Human Nature

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 268–279 | Cite as

Why Do the Karo Batak Prefer Women with Big Feet?

Flexible Mate Preferences and the Notion That One Size Fits All
  • Geoff KushnickEmail author


Men may find women with small feet relative to body size more attractive because foot size reliably indexes nubility—i.e., age and parity. I collected judgments of attractiveness in response to drawings of women with varying foot sizes from a sample of 159 Karo Batak respondents from North Sumatra, Indonesia, as part of a collaborative project on foot size and attractiveness. The data revealed a contrarian preference among the Karo Batak for women with big feet. The judgments were compared with the results of an existing cross-cultural study that found a preference for women with small feet in aggregate, but a mix of small- and large-foot preferences in the societies taken individually. Using contingency table analysis, I found that ecology and less exposure to Western media were associated with a preference for women with big feet; patriarchal values were not. The findings suggest that human mating preferences may arise in response to local ecological conditions, and may persist and spread via cultural transmission. This has implications for the concept of universality espoused in some versions of evolutionary psychology.


Mating preferences Evolutionary psychology Universality Karo Batak 



Thanks to Dan Fessler for inviting me to participate in the study. Thanks to Lasma and Evi Sinaga for helping to collect data. Eric A. Smith provided invaluable feedback on the analyses, as did the participants in Biological Anthropology Seminar Series (BASS) in the Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, and the First International Conference on Indigenous and Cultural Psychology in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Supplementary material

12110_2013_9171_MOESM1_ESM.docx (31 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 30.7 kb)


