Ampersand at Alas, a Blog takes on some recent research about obesity and dieting, shredding to pieces some of the myths that persist about the health effects of being fat. Despite all the efforts of the diet industry — a $30 billion a year industry according to NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), making it bigger than Hollywood, pro sports, even porn — clinical research repeatedly shows no benefit from dieting (except in specific cases such as diabetes). What’s more, losing weight — any amount of weight, at any time in your life — significantly increases the likelihood of death. In fact, it appears that “healthy” people actually have a higher mortality rate than “unhealthy” fat people — that is, people with lower BMIs (body mass indexes) are more likely to die than even people who are significantly overweight!
This all goes directly against the grain of our cultural preference for thinness and our notions of what “healthy” is. Look at the mortality rate chart in Ampersand’s post — at virtually every age, people with a BMI in the mid-30s to 40 range have about 60% lower mortality than those determined to be “healthy” by life insurance company charts. This is an almost stunning example of a worldview filtering perceptions — after all, insurance companies make their living on being able to guess more or less accurately which people are more likely to die. The chart here suggests that insurance companies could boost profits by lowering the rates of people currently considered clinically obese and raising the rates of skinny people — which is probably something akin to public relations suicide for the company that tried it!
Fat in Western societies is not, however, primarily a health issue — “unhealthiness” is merely a justification for attitudes like those expressed in response to an experiment described at fatty mcblog. The author, fatty mcgee, put an ad in the personals section at Craigslist New York asking men if they would date a woman who was ideal in every way but was significantly overweight. This is not a particularly scientific study, but the responses are interesting nonetheless. Although a few men responded positively to the scenario fatty mcgee outlined, most respondents described fatness in moralistic, negative terms, with health being raised only as part of an overall point along the lines of “a woman who doesn’t take care of her own body doesn’t respect herself and therefore won’t respect me”. Fat women were described as messy, selfish, childish, unable to take care of themselves, lacking in confidence and self-esteem, lazy, and neurotic (almost all exact quotes). What a bind, then, for fat people — to have their social standing depend on their willingness and ability to lose weight, while research suggests that for most people, losing weight in any meaningful way is not a possibility even if it were medically desirable.
One line in Ampersand’s post strikes me as particularly interesting (from the first block quote in section 2):
[I]n a study of mortality risks among 16,936 Harvard alumni, Paffenbager at al. not only found that the highest mortality occurred in those with the lowest body mass index (below 32), but also that those who had gained weight since college had a significantly lower mortality risk compared to those who had minimal weight gain since college.
Apparently, not only is losing weight unhealthy, but even not gaining weight as one gets older is unhealthy! I think it’s fairly well-established that metabolism slows as we get older; it would seem almost common sense that to maintain the same weight in the face of a slowing metabolism means not simply maintaining dietary practices but steadily and gradually reducing our intake of calories as we get older — in effect, multiplying the overall reduction of capability due to aging.
Now, most Americans have some vague sense that “in the past” fatness was prized as a sign of affluence. In several societies, including our own European forebears, a large body was a powerful body — leading those not blessed with girth to pad themselves to appear more regal, as for instance Louis XIV did. Now it seems that the equation of fat with power may not have been simply about access to more and richer foods — if the well-functioning body is the body that grows larger with time, it would make sense to find privilege associated with size, and thinness a sign not of healthfulness but of an inability to maintain healthiness, an inability related not to willpower or self-discipline but to disempowerment. Which is to say that if fat people are more likely to live longer, than the people we expect to live longer — the rich and powerful — are more likely to be fat.
The American reversal of what seems to be a deeply-embedded biological tendency takes on a different character in light of the research presented by Ampersand. While it is still curious that working- and middle-class Americans have become significantly heavier over the last several decades, this may not be the sign of impending epidemic unhealthiness that it’s often made out as. Americans have long been bigger than their Old World counterparts — immigrants are quite often dwarfed by their American-bred progeny. Perhaps American fatness is simply the further elaboration of the same trend — the body achieving its ideal form in an environment characterized by abundance, both natural and political. The thinness of American elites, then, may not be so much a matter of being better able to afford to be healthier, but rather the reverse — being more able to afford being less healthy. Poor health as conspicuous consumption of the self. It will be interesting to see, as our conception of the ideal physical form is challenged by the weight of accumulating research, how and if obesity comes to be regarded as a norm rather than a deviation. In a society where the norm is already at odds with its own conception of normality — well over half of us are clinically overweight — it is hard to imagine that a continued belief in the immorality of fat is sustainable.