Interesting article in the “Weekend Review” of the New York Times, to the effect that, although the “overweight” BMI category is actually the healthiest in many ways, as long as being overweight is associated with poor socioeconomic status, our beauty standards probably won’t change:
Two years ago, federal researchers found that . . . . there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight than would have been expected if those people had been of normal weight. This is what might politely be called the chubby category, with body mass indexes (a measure of weight for height) of 25 to 30. A woman, for instance, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs between 146 and 175 pounds.
. . . Dr. Brown is among those social scientists who say that being thin really isn’t about health, anyway, but about social class and control.
When food was scarce and expensive, they say, only the rich could afford to be fat. Thus, in the 19th century, well-do-do men with paunches joined Fat Men’s Clubs, which gave rise to the term “fat cat.” Heavy women of that era were stage stars. Lillian Russell, “airy fairy Lillian, the American beauty,” weighed 200 pounds.
Those notions of fashion gradually gave way to a more streamlined physique.
. . . . How did we get to this point?
George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University, calls it the King Henry VIII –Oprah Winfrey effect.
Henry VIII, king of England in the 16th century, “was huge,” he said, which was a symbol of his wealth. To get that way, Dr. Armelagos said, “it took 100 people collecting food for him and cooking it.” Compare that to the billionaire Oprah Winfrey. “She has to have a dietitian and cook and a trainer so she doesn’t get to be like that,” he said.
Today, poorer people are most likely to be fat and so, said Abigail Saguy, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, “fatness is associated with downward mobility.” Weight has thus become a moral issue couched in health concerns, she said. After a while, it almost becomes inconceivable that anyone would see a fat person differently.
So what does this all mean for the chubby among us, who may be the healthiest, or at least, the most likely to live the longest? Will chubby become fashionable? That may have to await the day when chubby becomes inextricably linked to health, or privilege.
What it boils down to is that in our society, where food is plentiful and often not very nutritious, and where people of all classes might be working at desks, it takes a lot of money and/or leisure time to get or stay thin.
And since we equate wealth with moral value, well . . . you do the math.