The waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) reflects the relative distribution of adipose tissue in the human body. However, whether this is due to the musculoskeletal structures of the waist and hip or the overlying subcutaneous adipose tissue has been disputed. We measured waist and hip girths in 11 male and 11 female cadavers, aged 55-94 years, before and after complete removal of skin and subcutaneous adipose tissue. Girths measured following removal of subcutaneous adipose tissue were termed "waist gx" and "hip gx", and their ratio "WHRx". Masses of regional adipose tissue segments were obtained by complete dissection, and the adipose mass ratios "trunk/arm-plus-leg", "trunk/leg", "internal/arm-plus-leg", and "internal/leg" were derived. As assessed by analysis of variance, WHR accounted for significant (P < 0.05) portions of the variance in all adipose mass ratios; adjustment for internal adipose mass increased the significance of all these relationships (P < 0.005). The ratio WHRx was not related to any ratio of regional adipose masses. Waist girth was related to trunk (P < 0.001) and internal (P < 0.05) adipose masses, and hip girth was related to arm-plus-leg adipose mass (P < 0.0001) and leg adipose mass (P < 0.0001), but waist gx and hip gx were not related to dependent variables. The results indicate that the ability of WHR and waist and hip girths to reflect the regional distribution of adipose tissue in the body is dependent upon the subcutaneous adipose tissue mass of the waist hip area, not its musculoskeletal constituency.