FRIDAY, May 31, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Dainty, small feet have long been presumed the ideal for females across much of the world, but a tribe living in northern Sumatra in Indonesia beg to differ.
New research reveals that the Karo Batak people, who live in rural villages in the northern part of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, consider women with big feet more appealing.
The finding runs contrary to the idea that beauty is a "one-size fits all" scenario for humans, the researchers say, and that notions of attractiveness are somehow hard-wired into human DNA.
Instead, local "cultural and social influences play a stronger role in mate choice than some evolutionary psychologists are willing to accept," Geoff Kushnick, a University of Washington anthropologist, said in a university news release.
His team believe that the Karo Batak preference for big feet is tied to their rural, agricultural culture, as well as their distance from Western media.
Taking part in the study, one male Karo Batak was overheard to say: "Why would anyone like a woman with small feet? How would she work in the rice field?"
The study involved 159 Karo Batak adults. Each was shown five drawings of a barefoot woman with long hair pulled back and dressed in a shirt and a skirt reaching her mid-calf. The drawings were identical except the women in the drawing had subtle differences in foot size.
The men and women who participated in the study rated the women with the largest feet as most attractive. The women with the smallest feet however, were considered the least attractive.
That's in stark contrast to the general preference for smaller feet in women, which extends across societies into Iran, Lithuania, Brazil, the United States and India.
But the bias isn't universal -- the researchers note that people in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania also prefer women with larger shoe sizes. This type of preference seemed more prevalent in rural societies with less access to Western media.
The variety of preferences runs counter to the notion of "universal" aspects of attractiveness that some say are "hard-wired in humans and that they evolved tens of thousands of years ago," Kushnick said. The new research suggests that local culture "may trump hard-wired preferences," he said.
"The study adds more evidence of the potential for culture to drive human evolution," he added. "Since mating preferences drive sexual selection, it is possible that male-female differences in relative foot size are the product of recent evolution."
The study was published on May 30 in Human Nature.
The American Psychological Association provides more information on attractiveness.