  1. Ah-King, M. (2010). Flexible mate choice. In M. D. Breed & M. Janice (Eds.), Encyclopedia of animal behavior (pp. 730–737). Oxford: Academic.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barber, N. (1995). The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness: sexual selection and human morphology. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 395–425.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berliner, J. S. (1962). The feet of the natives are large: an essay on anthropology by an economist. Current Anthropology, 3(1), 47–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brown, D. E. (1991). Human universals. NY: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  5. Buller, D. J. (2006). Adapting minds: Evolutionary psychology and the persistent quest for human nature. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  6. Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1–14. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X00023992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Buss, D. M. (1994). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. NY: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  8. Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., Crawford, J. R., Welling, L. L. M., & Little, A. C. (2010). The health of a nation predicts their mate preferences: cross-cultural variation in women’s preferences for masculinized male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, 277, 2405–2410. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dickemann, M. (1981). Paternal confidence and dowry competition: A biocultural analysis of Purdah. In R. D. Alexander & D. W. Tinkle (Eds.), Natural selection and social behavior (pp. 417–438). NY: Chiron Press.Google Scholar
  11. Dixson, B. J., Sagata, K., Linklater, W. L., & Dixson, A. F. (2010). Male preferences for female waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141(4), 620–625. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21181.Google Scholar
  12. Ebrey, P. (1991). Shifts in marriage finance from the sixth to thirteenth century. In R. S. Watson & P. Ebrey (Eds.), Marriage and inequality in Chinese society (pp. 97–132). Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fessler, D. M. T. (2006). Steps toward an evolutionary psychology of a culture-dependent species. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, & S. Stich (Eds.), Innateness and the structure of the mind (Vol. II, pp. 91–117). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Fessler, D. M. T., & Machery, E. (2012). Culture and cognition. In E. Margolis, R. Samuels, & S. Stich (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy of cognitive science (pp. 503–527). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Fessler, D. M. T., Haley, K. J., & Lal, R. D. (2005a). Sexual dimorphism in foot length proportionate to stature. Annals Of Human Biology, 32(1), 44–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fessler, D. M. T., Nettle, D., Afshar, Y., Pinheiro, I., Bolyanatz, A., Borgerhoff Mulder, M., et al. (2005b). A cross-cultural investigation of the role of foot size in physical attractiveness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(4), 267–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fessler, D. M. T., Stieger, S., Asaridou, S. S., Bahia, U., Cravalho, M., de Barros, P., et al. (2012). Testing a postulated case of intersexual selection in humans: the role of foot size in judgments of physical attractiveness and age. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 147–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Firth, R. (1936). We, the Tikopia: A sociological study of kinship in primitive Polynesia. Boston: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.Google Scholar
  19. Firth, R. (1962). Comment on “The feet of the natives are large: an essay on anthropology by an economist” by J.S. Berliner. Current Anthropology, 3(1), 65.Google Scholar
  20. Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. NY: Harper.Google Scholar
  21. Gangestad, S. W., Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2006). Evolutionary foundations of cultural variation: evoked culture and mate preferences. Psychological Inquiry, 17(2), 75–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gates, H. (2008). Bound feet: how sexy were they? The History of the Family, 13, 58–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gaulin, S. J. C. (1997). Cross-cultural patterns and the search for evolved psychological mechanisms. Ciba Foundation Symposium, 208, 195–207.Google Scholar
  24. Geary, D. C., Vigil, J., & Byrd-Craven, J. (2004). Evolution of human mate choice. Journal of Sex Research, 41(1), 27–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gottschall, J., Martin, J., Quish, H., & Rea, J. (2004). Sex differences in mate choice criteria are reflected in folktales from around the world and in historical European literature. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(2), 102–112. doi: 10.1016/s1090-5138(04)00007-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., Little, A. C., Burriss, R. P., & Feinberg, D. R. (2007). Social transmission of face preferences among humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society London B, 274(1611), 899–903. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2006.0205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kushnick, G. (2010a). Judgments of attractiveness based on foot size among the Karo Batak. Paper presented at the First International Conference on Indigenous and Cultural Psychology, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, JulyGoogle Scholar
  28. Kushnick, G. (2010b). Resource competition and reproduction in Karo Batak villages. Human Nature, 21(1), 62–81. doi: 10.1007/s12110-010-9082-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Laland, K. N., & Brown, G. R. (2011). Sense and nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour (2nd ed.). NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Levy, H. (1966). Chinese footbinding. NY: Walton Rawls.Google Scholar
  31. Little, A. C., Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Caldwell, C. A. (2011). Social learning and human mate preferences: a potential mechanism for generating and maintaining between-population diversity in attraction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B, 366(1563), 366–375. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Marlowe, F. W. (2004). Mate preferences among Hadza hunter-gatherers. Human Nature, 15(4), 365–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Marlowe, F. W., & Wetsman, A. (2001). Preferred waist-to-hip ratio and ecology. Personality and Individual Differences, 30(3), 481–489. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(00)00039-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Moorad, J. A., Promislow, D. E. L., Smith, K. R., & Wade, M. J. (2011). Mating system change reduces the strength of sexual selection in an American frontier population of the 19th century. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 147–155. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.10.004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Norenzayan, A., & Heine, S. J. (2005). Psychological universals: what are they and how can we know? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 763–784.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pillsworth, E. G. (2008). Mate preferences among the Shuar of Ecuador: trait rankings and peer evaluations. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 256–267. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.01.005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Schaller, M., Norenzayan, A., Heine, S. J., Yamagishi, T., & Kameda, T. (Eds.). (2010). Evolution, culture, and the human mind. NY: Psychology Press.Google Scholar
  38. Sear, R., & Marlowe, F. W. (2009). How universal are human mate choices? Size does not matter when Hadza foragers are choosing a mate. Biology Letters, 5(5), 606–609. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sefcek, J. A., Brumbach, B. H., Vasquez, G., & Miller, G. F. (2006). The evolutionary psychology of human mate choice: how ecology, genes, fertility, and fashion influence mating behavior. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 18, 125–182. doi: 10.1300/J056v18n02_05.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Shackelford, T., Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2005). Universal dimensions of human mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 447–458.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Singarimbun, M. (1975). Kinship, descent, and alliance among the Karo Batak. Berkeley: University of California.Google Scholar
  42. Singh, D. (1993). Adaptive significance of female physical attractiveness: role of waist-to-hip ratio. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 293–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Smith, E. A. (2000). Three styles in the evolutionary analysis of human behavior. In N. C. Lee Cronk & W. Irons (Eds.), Human behavior and adaptation: An anthropological perspective (pp. 27–46). Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  44. Sugiyama, L. (2004). Is beauty in the context-sensitive adaptations of the beholder? Shiwiar use of waist-to-hip ratio in assessments of female mate value. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25, 51–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2007). The psychology of physical attractiveness. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. Swami, V., & Tovee, M. J. (2007). Differences in attractiveness preferences between observers in low- and high-resource environments in Thailand. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 149–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Swami, V., & Tovee, M. J. (2012). The impact of psychological stress on men’s judgements of female body size. PLoS ONE, 7(8), e42593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Swami, V., Henderson, G., Custance, D., & Tovée, M. J. (2011). A cross-cultural investigation of men’s judgments of female body weight in Britain and Indonesia. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 42(1), 140–145. doi: 10.1177/0022022110383319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Symons, D. (1995). Beauty is in the adaptations of the beholder: The evolutionary psychology of human female sexual attractiveness. In P. R. Abramson & S. D. Pinkerton (Eds.), Sexual nature/sexual culture (pp. 80–118). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  51. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989a). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part I: theoretical considerations. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 29–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989b). The innate versus the manifest: how universal does universal have to be? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 36–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19–124). NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Tovee, M. J., Swami, V., Furnham, A., & Mangalparsad, R. (2006). Changing perceptions of attractiveness as observers are exposed to a different culture. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(6), 443–456. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.05.004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wetsman, A., & Marlowe, F. W. (1999). How universal are preferences for female waist-to-hip ratios? evidence from the Hadza of Tanzania. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20(4), 219–228. doi: 10.1016/s1090-5138(99)00007-0.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Yu, D., & Shepard, G. (1998). Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Nature, 396, 321–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

Personalised recommendations