Tag Archives: bodies: fat

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Last year the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study aiming to determine the relationship between body mass index and the risk of premature death. Body mass index, or BMI, is the ratio between your height and weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, you are “normal weight” if your ratio is between 18.5-24.9.  Everything over that is “overweight” or “obese” and everything under is “underweight.”

This study was a meta-analysis, which is an analysis of a collection of existing studies that systematically measures the sum of our knowledge.  In this case, the authors analyzed 97 studies that included a combined 2.88 million individuals and over 270,000 deaths.  They found that overweight individuals had a lower risk of premature death than so-called normal weight individuals and there was no relationship between being somewhat obese and the rate of early death. Only among people in the high range of obesity was there a correlation between their weight and a higher risk of premature death.

Here’s what it looked like.

This is two columns of studies plotted according to the hazard ratio they reported for people.  This comparison is between people who are “overweight” (BMI = 25-29.9) and people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9).  Studies that fall below the line marked 1.0 found a lower rate of premature death and studies above the line found a higher rate.

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Just by eyeballing it, you can confirm that there is not a strong correlation between weight and premature death, at least in this population. When the scientists ran statistical analyses, the math showed that there is a statistically significant relationship between being “overweight” and a lower risk of death.

Here’s the same data, but comparing the risk of premature death among people who are “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are somewhat “obese” (BMI = 30-34.9).  Again, eyeballing the results suggest that there’s not much correlation and, in fact, statistical analysis found none.

30-34.9

Finally, here are the results comparing “normal weight” (BMI = 18.5-24.9) and people who are quite “obese” (BMI = 35 or higher). In this case, we do see a relationship between risk of premature death in body weight.

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It’s almost funny that the National Institutes of Health use the word normal when talking about BMI. It’s certainly not the norm – the average BMI in the U.S. falls slightly into the “overweight” category (26.6 for adult men and 25.5 for adult women) — and it’s not related to health. It’s clearly simply normative. It’s related to a socially constructed physical ideal that has little relationship to what physicians and public health advocates are supposed to be concerned with.  Normal is judgmental, but if they changed the word to healthy, they have to entirely rejigger their prescriptions.

So, do we even have an obesity epidemic? Perhaps not if we use health as a marker instead of some arbitrary decision to hate fat.  Paul Campos, covering this story for the New York Times, points out:

If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that does not increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.

That’s 79%.

It’s worth saying again: if we are measuring by the risk of premature death, then 79% of the people we currently shame for being overweight or obese would be recategorized as perfectly fine. Ideal, even. Pleased to be plump, let’s say, knowing that a body that is a happy balance of soft and strong is the kind of body that will carry them through a lifetime.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Reimagining Barbie: Villain or Victim?

Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.

Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do.  It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”

Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.”  It was a bold and bizarre marketing move.  The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her.  It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.

But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project.  Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating.  We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women.  In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.

But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?

What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us?  This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project.  Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin.  What if  Barbie is a victim, too?

Excerpted with permission:

14 1a 53Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering.  Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection.  We’re all in this together.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Louis C.K. on Assortative Mating

Usually, you want to match up with someone at about your level, or a little higher.  The trouble is that many people overestimate their own level.  Maybe that’s especially true of men.

One summer many years ago at the tennis courts, a guy I didn’t know  came over and asked me if I’d like to play. I hadn’t arranged a game with anyone, but I didn’t want to wind up playing some patzer.

“Are you any good?” I asked. He paused.

“Well, I’m not Jimmy Connors,” he said (I told this was many years ago), “but neither are you.”

In chess and other games, serious players have ratings. Give a roomful of possible partners, they can sort through the ratings and find a match with someone at roughly the same level.  It’s called assortative mating, though that term usually refers to the other kind of mating, not chess.  It’s the basis of the conflict in this poignant scene from “Louie.”

