Evolution and the Thong-Burqa Continuum

The “Thong Song,” a rap homage to butt-baring bikinis, was released in 1999, several years after I graduated from an ideologically feminist all-women’s college. Still, I can imagine the predictable, feminist reaction it would have caused among my classmates. They would have decried the song as a kind of chest-beating battle cry, a reprehensible demonstration of how men (or “the patriarchy”) objectify and humiliate women. In fact, many of my cohorts would have used very fancy sociological language to explain that the patriarchy designed the tether-like thong to represent a leash, collar, or strangulation device, bound tightly around women’s genital regions, thus signifying male ownership of the female anatomy.

What they would not have said is that most men just really like butts. They would not have said that a song about an exposed tush is, in truth, a tribute to what many men find pleasing to gaze upon. Most importantly, they would not have tainted their condemnation of thongs or thong songs with any regard for biology, for the very fascinating scientific question of why men enjoy seeing women wear thongs, or why men write songs extolling the virtues of thong wearing.

But the “Thong Song” is over ten years old, and now some fashion reporters tell us the thong is quite passé. In fact, much more au courant, in the bizarre worlds of both fashion and politics, is that other extreme of female dress—the dark, full-body covering robes and headscarves worn by Muslim women, the most extreme version of which is the face-masking burqa. From Mattel’s “Burqa Barbie” to Sex and the City 2’s strained approbation of burqa couture and poolside-appropriate “burkinis,” this style of dress baffles and beguiles the Western mind. And like its polar opposite of dress (or undress), the burqa begs for a scientific, biological interpretation.

Many feminists have pointed to the burqa as a historical symbol and tool of men’s oppression of women. Of course, they are quite correct, and surely most compassionate, rational people regard the compulsory burqa with horror and outrage, whether they understand its deep history or not. According to feminist ideology, however, political and religious history alone are said to explain the burqa, the sexual subjugation that accompanies it, and, generally, male obsession with ownership of the female body. Simply, draconian standards of modesty have been derived from centuries-old religious texts, and forced upon a twenty-first-century population compelled to respect tradition for tradition’s sake. With that historical lesson in mind, many of us scratch our heads and wonder why people don’t just shake off those rusty shackles and get with the program of modernity and enlightenment. But why just slap a label of “historical oppression” on the burqa, or on the thong for that matter, as my feminist classmates would have done? Why should we assume that political or religious history offers sufficient explanations for our species’ behavior? After all, behavioral study of any non-human species falls in the territory of psychologists and biologists. Likewise, biology (and evolution) can help explain what drives our species’ behavior, including behavior with regard to the extremes of feminine dress.

Consider that the burqa and the thong (despite its gradual replacement by the retro-chic “boy short”) co-exist. What a strange species we are, after all. Thongs and burqas are worn by female members of the same species and, one assumes, at times by the same individual female. But consider the thong and the burqa as a sort of continuum, two extremes of our biological personality. On a deep level they tell us more about male-female dynamics than, say, flutter sleeves or empire waists. After all, most men have probably never heard of flutter sleeves or empire waists—which simply illustrates males’ lack of investment in the tedious minutia of female fashion. From a man’s point of view, the more important questions are clear: should I cover her up or expose her natural adornments? What parts do I get to see? What parts do other men get to see? What parts do I want to show off, flaunt my ownership of, and use to make other men envious? Should I instead hide those trophies that will inspire other men to steal from me?

These are questions with deep evolutionary roots that Darwin himself explained in his second, less famous book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwinian sexual selection posits two basic tenets: that individual members of one sex choose individual members of the other sex, and that members of the same sex compete with one another for mates. Much has been written about the first tenet—that an individual’s choice of mate is based on observable qualities that signal good health and good genes. The most famous (and hackneyed) example is the male peacock’s plumage attracting the female peahen. However, many biologists seem almost prudish about extending this elegant theory to humans, where the roles of exhibitionist and voyeur seem to be reversed. Seen through the lens of sexual selection and, specifically, female attractiveness to males, the thong wants no further explanation. No musings about historical oppression or leash symbolism are necessary. It’s simple: thongs expose the derriere. Men fetishize a shapely derriere because their ancestors fetishized a shapely derriere, which is a nutrient repository for future offspring production and maintenance, as well as a visual clue to superior health. In response to this fetish, and for reasons that are just as biologically driven, many women happily comply, and thus begins a sort of fetish-compliance feedback loop.

Like the thong, the burqa—and its less extreme counterparts the chador and hijab—should be seen through the lens of Darwinian sexual selection. However, these garments, unlike the thong, are clearly not a celebration, but a kind of shaming and erasure of female beauty. Still, the extremes of female dress are born of the same basic truth: men take pleasure in gazing upon women’s bodies. The difference is in the conclusion. How must society respond to that basic truth? Celebrate the body or conceal it? Sadly, the burqa illustrates that other, equally important element of sexual selection—male-male competition. Men don’t just like women’s bodies. They know other men do as well, so covering a woman’s body and face not only protects her from the men she would otherwise tempt, it also protects the jealous man who might lose her to a rival (likewise, those rivals are “protected” from acting on their baser instincts). For the burqa proponent, the celebration of sexy body parts is sacrificed in the name of mate guarding. And for men and women alike, that sacrifice is nothing short of tragic.

Of course, at this point in my very “Eurocentric” argument, Muslim apologists would point out that the burqa protects and even liberates women from the leering male gaze. In all fairness, this argument is not entirely without merit. Occasionally, we women welcome the option to erase our femininity, at least temporarily. Who among us has not enjoyed the figure-hiding anonymity of an oversized sweatshirt at a particular time of the month, or simply when we’re not in the mood for attention? In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, women probably are driven to modesty to mitigate the disapproval of other women. Female-female competition, which often manifests itself in gossip and name calling, may better explain why we sometimes intentionally dull our feminine details. (My anthropologist friend, David Puts, observes that baggy clothes shield us from the most common of our fellow females’ insults—“slut” or “fat.”) Of course, being forced (by men, other women, or society at large) to conceal one’s body is the issue—not the burqa itself, nor the relative values of modesty and exposure. Star Trek’s Ferengi women are similarly beholden to the masculine whim. These twenty-fifth-century extraterrestrial females are forbidden to earn profit, prohibited to travel without male permission, and forced to remain naked at all times.

In recent months, proposed burqa bans in Europe have raised many important questions regarding choice, religious freedom, and societal impositions of dress and femininity. Aren’t such bans in observance of some greater good? Aren’t these bans necessary for public safety, eliminating the burqa as an ideal and ready disguise for terrorists or bank robbers? Shouldn’t modern society prevent oppressive Muslims from subjugating women any further? On the other hand, if we regard liberty as the highest value, shouldn’t we respect the freedom of women who choose to wear burqas? Then again, how do we know women really are choosing to wear burqas? And is it any of our business anyway?

Whatever the answers to these crucial questions, we cannot expect to find them by simply weeping over the evils of earlier generations, picking apart religious text, or, for that matter, writing off all men as oppressors and women as victims. Positive social change requires input from many disciplines, including those oft-neglected disciplines, biology and evolutionary psychology. At the very least, we should be wondering why—scientifically—our checkered human history happened in the first place. We should be wondering how science might help explain the bizarre force that drives men to write laws condemning an entire half of their own species to a prison of thick, dark fabric, and to willingly forfeit even their own visual enjoyment in the process.

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