Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Belly Flop, Still

Still seeking the hordes of pot-bellied men on the street, and failing. I'm pretty convinced that the Times trend story on pot bellies story was a non-story, but it's been nagging at me. Part of me wonders if it is a trend and women have gained weight over the past year too--the recession upsizing--but that it would be seen as distasteful or disingenious, or even cruel to run a piece in the Times about the increase of women's hip size.

Overall, though, I don't think that the en vogue body has anything to do with how people actually shape their bodies, to the degree that we have individual control over it. That is, we appear to shape our bodies via all sorts of tricks, but the bodies themselves change due to circumstances that have little to do with the "in" body. Female models are as whippetlike as ever, yet Americans are heavier than ever. The "in" body shapes how we think of the ideal, and the emotional reaction we have to it, but it hasn't shaped America's bodies.

Movie starlets of old Hollywood were somewhat heavier than those of today (though not to the degree that some would have it--the whole "Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16" thing is totally bogus, and there's been no time in the past century when the weight loss industry wasn't around, so it's not like women saw The Seven-Year Itch and let out their breath). The average American woman was somewhat thinner than she is today; she weighed 140 pounds in 1960, and 164 pounds in 2002, according to the CDC. Despite the group of people who react to "thin is in" by regimenting their bodies to an unhealthy degree, American women have reacted to a shrinking ideal by getting bigger, not smaller.

The reasons for the expanding American waistline have been plundered from just about every angle--it's processed foods, it's failing communities, it's the income gap. Two possibilities come to mind here:

1) American women are reacting to unrealistic body standards by eating more. Emotional overeating hasn't been explored as much as I'd like as a cause for rising obesity rates, in part because it's hard to identify and examine objectively. But it makes sense that this is at least part of the equation--compulsive overeating is an eating disorder, after all, and it's taken for granted that media images play a significant role in the development of eating disorders that have been explored more thoroughly (anorexia, bulimia). But instead of reacting to images of rail-thin women by starving or entering a binge-purge cycle (and you'd be pressed to find a compulsive eater who hasn't at least tried purging in some way, whether it be skipping meals to "make up" for a box of cookies or by more drastic method), some may just say, "Fuck it" and skip the purging part. Not all overweight or obese people are compulsive overeaters, of course, but a good percentage are. (I've found statistics stating that anywhere from 10% to 30% of obese individuals are compulsive overeaters--the disparity suggests not necessarily bad methodology, but the difficulty in categorizing binge eating, which is only now being considered for categorization in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) And compulsive overeating is caused by all sorts of things, not just reactions to Gwyneth Paltrow. But if there is a correlation between the expanding American body and the shrunken ideal, it could be here.


2) More likely, the relationship between the supposed ideal and the average has nothing to do with hipster rebellion against Obama's abs, and more to do with a desperate need for a style story. Or maybe men are just taking the lead in this recession on the big body = wealth equation instead of leaving it to Depression-style shoulder pads or the stimulus package (note the National Recovery Administration logo on the bottom of this 1934 weight-loss ad, pointed out by Karen Sternheimer at Everyday Sociology. Or maybe Guy Trebay is mistaking unemployed bankers for hipsters, and he's just spotting the laid-off dudes who are suddenly eating mounds of Cheetos instead of managing hedge funds.

No comments:

Post a Comment