Lewis, The Observer
A new book, Curvology, adds to this sense that we’ve gone one step forward and two back in our willingness to change the way we think about women’s roles, and men’s too.