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Sorry, Cinderella: Not everyone thinks attractive women must have petite feet

In several societies, people believe large-footed women are more attractive, according to a study published this week.

The Karo Batak people of North Sumatra might find the story of Cinderella more understandable if its heroine had large, rather than petite, feet.

For in that remote Indonesian society, people believe large-footed women are more attractive, according to a study published this week in the journal Human Nature.

That preference is not what earlier researchers found in many other areas of the world, including the United States. And that’s what makes this study’s finding so interesting. For it challenges the dominant evolutionary-psychology theory that humans developed a set of universal mating preferences tens of thousands of years ago.

The current study suggests that mating preferences are more likely governed by culturally transmitted norms — and recent ones, at that.

Study details

For the study, University of Washington anthropologist Geoff Kushnick showed 159 Karo Batak men and women, aged 19 to 90, five drawings of women dressed in a shirt and a mid-calf skirt. The only differences among the women in the drawings were subtle changes in the size of their feet.

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The participants were asked to identify the most and least attractive of the women.

“The Karo Batak judgments revealed a striking preference for the images of women with big feet,” writes Kushnick. That was true for both the men and the women.

Kushnick’s finding counters the results of a similar 2005 study involving respondents from eight different countries: Iran, India, Lithuania, Brazil, the United States, Cambodia, Tanzania, and Papua New Guinea. That study reported an overall preference for women with small feet — and was used to support the theory of mating preferences being universally “hard wired.”

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesized that small feet were preferred because it indicated that a woman was younger and thus more fertile. (Women’s feet tend to enlarge with age and after pregnancy.)

Olympic gold medal swimmer Missy Franklin
REUTERS/Danny MoloshokOlympic gold medal swimmer
Missy Franklin

Possible factors

But even among that multi-country study, there were societies — Cambodia, Tanzania and Papua New Guinea — that preferred women with big feet. So Kushnick decided to look more closely at three factors that might explain the difference in the various societies’ foot preferences: patriarchal values, ecology (urban versus rural), and exposure to Western media.

He found that patriarchal values did not make a difference, but being a rural society and having less exposure to Western media did.

“The preference for women with big feet in rural societies suggest that it may be adaptive,” he notes. “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.”

One size larger than a generation ago

By the way, women’s feet appear to have been getting bigger in recent decades, with the average woman’s foot now a size larger than it was 30 years ago, according to the National Shoe Retailers Association.

Yes, the growing obesity epidemic is probably playing a role in women needing larger shoes. But, as a BBC report points out, it may also be that today’s women have simply decided that squeezing their feet into too-small shoes is a ridiculous — not to mention painful and potentially disfiguring — way of trying to look more attractive.

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And, as Meg Ryan (size 11), Kate Winslet (11), Uma Thurman (11), Elle Macpherson (12) and gold-medalist swimmer Miss Franklin (13) all illustrate, women can look perfectly fine in large-sized shoes.

Unfortunately, Kushnick’s study is behind a paywall, but you’ll find the abstract on the Human Nature website.