Hips Don't Lie
This is part of a long feature called "The Body As Battleground" that I did for the Jan 2007 issue of the Malaysian edition of New Man. (Yeah, I write on feminism for mainstream men's magazines). I'm upset about some things regarding the layout of the feature -- for instance, the half-page on celebrity plastic surgery that has pretty post-surgery pix but none of the pre-surgery ones, making the captions seem stupid, superficial and spiteful. But I particularly like this article, and am glad they didn't fuck it up (although I wish they had used the visuals I provided). If you want to see the rest of the feature, grab a copy.
Hips Don’t Lie
by Sharanya Manivannan
Yes, the vagina is the seat of much controversy -- it's actually the secondary sexual organ (to the mighty clit), but it's overrated; yet it’s so derided that its other names are used as pejoratives; and it can even strike a Freudian fear of castration a la vagina dentata in the hearts of some. But in terms of aesthetic beauty, of the clothed kind anyway, no other female body part is nearly as contentious as the hip area. Breasts, bouncy or bite-sized, are difficult to not be pleased by. Legs only matter when they aren't covered. Hair can be changed every day, if one wishes. But the hips – oh, the hips! – poets don’t call them "battleships" just for the sake of rhyme.
By definition, the hips consist of the projection of the femur known as the greater trochanter and the overlying muscle and fat (including the buttocks and upper thighs at their widest). Hips are measured around the widest part of the buttocks, and in most women are marked by a slope that tapers upwards toward the waist, and fleshes out seamlessly downward into the leg.
For thousands of years, voluptuous hips have been considered attractive in most cultures based on the biological features they indicate: sexual and reproductive maturity, and easier facilitation of childbirth. Ultimately, evolutionarily speaking, sex is all about progeny, and sexual attraction is a means to an end. The more bountiful a woman’s hips, the more likely that her body is prepared to handle pregnancy. Somewhere deep in our genes is a response that should send male hormones into frenzy at the sight or touch of childbearing hips.
The “classic” hourglass shape, a throwback to the 50’s and to an era when a noticeable discrepancy between the waist and hips was valued, is frequently defined as a 36-24-36 one or thereabouts, although this in itself is an unrealistic depiction. More correctly, the healthiest waist-to-hip ratio (waist size divisible by hip size) for women, which lowers risk of coronary disease and increases longevity, is around 0.7. For example, 36-inch hips with a waistline of 24-27 inches, 32-inch hips with a 22-24inch waist or 40-inch hips with a 27-30inch waist are all, technically, ideal. Men are also supposedly programmed to be drawn toward women with such proportions, regardless of the actual measurements involved. Hourglass paragons aside, with regards to this, breasts, bless them, don’t really matter.
In recent decades, however, there has been a backlash of sorts against this supremely female part of the anatomy. Gone are the days of sensual curvature, when ampleness was appreciated and “womanly hips” was a compliment. Global exposure to Hollywood standards that increasingly value a streamlined silhouette (remember Gisele’s claim to fame when she first burst onto the scene as “the hipless wonder”?) has ensured that even in cultures that previously admired booty baggage, androgyny (paradoxically, with plenty of cleavage) became the aesthetic of choice.
In terms of fashion, womanly hips do, now and then, make a comeback, although strictly speaking, hips are most often seen as ruining the line of an outfit. Lately, the high-fashion runways of Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, among others, have seen the emergence of what one newspaper disturbingly-tagged the Monster Hip: curves constructed from fabric, corsets and other clothing trickery. The empire-waist dress or blouse, which cinches below the bosom and flares from then on, has also made a comeback. But the problem is this: women with the lower bodies of prepubescent boys (genitals notwithstanding) can carry off the faux curves such fashion provides, go hoochie mama hot for a season, then revert to having the contours of uncooked spaghetti by the next. But women with hips like nature intended, well, tend to resemble pregnant penguins in them. Fashion, even when it gives the illusion of embracing real figures, still caters only to those who with technically unhealthy proportions. Even the current fetish for bulbuous bums conveniently forgets to take into account that most women thus endowed also come with a usual serving of extra meat on their sides.
So what then is the bottomline, so to speak, on modern society’s love-hate (but predominantly hate) relationship with hips? Physically speaking, hips are what make women women. Boys don’t have them, girls don’t have them, men don’t have them. Chubby men can grow man-boobs, but not matryoshka doll cambers. As one rather large-and-lovely-hipped crooner keeps reminding you every time you switch the radio on, hips don’t lie – they’re women’s and women’s alone. But what ought to be sexy is, more often than not, dismissed as excess by both the male gaze and the female self-gaze. Like the symbolic regression of maturity that Brazilian waxing connotes, does the desire for slim or nonexistent hips also suggest a form of subconscious self-loathing? In other words, what does it say about the damning powers of fashion, advertising and society itself when women are taught that, essentially, perfection is a matter of desexing, and men, in turn, internalise cues for desire that are incompatible with biological programming?