By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
Delicate features, smooth skin and an hourglass figure may be what most men look for in the woman of their dreams, but among one indigenous population in Indonesia, male suitors crave a more unusual characteristic – big feet.
Anthropologists studying the Karo Batak people living in scattered rural villages in northern Sumatra have found that men there are more attracted to women with big feet.
They say this contradicts theories that humans are hard-wired to prefer a universal set of physical features that evolved tens of thousands of years ago.
In most societies, men report finding women with petite features, including feet, as more attractive, but among the Karo Batak they are drawn to women with the largest feet.
Dr Geoff Kushnick, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who conducted the latest research, said the Karo Batak may prefer large feet in their partners as suggests they can move more easily when working in flooded rice paddy fields.
He said that other rural societies with little experience of western media, and so western ideals of the perfect woman, may show similar preferences.
He said: “The Karo Batak showed a marked preference for women with large feet.
“There is a tendency for rural societies with less exposure to Western media to exhibit a similar preference.
“The results contradict the hypothesis that a preference for small feet should be found cross-culturally.
“Cultural and social influences play a stronger role in mate choice than some evolutionary psychologists are willing to accept.”
Dr Kushnick asked 159 Karo Batak adults to rate five drawings of barefoot women that were identical apart from subtle differences in foot size.
Both men and women taking part judged the drawings with the largest feet as more attractive.
Previous research in Iran, Lithuania, Brazil, the US and India found that women with small feet tended to be more attractive.
Dr Kushnick, whose work is published in the journal Human Nature, said he has now found similar preferences for bigger feet in rural communities in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania.
He said this may be because bigger feet are an indication of greater strength and so productivity in the rice fields.
He said: “Universal features of physical attractiveness are typically thought to suggest that mate choice criteria are hard-wired in humans and that they evolved tens of thousands of years ago,” Kushnick said.
“This new research supports that idea that cultural transmission of mate preferences allows humans to adapt to local environments, and this may trump hard-wired preferences.”