Photo: Juan Camilo Trujillo, CC BY 2.0
In a shocking turn of events, headlines reporting that a “study shows women with big butts are healthier, smarter” are misleading at best.
You’ve seen the headlines on the internet before: it’s a story that makes the rounds every 6-12 months on a variety of different online publications, most of them not great. And it’s been making the rounds since 2013, when Elite Daily told the world that “A Big Butt is a Healthy Butt: Women With Big Butts Are Smarter And Healthier.” The only problem? Unfortunately for fans of Sir Mixalot, it’s not really that true.
The “study” cited (actually a review article) was published in the International Journal of Obesity in January of 2010, and was called “Gluteofemoral body fat as a determinant of metabolic health.” So, first off, “gluteofemoral” means around the glutes and around the thighs, so even if everything else were true, the headlines should at least be saying “fat thighs are good for you” — but this doesn’t line up with the justification of certain standards of feminine beauty the Elite Daily article was trying to reinforce, so that got left out.
Second, you’ll notice the title of the article mentions nothing about intelligence. That’s because there is no evidence that your posterior size has anything to do with your intelligence (sorry).
Some of the articles published about this review make claims that are such extrapolations from it that it’s almost shocking. Take these following direct quotes from the Global News story (Global is a major news network in Canada):
…the review also suggests a larger butt is indicative of a significant storage of Omega 3 fats and favourable leptin levels. Omega 3 fats are credited with boosting brain function, memory, and cognitive abilities like motor and language skills, while leptin is a hormone that regulates appetite.
This same review suggests that children born to corpulent mothers with wide hips are more intelligent than those born to their less shapely counterparts. Because there is evidence that the fat content in breast milk is derived from the lower half of a woman’s body, logic dictates that those with more fat deposits that store higher levels of Omega 3 have fatty acid-enriched milk that is being fed to their children.
Words that do not appear in this review: “intelligence (or intelligent),” “mothers,” “child(ren),” “milk,” “Omega 3.”
So what does the review actually say?
It says that (a) so-called “belly fat” — both outside (subcutaneous) and inside the abdominal wall (visceral) — is a useful indicator of certain health risks, and that (b) fat around your hips and thighs seems to be an indicator that could be used to counter some of that assessed risk.
Basically, it says that the distribution of your body fat is a better risk marker for metabolic and cardiovascular risks than measuring around your gut alone.
Please notice also that the word “healthier” does not appear in that statement. That’s because having less fat tends, in general, to indicate lower risk of heart disease (cardiovascular) and diabetes (metabolic) — this study just refines that assessment further.
So next time this story pops up — and you know it will, because nothing that reinforces our standards of gendered beauty ever really goes away on the internet — just remember to be skeptical.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.