Weight as a cultural identifier
Yesterday, Marc Ambinder had an epic post that was an amalgamation of a bunch of research he’s been doing and conferences he’s been attending on the topic of rising rates of obesity with Americans. The focus of his post was on preventing obesity in children, but I’m going to talk about this little bit at the end that actually surprised me:
The heritability quotient for obesity is .65, which means that obese people tend to produce obese children; whether this is a consequence of genetics, epigenetic factors, pre-natal nutrition — it’s not clear. As kids and adults, obese people tend to cluster with obese people…..
Without reversing the trendline, obese kids will continue to self-segregate; stigma within their group will be reduced, which is good, but it will grow among thin people, there will be more intergroup tension. John Edwards’s two Americas: a fat America and a thin America, coming in about 15 years to neighborhoods near you.
I was surprised to read that there’s evidence showing that fat and thin people self-segregate. Why? Because while like does tend to run with like, I usually assume that “like” means something deeper and more related to your personality and cultural markers you’re comfortable with rather than your weight. But after I thought about Marc’s post, I realized that our culture is beginning to treat fatness as if it were one of those traits that says something about you, an identity marker.
For instance, take this show “More To Love” that’s been well-discussed in the feminist blogosphere. The entire premise of the show is that fat is enough of a identity marker that fat people should date fat people and thin people should date thin people, and crossover relationships are so unusual they aren’t even to be considered. (Until they get their own reality show, I suppose.) Renee Martin wrote a piece about it, where she noted this:
Why did FOX choose a large man to date full-figured women? Is it impossible to picture an average size man who pursues plus-sized women? There is no better way to show that these women just don’t fit in than by pushing the myth that only a large man could find fat women attractive.
Of course, to ask the question in the first place is to fall into a rabbit hole, because obviously, if you’re going to do a dating show that makes the very un-TV-like claim that fat women can be sexual, then of course they’re going to say that fat men deserve love, too. And asking the question, “Why a fat man?” implies, unfortunately, that the “prize” of the man doesn’t count unless he’s thin. I suppose the flip side of that is how many sitcoms pair fat men with thin women, and so you could ask, “When do women get their turn on TV?” But again, that buys into the idea that thin is automatically more attractive.
But if you look at it from the cultural perspective Marc Ambinder lays out, then it becomes interesting. Is “More To Love” reflecting and reinforcing the sense that where you fall on the fat/thin scale is a “like” that attracts like? TV shows are even more aggressive than the public in assuming that you want to hook up with someone who not only thinks like you but looks like you. Still, that reality shows are pairing fat with fat and thin with thin indicates that producers, at least, suspect that these categories make sense with the public, and as the research Ambinder is reporting on indicates, then those producers are right. If so, why do people feel this way about body size? Is it a matter of discrimination—i.e., thin people refusing to socialize with fat people—or is it more a matter of self-segregation? Or is it that other cultural identifiers that keep people in a group are ones that determine weight, so perhaps yuppies are skinnier than the public on average and hang out because they’re yuppies, and that leads to these numbers. I’m guessing the Pandagon readership has some interesting theories and opinions on this.