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Why Viewers Are Drawn to Renaissance Artists’ Go-To Pose

A new study finds that the contrapposto stance reduces the waist-to-hip ratio, an attribute popularly associated with attractiveness

Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" finds its subject striking a contrapposto pose (Public domain)
smithsonian.com

A new study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests artists have long known a simple trick for improving sitters’ attractiveness: Just have them pose with their weight shifted to one foot.

This stance—called contrapposto—should be familiar to anyone who has seen Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David. As artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe explains, contrapposto finds subjects placing their weight on one leg to create a slight bend between the hips and waist. (Invented by the ancient Greeks, the pose represents “one of the first examples of artists imbuing into facsimiles of the human figure a sense of movement and emotion.”) Tilting the torso slightly and ensuring one’s arms and shoulders do not run parallel to the hips lowers the waist-to-hip ratio, or WHR, producing a curvy hourglass shape.

To assess the stance’s appeal, researchers led by Farid Pazhoohi, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, created 3-D avatars of women standing up straight or in contrapposto. The team showed these avatars, cropped from the shoulders to the knee, to 25 heterosexual male students and 43 heterosexual females. Overall, Nicola Davis reports for the Guardian, subjects of both genders rated the contrapposto figures most attractive. On average, men were more likely than women to deem the collection of images appealing.

Eye-tracking data obtained by the scientists revealed men and women spent the same amount of time looking at the standing-up-straight avatar’s left versus right sides. But when it came to the contrapposto avatars, subjects lingered on the side with the slight bend—in other words, where the distance between the hips and waist was smallest.

Speaking with Davis, Pazhoohi says artists have long understood the power of contrapposto: “We think that artists … intuitively figured out that this posture is more attractive, and applied it in their artistic endeavors.”

As Dafoe points out, the study did not assess whether men striking a contrapposto pose would be considered as “visually pleasing” as women who did so. The researchers also did not delve into the question of whether preference for the pose is based on centuries of cultural conditioning or biological predisposition—some studies suggest a low WHR correlates with high fertility and fecundity, Psychology Today’s Nathan Lents notes, but “attempts to establish this relationship have [yielded] murky results.”

Pazhoohi, a leading body language expert who has previously studied the appeal of arched backs and inward-facing toes, tells Davis, “When models [walk on the] catwalk or dancers do belly dancing, they try to appear frequently in exaggerated contrapposto body forms.”

He adds, “Similarly, when women walk [in] high heels, it helps accentuate the contrapposto form.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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