Hourglass truths

Ambarish Satwik | Updated on September 12, 2014

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What she of the large breasts and narrow waists might tell us of fecundity

“Jasienska’s paper on large breasts and narrow waists,” I declared to my wife, over a late-night cup of coffee, “was the first to present a sort of evolutionary endorsement of Sappho’s famous line: what is beautiful is good.”

That’s the kind of platonic sterility with which my wife and I conduct our conjugal lives after dinner these days. For three successive nights that week, we were discussing the evolutionary mating theory. This, in particular, was meant to provoke her and lead the way to a post-prandial discussion on Grazyna Jasienska’s 2004 paper that finally provided the empirical evidence for the theory that large breasts and narrow waists indicated a higher degree of health and fecundity in women. The premise was that level of the ovarian steroid hormone estradiol produced during the menstrual cycle was an excellent indicator of fertility. Jasienska et al collected morning saliva samples in 119 regularly menstruating Polish women in their reproductive prime and determined daily levels of estradiol (E2) and progesterone therein. These women were then assembled (on paper) into four categories with differing combinations of waist-hip ratio and breast size: ‘narrow waist, large breasts’, ‘narrow waist, small breasts’, ‘broad waist, large breasts’ and ‘broad waist, small breasts’. The ‘narrow waist, large breasts’ group showed 26 per cent higher values of mean estradiol and 37 per cent higher values of mean mid-cycle estradiol than women from any of the other sample groups. The results more or less liquidated all feminist perspectives on the role of attractiveness and evolutionary psychology.

“Not all standards of beauty,” I told the wife, “are arbitrary and constructed”.

The wife, who is a gynaecologist and an IVF specialist, and can also be loosely labelled a Darwinian feminist, is measurably less tolerant of sociobiological drivel coming from me after her 11 p.m. cup of tea. She looked at me as if I were a nine-year-old practising imaginary cricket strokes in his underwear.

“Alright, cowboy, let’s raise the stakes,” she said. “Do you know what PCOS is?”

In the course of her clinical practice in infertility, Ruma has evolved a heuristic for diagnosing the cause of the patient’s infertility by just looking at her. According to her, there’s an obvious dimorphism that’s hard to overlook and there are, often, facial, cutaneous, fleshly and sometimes vocal cues that clearly advertise the pathology.

So, shapely, statuesque women with gracile cheekbones, full lips and mesmeric skin, who have been regularly menstruating and generally look like older, homologous strains of Fatima Bhutto, are likely to be suffering from a Loss of Ovarian Reserve. Contrarily, pear shaped or tubular figures that are acne-ridden and hirsute and have insulin resistance, manly voices and menstrual disorders, assuredly, are suffering from one of the many variants of Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

Now, before we proceed, let me state that the obviously well-chosen imagery here is all mine so the wife may be spared the burden of its phraseology. But, the amateur adaptionist hypothesising that follows is entirely hers. And it wonderfully situates female infertility in The Great Evolutionary Narrative. The one that states that all human biological affairs are guided by Darwinian natural selection. A lot of people might consider it just warm swill, but anyhow, I shall let you gargle with it:

All the eggs that a woman will ever produce are deposited in her ovaries when she is a foetus in her mother’s womb. From birth to menarche the eggs lie dormant in the ovarian warehouse in an undeveloped state. With sexual maturation, with every menstrual cycle, she starts maturing a large immature contingent of several hundred eggs. But, just one of these eggs can actually mature and develop. This one preeminent anda is ovulated (per cycle) at the metabolic cost of bumping off all other kindred andas of that contingent by a process of hormonal negative feedback. Ovulation, in humans, is clearly a wasteful campaign. With every proper cycle, the woman depletes her finite stockpile of seed just to produce one ripe egg worthy of fertilisation.

The abundance of estradiol (as in one of Jasienska’s cohorts), its cyclical throb that makes the woman menstruate and ovulate regularly, also seasons her with pulchritude. In fact, it works on a pro rata basis. The more fetching her form — as defined by Darwin’s evolutionary mating theory — the more regular her periods, the more fleeting her run of fertility. The much ballyhooed ovaries of the Fatima Bhutto strains, ovulating unrelievedly, will thus spend themselves too soon. Perhaps as soon as 35 or 37. After that she’ll be infertile. It’s called Loss of Ovarian Reserve.

The other set, the fugly cohort of ‘unappetising’ (Darwin’s mating theory again, not mine) mardani khawateen, the ones with PCOS are actually subfertile, not infertile, and much easier to treat. What they have is a bit of an internal riot caused by an excess of masculinising hormones. They don’t menstruate or ovulate regularly. That finite stockpile of seed lies safe and unused in the ovarian warehouse, the testosterone contriving to preserve the eggs in a state of deep freeze. With treatment, the embargo on ovulation is lifted and these women can ovulate well into their forties as if it’s the springtime of their lives.

The Fatima Bhutto strains are like the Amaltas, the golden shower tree that is so beauteous in blossom that it takes your breath away. But its efflorescence lasts only about three weeks. That’s because those fragrant yellow dangling sprays will always find pollinators. Three weeks are more than enough. The Fatima Bhuttos are the magnetised females of the species. They will always attract mating partners.

But then look how the unseen hands of the Keeper and Comptroller of Accounts (Natural Selection, not God) level the playing field for the other cohort. The ones with PCOS are actually given the evolutionary advantage. Geneticists call it antagonistic pleiotropy: the same gene having a detrimental effect on one trait but a beneficial effect on another. High levels of testosterone break out as acne and facial hair in women with PCOS but they also preserve ovarian function. These ladies have more time for the mating games. What is lost in sexual signalling is gained in reproductive longevity.

(Ambarish Satwik is a Delhi-based vascular surgeon and writer)


Published on January 25, 2014

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