Saturday, April 23, 2005

Fat and Happy

The New York Times
April 23, 2005

Fat and Happy

Porkers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your diets!

But don't start wearing spandex just yet.

For those of us lacking six-pack abs, this week's report that the overweight live longer is the greatest medical news in history. The authors of this study deserve a Nobel, not just for medicine, but for peace, too.

They have taken away the favorite cudgel of the scolds who used the "obesity epidemic" as an excuse to attack the flabby. The supposedly deadly consequences of fat provided the scientific rationale for the last politically correct form of prejudice.

The fatophobes are fighting on, disputing the new study and arguing that it still shows the fatal dangers of being seriously obese. But they have lost the scientific high ground. Not only do people of "normal" weight die younger than the moderately overweight, the study shows, but thin people die even younger than those of normal weight.

After decades of listening to emaciated ascetics lecture us about diet and exercise, it's tempting to return the favor. We could turn into activists ourselves and stand in picket lines outside gyms with signs proclaiming, "StairMaster = Death."

We could denounce the dangerous role models provided by the zero-body-fat actresses on "Desperate Housewives," or go to Vogue's offices for an intervention with its social X-ray of an editor, Anna Wintour.

"Anna, we want you to put Kirstie Alley on the cover, but that's not why we're here. We're here because we love you and we don't want to lose you. Now, please, for our sake, try this crème brûlée."

But we need to be realistic. One study will not change people's minds, because the crusade against fat was never just about science.

The activists fighting the evil junk-food industry always had a streak of neo-puritanism in them. They cited scientific research to justify their battle against fatty foods, but then campaigned hysterically against Olestra, the calorie-free fat substitute.

Despite the research showing Olestra to be generally safe, the prospect of Americans enjoying fat-free junk food was just too sinful to allow. So was the prospect of calorie-free colas. When soft-drink companies replaced sugar with aspartame, the food police again ignored the research and kept imagining dangers.

It never made scientific sense to terrify women about having flabby hips or thighs, because it was recognized long before this week's study that lower-body fat was medically benign by comparison with the fat at the waist - the kind in the beer guts of men at risk for heart attacks.

In four-fifths of the societies studied by anthropologists, people have sensibly considered a plump pear-shaped body to be the female ideal. Subcutaneous fat was traditionally a sign of fertility and health, a status indicator showing that a woman was not too poor to afford food.

But as food became cheaper and more available, the ideal changed. Avoiding temptation in the midst of plenty became a virtue and a status symbol of the rich. Thinness became a form of conspicuous consumption, what might be called conspicuous conservation.

George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University, calls this shift the King Henry VIII and Oprah Winfrey Effect. In Tudor England, it took hundreds of gardeners, farmers, hunters and butchers to keep Henry VIII fat. In America today, anyone can bulk up without help, but it takes a new set of vassals - personal trainer, nutritionist, private chef - to keep Oprah from looking like Henry VIII.

As long as it's more expensive to be thin, fat will not be fashionable, no matter what scientists find. The survival-of-the-flabbiest theory will not make jiggly hips hip or love handles lovable, so spandex and tube tops are still out of the question.

But the new study does give us ammunition for the beach this summer. The trick is to be subtle when confronted with glistening hardbodies. Don't insult them. Gaze admiringly, and bemoan your own paunch. Then sigh and talk about the future responsibilities you have - children to raise, the mortgage to pay off, the relatives to support.

When the hardbody looks confused, stop and gaze admiringly again before continuing: "God, I wish had your body - and your courage. Good for you! Don't listen to those medical nerds. Go for it! Live lean, die young, leave a beautiful corpse."

For Further Reading:

The Anti-Pleasure Principle: The "food police" and the pseudoscience of self-denial by Jacob Sullum. Reason magazine, July 2003.

Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating by Peter Farb and George J. Armelagos. HoughtonMifflin, 279 pp., 1980.