Thursday, October 28, 2010

Has The Social Norm For Weight Shifted?

Here's one more piece from that "Why New Yorkers Last Longer" article:1
"Perlstein takes me for a stroll through one of St. Barnabas’ clinics, and it’s hardly a picture of good health. Virtually everyone is overweight, many enormously so: One white-haired woman poured over the edges of a small chair as she sat knitting; she looked as though she could easily crack 300 pounds. “This is our biggest problem,” he says. There’s an ethnic component; Hispanics tend to be stockier to begin with, he notes. But there’s also a cognitive drift among his patients. Since they’re surrounded all day long by people who are huge, they lose the ability to recognize what it means to be overweight. People who are healthy look creepily skinny.

“I get mothers coming in with their kids, and the kids are already looking a little too heavy, right?” Perlstein says. “But the mothers are going, ‘He’s not gaining enough weight! Give me a pill that makes him gain more weight!’ They see being heavy as being healthy—you’re growing. It’s completely the opposite of what people think in Manhattan.” "

This photo is a backstage shot of women who took part in Dove's Real Women Body Wash Campaign (from Lexis PR).

What exactly is overweight? Who decides? If we're surrounded by a certain body type, do we begin to see that shape as normal? Carole Carson asks, "When the majority of us are overweight, is anyone overweight?"

Here are results from a recent Harris Survey that seem to support the notion that social norms for weight are shifting (conducted August 17-19, 2010 among 2,418 US adults ages 18 and older):2
  • 30% of overweight people think they're actually normal size.
  • 70% of obese people feel they are merely overweight.
  • 39% of morbidly obese people think they are overweight but not obese.
This is interesting...
"Most respondents who felt they were heavier than they should be blamed lack of exercise as the main cause, with 52% of overweight people, 75% of obese people and 75% of morbidly obese people saying they didn't exercise enough.

Food consumption was seen as the lesser of two culprits, with 36% of overweight respondents, 48% of obese respondents and 27% of those morbidly obese feeling they ate more than they "should in general." "
I would point to diet as the main cause.

Greg Critser discussed this shift in his 2003 book, "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World."

Critser said that in some places or subcultures there emerged a tacit endorsement of being overweight. (In some places there was overt endorsement.) Chairs in restaurants got bigger, especially in fast food establishments. Clothing sizes changed to accommodate a larger body for the same measurement. And a political correctness emerged - where it was important not to shame people, especially children, for being overweight.

This last point probably arose from the public shaming that took place in the 1960s. It can be illustrated by the following theme song distributed to schools by President John F. Kennedy's Council on Physical Fitness. Its refrain: "Go, You Chicken Fat, Go!"

Also according to Critser, in the 1970s the Council used an advertisement showing a giant marshmallow and declared, "Hey kid! If you see yourself in this picture, you need help!"

Here's the "Go You Chicken Fat Go!" song. This is not satire. I remember it, as well as having to do those President's Council push-ups in the hot sun on the asphalt parking lot next to my elementary school.
"Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and don't be chicken again .... Noooo, don't be chicken again."
"All right girls, you're in this too. Arms over head, flop! C'mon girls!!"

1 Why New Yorkers Last Longer, New York Magazine, 2007
2 Overweight? Obese? Or Normal Weight? Americans Have Hard Time Gauging Their Weight
Carole Carson sited these statistics in her article, "Obesity In America: How the Social Norm on Weight Has Shifted," The Huffington Post, 2010


Carole Carson said...

Excellent discussion here. Thank you for including some of my ideas.

Carole Carson

RB said...

Its hard to counter snack, fast food and processed food industry marketing that make us crave junk food. If the government produced a "Go, you chicken fat,go" ad these days it would be just another piece of the nanny state. I guess fat is the new fashion. Its a shame that people don't realize what fat is doing to their health and quality of life.

Bix said...

Ms. Carson, thanks for stopping by. I just downloaded the OECD document you linked, "Obesity and the Economics of Prevention: Fit not Fat." It looks like a good read.,3343,en_2649_33929_45999775_1_1_1_37407,00.html

Bix said...

RB, can you imagine? That ad? It was a different time...

It sounds like you may have read Kessler's book, The End of Overeating. He made some good points. "Conditioned overeating" and "priming" were two. I think you said you did read it.

RB said...

Bix, I did read Kessler's book. After reading it, one understands how hard it will be to fix the obesity crisis.