Monday, October 30, 2006

Fat Chance, Fat Man

"But she's...fat!"

That's a common judgment and insult in this century and the end of the last. Even with the gangly heroines of Sex and the City permeating our culture, it's not only the big (if you pardon that word) slur of one woman on another.

Lately though, as the Sunday New York Times covers, somatotype seems to have become destiny in much of America. The alternately amusing and reflective piece by NYT science writer Gina Kolata ridicules some of the most recent related hysteria.

She points to scholarly guess-timates of how much an extra 10 pounds of weight costs the nation in car and airline gas mileage, and even how that contributes to pollution and global warming.

The most obvious trend in recent decades is that real or perceived overweight is stigmatized. Many of feel free to insult openly even people who are quite healthy and those who have low body fat, but because of high muscle mass rank as obese on such pseudo-measures as the body mass index (BMI).

Some scholars propose taxes on fast food and meals purchased at drive-in windows. Kolata cites "an annual meeting of the Obesity Society, one talk correlated obesity with deaths in car accidents, and another correlated obesity with suicides. Dr. (Eric) Oliver (U. of Chicago political scientist), who attended, said no one in the crowd of at least 200 questioned whether the correlations were really cause and effect. 'The funny thing was that everyone took it seriously,' he said."

"People are out scouring the landscape for things that make obese people look bad," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. "This is like, let's find another reason to scapegoat fat people."

Even otherwise rational folk can get caught up in group think on such memes. It's not very far from being uncomfortable seeing a morbidly obese man to stereotyping anyone who is not an ectomorph naturally.

We note the obvious irony of the last century. Until a short time ago, secondary sex characteristics were big stuff. Women should have obvious breasts and hips, men massive shoulders and arms.

This came to mind just recently when a high-school classmate was writing on the class reunion site about just such matters. He's still scrawny. Back then, he tried everything he could to gain weight and put on some muscle mass. As a true ectomorph, he never could. Now, he is bragging about his weight, belt size and how he can wear his HS clothes.

The pop culture is quite different now. Even the thin through illness can be fashionable. Nancy Reagan's long-term treatment for anemia doesn't get much coverage. Many point to her frail frame as enviable.

The main medical establishment has jumped on this shift with seeming glee. The BMI, for example, is a great tool for lazy physicians. Rather than evaluating a patient's body fat or doing a meaningful analysis, they can look to what is fundamentally a height/weight chart that even insurance company laugh at. With the BMI, many muscular people are considered fat and many thin looking people with high body fat and low muscle mass are seen as ideal.

Some researchers have little patience for the pop fake science aspects. Among those studying the real problems and looking for ways to make us healthier are:
Among the most salient points of these and others is that there's lots of information about the effects of obesity. The most startling consistent finding is that the skinniest of us tend to die first. You can, in fact, be too thin, too thin for your own good, too thin to live.

You can go to any of those sources above or the places they can point you to for research. A nice overview is Campos. He's read all those tables and methodologies so we don't have to. He became obsessed with the hysteria on the subject and reviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of studies. The gist of the longevity findings include:
  • The thinnest die first
  • The morbidly obese are next.
  • The very thin follow.
  • The pretty fat are next.
  • The ideal follow them.
  • Those classified medically as 5% to 10% overweight live longest
Of course, pop culture has another view. Most of us are uncomfortable around the heaviest and we are willing to believe that every additional pound brings increased health risk.

It's surely unlikely that we as a nation will ever return to those Colonial days when only the wealthy could afford to get fat. Then big-and-tall (as the euphemism goes) men were desirable and admirable.

Yet the silliness of telling muscular athletes that they are obese and knocking on death's door is too far the other way. Likely when the Baby Boomers die in sufficient numbers we'll see clearly from this large demographic that we're left largely with that those charts say are moderately overweight adults.

An unfortunate aspect is that meanwhile the efforts to get us to eat healthier is muddled by this stigma. There are people who are never going to fit the ectomorphic ideal even when they are at their healthiest weights. There are many, particularly the poor, who either do not know what are good foods or know and cannot afford to buy them for their families.

Insulting the chubby doesn't do anything other than increase the self-righteousness score of the nasties insulting them. In fact, Kolata reports that the research indicates that stigmatizing the fattest leads them to eat even more.

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Anonymous said...

There certainly is nothing constructive in ridiculing someone for being overweight. Or for being thin. "Ectomorphs" Might be a technical descriptor, but sounds perjoritive here. This is the land of crass capitalism, so there will always be someone trying to make money off of people's insecurities, whether about weight or whatever. So I'm not surprised by the gas mileage calculations, etc. Our society is so screwed up. When you have to DRIVE to get to a gym to exercise, something is terribly wrong. If we had daily routines that actually required walking and moving around during the course of the workday, we'd be so much healthier and weight would be a rare issue. But exercise gym corporations and cool geeky exercise gadgets are lucrative makers of profit, and mesh well with the demands of the capitalist workplace that forces people to work, eat and exercise in discrete sessions.

massmarrier said...

The "morphs" are good concepts. The three major somotypes -- ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph -- are pretty much the way we're built. Few are entire one type, but we lean toward one. So telling a person whose body does not put on muscle mass even when they try to get big biceps makes as much sense as telling someone who tends to mass fatty tissue in the legs and butt to exercise it off. Right now ectomorphic bodies are fashionable.

You're right on about not picking on folk. Would that we cared more whether someone was honest, empathetic and bright.

juniper pearl said...

Even the thin through illness can be fashionable. Nancy Reagan's long-term treatment for anemia doesn't get much coverage. Many point to her frail frame as enviable.

about ten years ago my mother contracted an illness that caused her to drop close to forty pounds over a few months. while i was running home from college every weekend to make sure she wasn't about to die, her coworkers were pouting enviously and asking what her fabulous secret was. it was unbelievable. after she became healthy again, she returned to her normal weight--and couldn't stand the sight of herself. she's been on some form of diet or another pretty much the whole time since then.

"healthy weight" is precisely that--the weight at which one is healthy. sadly, the weight at which some people would be physically healthy is different from the weight that makes them feel mentally and emotionally stable in the face of society's disdain for all but the trimmest of the trim.