What makes some women more inclined toward motherhood than others? According to one recent study, the answers may be written in our bodies, and the evidence may be written all over our faces. The study, published in Hormones and Behavior, concluded that women with more “typically feminine” faces and features were more likely to express desire for children than women whose faces were rated less feminine. Those features also happen to correlate with high estrogen levels.
The study has been met with some controversy, especially among questioning female science writers.
For one thing, what exactly defines a “feminine face”? The study describes full lips, large eyes, a pointed chin, and a rounded forehead. But it doesn’t explain how these qualifiers were determined, or how each face was judged. We do know that the pool of women was rather narrow: female college students, white, wealthy, and all around the same age.
More importantly, as these ladies point out, correlation does not equal causation. Could there be other things going on here?
Scientific American’s SciCurious blog wonders if there might be something social at play.
“are women who are more “feminine” looking perhaps PERCEIVED as less effective in the workplace? Are young girls who look more feminine encouraged to be compromising and passive as opposed to developing more “competitive”, “masculine” traits? Maybe this is as much to do with how feminine features are PERCEIVED, and thus how these women are encouraged to behave, as it does with blood levels of estrogen. Heck, maybe more.”
Also at Scientific American, Kate Clancy says “maternal tendencies are rooted only partially in whatever essential mix of hormones contributes to our being gendered feminine.” The other issues are more nuanced and social- whether we think we could care or provide for a child. But they are no less relevant. And limiting your pool to such a small, young cohort means that some of the social factors may not have kicked in yet.
My concern with this study, apart from questioning the details above, is the further focus on beauty and body as a way of determining a woman’s value. Yes, we already knew that these physical traits were considered attractive. But there’s something more insidious about connecting them with how a woman actually feels, rather than just how she is perceived. Women already have a narrow range of beauty ideals to contend with. And the desire to be a mother is a complex one, often fraught with ambivalence. If a woman happens to have thin lips, small eyes or a square jaw, does she have to feel worried that her face is betraying inferior maternal instincts?