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NY Times: “Chubby Gets a Second Look” | Manolo for the Big Girl

NY Times: “Chubby Gets a Second Look”

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.

9 Responses to “NY Times: “Chubby Gets a Second Look””

  1. Julie November 11, 2007 at 6:33 pm #

    Do “we equate wealth with moral value” so much as we equate wealth with social value? Is it that the society looks at fat people and thinks that they are bad people or that they think fat people are low and not worth attention? The conflation is particularly interesting given that the article seems to concern itself only with class and power. I would argue for example that the “jolly” stereotype confers a high moral value (fat people make other people happy) while denying a high social status (fat people are only fit for supporting roles and don’t need or can’t be in the hero/ine role).

    Probably just a poor choice of words but it caught my eye.

  2. Sniper November 11, 2007 at 8:37 pm #

    I do think that in American culture – generaly, mind you – thinness is associated with efficiency, good time management, self-discipline and a concern for appearances, and that these qualities have been elevated to virtues. Worse yet, I think these qualities have been elevated above kindness and humility. Too bad.

  3. Bridey November 11, 2007 at 11:13 pm #

    “And since we equate wealth with moral value, well . . . you do the math.”

    Ummm…. as the old joke says, what do you mean “we,” kemo sabe? Julie’s distinction between “moral value” and “social value” is dead on. There is no large body of opinion contending that wealth is a sign of moral value or superiority, and the idea that it may be such a sign is certainly not a societal value that can be freely attributed to “we” in any general sense.

    But I think Sniper’s qualifications are well-taken: To the degree that thinness is associated with wealth, and thinness is associated with moral superiority in some areas, there is some overlap. And wealth may also be considered an indication that a particular person is especially ambitious and hard-working, which is important to those who value those qualities — but that’s not the same thing as a general societal belief in the overriding “moral value” of the wealthy.

    Rich people get many breaks in this society (as where not?), but being considered morally superior to the rest of us ain’t one of them.

  4. deja pseu November 12, 2007 at 9:55 am #

    I was raised in a family where weight was indeed considered a prime moral barometer. I was told (constantly) that being fat was indicative of my weaker character and lack of willpower. Never mind that my skinny sister and I were both served the same foods and portions, it was somehow my “lack of willpower” that was responsible for my size. This just to say there are people out there who do indeed assign moral values to weight, as well as those who assign social value.

    On the plus side (no pun intended!) it’s great to see a mainstream publication actually acknowledging the lower death statistics among the 25-30 BMI group.

  5. Bridey November 12, 2007 at 10:38 am #

    Indeed, nobody doubts that some, even many, people assign moral value to weight. We’ve all run into that.

    What Francesca said was that “we equate wealth with moral value.” And I’m sure somebody does, but it’s hardly a mainstream opinion. Nobody is pointing to, say, Rupert Murdoch or Paris Hilton as moral paragons because they happen to have a few bucks.

  6. Anon4 November 12, 2007 at 11:07 am #

    I agree with Sniper.

    Also, we may not equate wealth with virtue, but in our bizarre manifest-destiny society, there is definitely a pervasive attitude that poor people are poor because they are doing something wrong.

  7. Cat November 12, 2007 at 12:29 pm #

    “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.”

    This is not necessarily true. Some of us are naturally thin, or have a natural predisposition to staying thin without much effort. I devote about two or three hours per week to exercise, and it costs me nothing aside from the purchase price of the appropriate clothing and footwear, and the purchase price of my stationary bicycle. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and I have a BMI of 19.

  8. Eilish November 13, 2007 at 2:24 am #

    Interesting article. I, too, think Sniper’s comment is spot on. I think that the main impression I get from people, including family members who ought to know better, is that I am fat because I am somehow lazier and more self-indulgent than they are. If that were true, it would be a character flaw.

    However, I would much rather be who I am, live an active life and eat good food, than constantly obsess over what and how much I am eating and what I look like to others. I think the latter demonstrates a self-absorption that has become too acceptable in society anyway.

  9. K November 14, 2007 at 5:48 pm #

    “… a moral issue couched in health concerns…”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. Weight has just become the latest, most acceptable means of judging others. I have hope that society will move past this Basis for Judgment just like we’ve moved past many others. I just don’t know when that will happen…

    Also? BMI as a measurement tool? Is about as accurate and is as equally ridiculous as the scale in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”