Vanessa is not a ten, neither is Louie.  According to principles of assortative mating, the tens will wind up with other tens, the nines with nines, and so on down the attractiveness scale. One problem in the “Louie” scene is that Louie seems to have an inflated view of his own attractiveness.  He’s aiming higher than Vanessa.  That’s typical.  So is the importance that Louie, the man, places on physical attractiveness. This excerpt begins with Louie telling Vanessa that she’s a really beautiful . . . . He can’t bring himself to say “girl”; he’s probably going to say “person.” But he’s obviously not saying what he thinks.

Or as Dan Ariely and colleagues concluded from their study of HotOrNot members:

[Men] were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than females were. [Men also] were less affected by how attractive they themselves were . . .  In making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.

Another dating site, OK Cupid, found a similar pattern when they looked at data about who gets messages.  They asked their customers to rate profile photos of the opposite sex on a scale of 0 to 5. They then tracked the number of messages for people at each level of attractiveness.  The graph below shows what women thought and what they did – that is, how attractive they found men, and who they sent messages to.

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Men who were rated 0 or 1 got fewer messages than their proportion in the population.  That figures. But even men who were only moderately attractive got more than their share. Generally, the fewer men at a level of attractiveness, the fewer total messages women sent. The 4s, for example, constituted only 2% of the population, and they got only 4% of all the messages.  The Vanessas on OK Cupid are not sending a lot of inquiries to guys who look like George Clooney.

But look at the men.

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Men are more generous in their estimates of beauty than are women. But they also ignore the Vanessas of the world (or at least the world of OK Cupid) and flock after the more attractive women.  Only 15% of the women were rated as a 4, but they received about 26% of the messages.  Women rated 5 received messages triple their proportion in the population.

What about those with so-so looks?  Women rated as 2s received only about 10% of the messages sent by men. But men at that same level received 25% of the messages women sent.  The women seem more realistic.

Vanessa too has no illusions about her own attractiveness. She refers to herself as “a fat girl,” and when Louie, trying to be kind, says, “You’re not fat,” she says: “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? [pause] ‘You’re not fat.’” But it’s only when she challenges Louie’s view of his own attractiveness that their relationship starts to change.

Y’know if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see?

What?

That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together.

She doesn’t explain what she means by “totally match.” It could be their interests or ideas or personalities, but the imaginary stranger looking at them from over there couldn’t know about any of that. What that generalized other could see is that they are at roughly the same place on the assortative mating attractiveness scale.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Are You Working Hard Enough to Achieve Your Natural Body?

We commonly hear claims that men are naturally more muscular and physically intimidating than women.  “It’s a biological fact,” someone might say.  If that were true, though, we wouldn’t have to work so incredibly hard to make it so.

@IllMakeItMyself sent in this great example of the way in which we are pushed to force our bodies into a gender binary that we pretend is natural.  On the upper right part of the Men’s Health cover, it reads: “Add 15lb of muscle” and, right next door on the Women’s Health cover, it reads “5 ways to lose 15 lbs.”

If we have to try this hard to make it true, maybe we’re not as different as we think we are.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

New Documentary: The Illusionists

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Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is Sugar a Diet Aid? The Answer Depends on the Decade

Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

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The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Privilege of Assuming It’s Not about You

Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body.  Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain.  The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her.  She chose to publish several at Salon:

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Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this.  I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds.  Maybe that cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone?  Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her?  Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?

In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo.  The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach.  In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman.  This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”

But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity.  The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects.  Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body.  In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.

And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too.  Was that person rude because I speak with an accent?  Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black?  Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair?  Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.

For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

“Shed Your Weight Problem”

Our recent post collecting examples of creative resistance to sexually objectifying advertising was a big hit, which makes me think y’all are going to love this one.  The National Eating Disorder Information Center paid to put up a creative ad/trash can.  It reads “Shed your weight problem here” and encourages passers-by to dispose of their fashion magazines.

2 3Another great example of how organizations can creatively push back against the harmful messages spread by corporations for profit.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.