Evolution and the Thong-Burqa Continuum

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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 rush 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 passe. 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 Matters "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? …