[hand]I’m sitting at the bar near an attractive woman. Gathering courage, I shift my eyes off my drink and toward her fingers; they tell a story I’m interested in knowing. The lithe digits lift a mixed drink off the bar and swirl the ice cubes around in the remaining inch of amber liquid. Her hand is devoid of a wedding ring or telling tan line, and I notice her ring finger appears to be significantly larger than her pointer, so she’s probably…athletic?
A study recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine indicated the second to fourth finger ratio of a female is a predictor of her athletic ability. Researchers at King\’s College in London studied hand X-rays of over 600 females aged 25-79. Females typically have a ring finger that is roughly the same size as their pointer finger. However, the study\’s findings indicate that women with substantially longer ring fingers tend to excel in sports, particularly those involving significant amounts of running, such as tennis and soccer.
Many female readers are probably looking at their hands right now to see if they\’ve got the gift. The rest of you are probably rolling your eyes at the absurdity of the assertion.
But members of the MSU women\’s tennis team didn\’t roll their eyes at the study. Rather, the five players at practice eagerly lined up to have their hands checked. All five confirmed that their ring fingers were longer than their pointers. Lacking scientific tools of measurement, I didn\’t question their findings. I attributed this unlikely ratio to cognitive dissonance. They know they\’re good athletes, so they must have long ring fingers.
But the women were a little hesitant to give their finger length full credit for their athletic ability. \”I think genetics plays a role in terms of how good of an athlete you are,\” said tennis player and communications senior Sarah Andrews. \”If [finger length] has something to do with genetics, then maybe,\” Andrews said.
\”I think it\’s also your mental toughness. If you want to do it, then you\’re going to do it,\” said natural sciences freshman Christine Milliken, who is also on the team. She never previously considered the possibility that the size of her ring finger could determine her ability to swing a racket.
[josi]Another student athlete, human biology senior Josi Brynick, laughed at the idea as she removed her right hand from the pocket of her hoodie and examined her ring finger, which happened to be quite long. An athlete all of her life, she currently plays center-mid on an off-campus soccer team. “I have no idea. Maybe it’s possible. But in sports, you need skills. If people enjoy what they are doing they continue and get better,” Brynick said.
It is important to note that the study does not attempt to prove causality. It would be an error to assume that long ring fingers cause athletic ability.
Scientists often have tried to read the physical body as if it were a text, attempting to explicate unseen information from the tangible form. The finger-length study is an extension of a long-running curiosity.
Phrenology was one of the earliest attempts to read the physical body. Practitioners of phrenology attempted to determine personality and character traits by reading the head of an individual. The theory, developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall in the 19th century, was based on the assumption that functions of the brain were extremely localized. Because of this belief, phrenologists would attempt to create personality profiles of individuals by feeling or reading bumps on their heads. A large brain bump in a particular area might mean that a person was particularly willful or obstinate. The absence of a bump in another spot might mean that a subject lacked a sense of humor.
The theory was quite popular in its time, but it sounds absurd to anyone with an understanding of modern science. According to MSU associate professor of psychology Zach Hambrick, anyone still practicing phrenology is \”in the same league as fortune tellers.\”
Somatotype theory is a more contemporary attempt at reading the physical body. The theory, developed by psychologist William Sheldon, rose to prominence in the middle of the 1900\’s. Based on his investigation of 4,000 photographs of male bodies, Sheldon classified human\’s into three distinct physical groups: ectomorphs, endomorphs, and mesomorphs. Sheldon ascribed character traits to each of the body types. For example, the mesomorph label was applied to an individual with a muscular or athletic stature. According to Sheldon, mesomorphs are typically competitive, courageous and assertive. Like phrenology, somatotype theory has suffered a significant decline in popularity, but not all readings of the physical body have been discounted.
Although studies of the head are still clouded in a shroud of pseudo-scientific stigma associated with phrenology, the scientific community seems to have reached a consensus that there is a significant relationship between head size and IQ. In fact, a research article published this October in the journal Pediatrics indicates that the head size of a child in her first year of life helps determine her adult intelligence. So don\’t laugh the next time you see a baby with an unusually large cranium–she\’ll probably be your boss some day.
Scientists believe head size is related to intelligence, but the theory is controversial because of the exploitative ways the data have been used historically: to support political or ideological agendas, such as racism. In 1839 anthropologist Samuel George Morton found that the skulls of white people were on average larger than blacks, a finding which was used to promote a theory of racial superiority. According to Hambrick, head size studies have been associated with supporters of eugenics, those interested in advancing or perfecting the human species through programs such as selective breeding.
[fingers]In this context, the seemingly innocuous finger ratio and athleticism study assumes an ominous quality. According to the King\’s College researchers, their findings \”could help identify individuals at a pre-competitive stage.\” This is a startling statement. It conjures up images of young girls, who, because they were born with a long ring finger, are separated from their peers and put in Olympic training camps. And of course they’re denied an education, because that’s for the kids with big heads, not fingers.
Critical theorists argue that all texts embody an ideology and often promote ideas not explicitly stated. Texts can also be twisted by the reader to promote his or her own agenda. Reading the body can be viewed in this light too. Our bodies can be read in ways that we are not always aware of and in ways that we do not always approve of. And they can be read erroneously.
So should we, or scientists, refrain from reading the text of the body? Should we cease to examine the relationship between physical features and intangible traits? Of course not. The danger of reading a body lies in assuming that an individual’s physical features tell the whole story, in assuming that reading the cover is the same as reading the book.

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