May 30, 2013 at 2:42 PM ET
Cinderella's tiny feet proved the glass slipper was hers and not her big-hoofed ugly stepsisters. Paris Hilton's size 11 feet, meanwhile, have been called huge, ugly, even "terrifying." In other words, we are most definitely a culture that prefers tiny-footed ladies, and cross-cultural studies have suggested that most people across the world agree.
But a new report finds that both men and women of a rural Indonesian group called the Karo Batak prefer women with larger feet, a finding that suggests we aren't hard-wired to find women with smaller feet attractive.
Geoff Kushnick, a biocultural anthropologist at the University of Washington and the lead author of the new report, says that this research suggests that our culture, not just our genes, influences who we find sexy. The new paper was published Thursday in the journal Human Nature.
How did they figure this out? Researchers showed a series of five images of a woman -- all identical except for the size of her feet - to 159 Karo Batak adults, split about evenly between male and female, who ranged in age from 19 to 90 (the average age was 40). Each volunteer was asked to identify the most- and least-attractive image. Their answers revealed a "striking preference" for the images of women with big feet.
Why on earth would anyone find a lady with huge feet sexy? The Karo Batak are an agricultural community, spending much of the day working in rice fields in northern Sumatra. Big feet means a stronger and more productive worker who can more easily navigate the mucky paddies. Kushnick writes in the paper, “In the Karo Batak communities I studied, men were overheard saying that a woman with larger feet was stronger and thus more productive in the rice fields." Kushnick explains that the Karo Batak have very little exposure to Western media, and so are unaware of our culture's preference for smaller feet. (Other countries and cultures that prefer big feet: Cambodia, Tansania, and Papua New Guinea.)
OK. Who cares? There's this idea in evolutionary psychology that humans are genetically programmed to find some physical characteristics universally attractive - that is, we all find certain physical features beautiful or desirable, regardless of current cultural fads. These are usually attributes that show off youth or good health - things like unwrinkled, unblemished skin; shiny, thick hair; or a symmetrical face. Smaller feet, for example, might be considered more attractive because a woman with smaller feet is less likely to have had children, since pregnancy can permanently increase a woman's foot size. So, small feet means the woman is likely younger. This finding contradicts the idea that beauty is universal, or hard-wired due to genetics. (At least when it comes to women's feet.)