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From bums to bosoms: Why do we obsess over female body parts?

The first time I took notice of a celebrity body part was during a scene from the 1973 movie The Way We Were. Barbra Streisand, who already had her nose going for her, was in the role of Katie, who encounters her ex-husband (Robert Redford) outside the Plaza Hotel in New York. They embrace, and the camera whirls around behind Redford's back so we can watch Streisand's long, fluttery fingers dance across his broad shoulders. Have a look at the cover of the album for The Way We Were. It stars Streisand in a black, turban-like head scarf and her left hand splayed strategically against a pale wall.

I didn't start my week thinking about Streisand's hands, but, somewhere around Wednesday, that's what I was doing, pondering their possible importance along with that of Kim Kardashian's bubble butt. (All I can say is that this column can take you to surprising places, and I'm not just talking about Paris.)

It seems to me the culture has become increasingly obsessed with physical identity markers. Recently, Jany Temime, who designed Daniel Craig's form-fitting Tom Ford suits in the new Bond movie, Skyfall , explained to The New York Times that "his body is his signature." Parts of famous bodies have always been a part of how we "know" people. Betty Grable, the pinup girl and actress, was known for her legs, which her movie studio insured for $1-million. But now, we're inundated with them: the late Nora Ephron's neck, Dolly Parton's breasts, Rihanna's midriff, Michelle Obama's arms, Paula Broadwell's biceps and Angelina Jolie's right leg, which spawned a Twitter feed on Oscar night this year, when she displayed it through the slit of her black velvet Versace Atelier gown. And I probably don't need to remind you that behind Kardashian's derrière we have that of J.Lo and Pippa Middleton. It is safe to say that Middleton's end was her beginning.

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It's a collective form of navel gazing – literally. What are we to make of this Frankenstorm of body parts? Well, the answer is just as much a composition as the subject is – equal parts celebrity culture, fitness craze, evolutionary psychology, the Helen-of-Troy bias (I'll explain later) and the fashion industry's glorification of the human form. Oh, and gleeful distraction. Don't ever let anyone tell you that style is a simple-minded thing.

In Victorian times and earlier, the flash of a woman's slim ankle was considered a sexy body part. But now, with transparent panels in gowns, plunging necklines, thigh-high slits and revealing lingerie worn onstage, we see far more. Hello, side boob. What we can see is what we fixate on as indicators of sexuality, identity and beauty.

And much of the fascination can be pinned to celebrity worship. When an actor is on the screen, he or she is in extreme close-up, looming over us in the audience, where we look to the slightest movement in a face and body, the lift of an eyebrow, the hint of a smile, the way a hand is lifted, the gait, to tell us something about the character. We gaze up at them as lovingly as an infant looks into a parent's face for information. Their bodies become ours to study, fetishize and admire, as if they're our lovers. And with the 24/7 news cycle, you feed the monster with whatever you can, including Shakira's growing baby bump and Madonna's labia, as seen onstage in a recent performance.

The female body has a history of being objectified, of course, with the parameters of femininity being codified by social guidelines about how a woman should dress. Which is why Hillary Clinton's peek of cleavage can create headlines and why we beheld Broadwell's toned biceps as an indication of her character when pictures surfaced of the mistress of David Petraeus dressed in a sleeveless outfit to talk about her biography of the four-star general and former head of the CIA. No cleavage in sight under a turtleneck-style, sleeveless top? But what Popeye arms! Suddenly, the 40-year-old mother of two and counterterrorism expert was not the stereotypical floozy mistress with a cantilevered frontage, but a determined six-minute-mile woman whose ambition was suspect. Do those biceps suggest she's muscling in where she shouldn't?

Where the discussion about identity and the physical beauty of body parts becomes fraught is the impact that message has on teenage girls and their emerging senses of self. But apart from a discussion about the fashion industry's influence (good or bad), aren't we all interested in the perfection of body parts as an expression of beauty? And isn't it our interest in perfection that explains our prurient fascination with its antithesis – the tabloid publication of celebrity cellulite and bad beach bodies? Evolutionary psychologists will say we're attracted to the gorgeous because beauty is seen as a marker of health – and superior genes. And there's Plato's "golden proportion" theory, which he developed, in part, to explain the beauty of Helen of Troy, whose physical appearance set off a war and made her the toast of ancient Athens. To him – and to scientists who later studied the psychology of beauty – it's perfect symmetry that besots the human eye. (Okay, the Parton bosom and Kardashian butt don't quite fit that harmonious ideal, but they're the exceptions.)

Also, I think the human body is simply a beautiful, wondrous landscape that we study and gaze upon as we might a pastoral one. This was brought home to me recently with an exhibition of paintings by Andrew Cheddie Sookrah, Parallel States of Being, at Toronto's Arts & Letters Club. In some pieces, he juxtaposes the human body with icebergs in Canada's Arctic. The body is a study of movement and grace, sharp and soft edges, crevices and hillocks, impermanent as icebergs. This reminded me of the fashion industry's love affair with the body – the dip of a clavicle, the delicate crescent of an earlobe. I thought of how Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor, would direct focus to the body parts of Marisa Berenson, the It Girl of the 1970s. Her swan neck. Her skull under her pulled-back hair, which Vreeland called "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Sure, we would like that the whole is greater than our parts and that a person can be known, truly, for who she is, not how she looks. But the parts can be, in themselves, quite extraordinary marvels of engineering, design and beauty, the Kardashian posterior being a possible exception – a but, as it were.

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