Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)

BODY

Is There Any Body with You?

So, you know glow worms?

If ‘no’ throw the dice, if ‘yes’ go forward five pages. COME BACK, I totally pranked you. It feels wrong to suddenly start talking about glow worms out of nowhere but I think about them all the time, I believe we can learn something from them, so let me tell you about it – STOP LOOKING FOR DICE.

I read that glow worms are dying out and that it was because of electricity. Then I looked it up on the internet and found out some people had been claiming for ages that there were fewer glow worms, but there was no definite proof because it’s really hard to count them and then, even once you have counted all the glow worms, if they’ve never been counted before, you have nothing to compare that number to. So they had to wait and count again, but now it seems certain that glow worm populations are diminishing. Oh dear.

Glow worms are not actually worms, they are little flying beetles and it is only the female glow worm who glows, which is sad for the male glow worm as both of his names are a lie. So the female glow worm lights up, and the male glow worm finds her fuzzy fluorescence very attractive. I’m anthropomorphising, let me be more clinical – the light emitted by female glow worms enables male glow worms to locate them and inspires mating. Male glow worms have been shaped by their evolution and the sexual selection of their species to be ‘turned on’ by the glow that emanates from the female. And then bastard humans put their clothes on and invented conductive wires and lightbulbs and now male glow worms spend a lot of their time mating with street lights, which they think are massive, super-sexy lady glow worms. Idiots.

Lots of animals have evolved sexual ornamentation to attract mates: bright red bottoms, colourful plumage, handsome antlers – all kinds of visual stimuli that advertise health, great genes, lack of parasites and what have you. In nature ornamentation has been a failsafe and trustworthy way of ascertaining mate potential for millions of years, right up until humans evolved to the point of screwing with everything. There are some interesting experiments that scientists have done, and when I say interesting I mean cruel, but also, yes, interesting. They have artificially heightened the ornaments of certain species, attaching dyed feathers, painting bottoms, sticking on super-massive antlers to see what happens. And what does happen? All the lads or ladies go crazy for the super-sexy sex signals and no creature has a built-in bullshit detector. They don’t have a cut-off where they go, ‘Surely, Stephen, those antlers are too big, you can barely lift your head and you won’t be able to fit through the door of the house I’ve got even though I’m a deer.’ Instead they are like, ‘Come over here and rut with me, Stephen, your headgear is flipping amazing.’

As you know, human beings also evolved via sexual selection. Let’s just clarify what this is. Natural selection is the wellknown shaping force that has created our bodies and minds. We adapt to what our environment requires – or rather, those who don’t adapt perish. The genes of the ill-suited are lost as their offspring flounder and fail to produce healthy children. To give a rough, crude and made-up example: imagine some sapiens living in a forest a hundred thousand years ago, and imagine one family had a genetic mutation that made one arm bigger than the other – the left arm, it’s massive. If that bigger arm made them better climbers (to avoid predators), better foragers (they can reach for more fruits and things) and better hunters (they can use their big arm to club things to death) then they will be better fed and safer than other families. Their children have a lower mortality rate, so they go on to have more children with the genes for bigger left arms who also flourish and have more children who survive more successfully than their smaller-armed cousins and, generation upon generation, there are slightly more genes for big arms than small arms. Let’s say one per cent more each breeding cycle. Speed this up: over a hundred generations, over a thousand – if the bigger left arm is still an advantage then many more sapiens now have the genes for it. There are more big left arms in any community, and now it becomes competitive, perhaps about twenty per cent of all the sapiens have this big left arm, but now they are foraging and hunting so well that there is less food for the small-armers, whose children now have an even higher mortality rate, blah blah blah, you can see where this is going, eventually all sapiens end up with a big left arm. It takes millennia but it happens.

Sexual selection is just as gradual a process, but rather than improving the spread of certain genes through an animal’s fitness, it happens via mating opportunity. Imagine there was the same mutation, a hundred thousand years ago, but that hefty left arm does not help with climbing or foraging or hunting. Instead it is super sexy, just plain gorgeous to have a big left arm, and the males from the big-left-arm family have sex with about twenty per cent more females than small-armed fellows, while females from the big-left-arm family have more choice of breeding partners and can select much stronger and healthier males than the average female. Over thousands of generations the genes for this purely aesthetic advantage would have a wider and wider spread. This too could result in all sapiens developing big left arms over tens of thousands of years.

And often there’s an overlap. Imagine if that big left arm was found sexually attractive because it enabled those who possessed it to be better food providers and thus exciting potential mates. With both forces working upon mate selection as well upon any offspring’s survival rates and their mating opportunities, genes would be spread even faster. I’m so convinced by my own argument I’m wondering why people don’t have a big left arm when they are clearly so great – then I remember that symmetry is an important visual signal of health in humans. It proves – or suggests – that there was no illness, parasites or malnourishment in childhood and adolescence apparently. Maybe that’s why the fictional big left arms never stood a chance?

As odd as it is to think about, you are made like any other animal, with ornamentations and attributes that advertise your worth. Your physical composition speaks as to your mate potential. This is an inescapable truth. No matter how civilised we are, typing away in our offices, we are programmed to assess each other, everyone we meet, for indications of health and fertility. This is why beautiful people are more likely to get away with crimes than ugly people, it’s why older women find themselves unrepresented on television, it’s why disabled or physically unusual people have to fight so much social stigma to gain respect and equal rights. As unfair as this seems, as unfair as this is, if we become more aware of our inbuilt animal bias we can improve. We can make better conscious decisions, question our reactions and send good-looking people to prison improve our human interactions.

Just as our judgement of others is based on subconscious evolutionary programming, so is our low-level awareness of being assessed back. It’s why feeling attractive is so closely linked to confidence. It’s behind our urge to manipulate what others see of us through shaping clothing, padded bras, make-up, Instagram filters and, in extreme cases, cosmetic surgery. It’s why being a woman can sometimes feel like being an unwilling shop window – constantly visible and considered an advertisement. Our selfhood is obscured by superficial valuation. Whether we like it or not, women’s bodies evolved physical ornaments that signal our ability to conceive children. It is creepy and unfortunate but instinctual. Men look at women and women look at each other; we assess height and hair shininess and face shape – but the most fundamental adornment, our trustworthiest signal of vitality and potential, the hot brightness of our glow, is fat. Fatty fatty fat fat. Body fat enabled our species to survive; it created the energy store to grow our brains. Like the big left arms of my imagination, a high body fat percentage was both naturally and sexually selected in our evolution. If you have ever felt negatively about any fat on your body, I am about to attempt to change your mind. And mine.