BodyLab and Junk Science

Anna Egerton thinks scientists should take a look in the mirror.


‘Men prefer slender women’. This is the conclusion of a study recently published by Professor Rob Brooks and his team at the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre, UNSW. Setting out to describe the phenomenon of ‘mate choice’, the team created BodyLab, which they describe as a ‘digital ecosystem’. Using virtual 3D models of 20 real bodies, they apply a series of random ‘mutations’ to create 120 different body shapes. Anonymous online participants then rate these figures on a 7-point scale, from least to most attractive, and the winners are ‘bred’ to create a new generation of bodies.

To me, this study sounds like the brainchild of a eugenicist, a college dudebro at a party who enjoys rating women out of 10, and a company designing inflatable sex dolls. Reducing ‘mate choice’ to a 7-point evaluation of creepy medium-grey, feminised bodies with pixelated faces and smooth, hairless skin, turns the complex sociocultural phenomenon of attraction into a sanitised, quantitative process. The active subjects of the study (men) select passive, objectified forms (women) on the basis of neck-down physical appearance alone. Apparently, ‘the most dramatic result was that the average model became more slender with each generation’, leading Brooks to conclude that ‘subjects liked the look of slender models with especially slender waists’.

When bodies slip down the rankings (read: gain weight), they drop out of the BodyLab system; writing for The Conversation, Brooks notes, ‘the families “bred” from the most overweight individuals at the start of the experiment were eliminated in the first few generations’. The cultural narrative linking extra weight with poor health is seemingly corroborated, if only by the conditioned prejudice of the anonymous participants in the study. Socially undesirable individuals are bred out and a new, slimmer population is created—the undertones of social Darwinism are hard to miss.

In his column for The Conversation, Brooks writes, ‘science doesn’t belong to one political position or another’. But science is not done in a vacuum—it is carried out in the real world, by real people, with real identities and real political beliefs. To think that we can shed these at the door as we don lab coats is naïve at best.

BodyLab is a good example of how social values inevitably permeate all science from the bottom up. There is strong evidence that the composition of a research team can influence the assumptions behind a study, as well as the design and methodology used. Statistically, groups that are diverse in gender, race and other factors attract more citations and get published in better-ranked journals. The authors on the BodyLab paper are three white men and one woman; perhaps with more representation of women and minorities on the team, the profoundly sexist and heteronormative assumptions behind the study—like the Neolithic concept that ‘mate choice’ can be reduced to men selecting women, could have been picked up and eliminated.

Exactly why we needed a study to confirm that perceptions of attractiveness are indeed shaped by prevailing beauty stereotypes is beyond me. Why such a study received extremely competitive government funding from the Australian Research Council is even more baffling. Studies like this one play a dangerous role in reifying sexist and heteronormative opinions by legitimating them as ‘scientific fact’. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding writes, ‘our methodological and epistemological choices are always also ethical and political choices’. As long as scientists buy into the myth of the political neutrality and universality of science their research will continue to tacitly uphold the discriminatory values of mainstream society.

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