Professors' research explores
body shape, gender issues


A Texas A&M University professor has been studying since the late 1990s how shape and size affect perceptions of attractiveness and gender. Overall body shape and the waist-to-hip ratio have been the traditional variables examined in such research.
A study published in the September issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, done by researchers from New York University and Texas A&M, found that the swagger or sway in a person’s gait provides observers with cues to that person’s sexual orientation. This conclusion was derived from three experiments, two of which used computer-generated animated figures and one which used real people who were filmed from behind while walking on a treadmill. In the later study the video images were filtered to obscure personally identifying information and the precise amount of shoulder swagger and hip sway in each volunteer’s gait was measured.
Across all three studies, over 250 undergraduate students at New York University – where the study’s lead author was a faculty member before joining the faculty at UCLA – observed the walkers and judged sexual orientation. The first two studies documented that gender-atypical body motion strongly affects perceived sexual orientation and the third study demonstrated that while such motions are diagnostic of sexual orientation for both men and women, they are used accurately only when judging males; that is, observers were correct more than 60 percent of the time when judging male walkers, and were at chance levels when judging female walkers.
The findings are part of mounting evidence that sexual orientation may be what social scientists call a “master status category,” or a defining characteristic that observers cannot help but notice and that colors all subsequent dealings with the subject.
One of the authors was Louis G. Tassinary, associate dean for research in Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, who is an experimental psychologist by training. He says his work with students in the Visualization Laboratory in Texas A&M’s College of Architecture prompted his interest in the area of person perception and believes that these findings may someday prove useful in the field of computer-generated animation.
“Algorithms based on results like these might provide the foundation for the automated generation of animated characters with particular psychological attributes,” he says.
Tassinary joined the faculty at Texas A&M in 1990, a year after the Architecture Department opened its “Viz Lab.” The program has attracted considerable attention in recent years in Hollywood and elsewhere around the nation.

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