A few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine, Tara Parker-Pope wrote an excellent piece, “The Fat Trap,” which is, of course, about being fat, a problem that plagues many Americans and seems to be spreading to other countries as well. As I have dieted off and on since I was young a girl in the late 1960s, I was keenly interested in what Parker-Pope had to say. Because I have been dieting for so long, I have been able to observe, first hand, the developments that have unfolded around being fat in the 20th and 21st century. (That’s one of the benefits of aging; it certainly gives you perspective.) Therefore, the next few posts will examine being fat, being thin, and how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off, and I will be referring to Parker-Pope’s piece. I have recently lost 40 pounds, using a technique called “Controlled Cheating,” which not only works—albeit with a lot of effort—but which also seems to make biological sense, and I’ll be writing about that, too.
First, a brief history. In the United States, being fat started becoming a real problem in the 1960s, when the ultra-thin Twiggy became oh so fashionable. Before that, being a little “fleshy,” as one of my aunts would have put it, was considered not only acceptable but also sexy. (Marilyn Monroe and her generous proportions come to mind.) After Twiggy, that all changed, and for women, thin was in, so to speak. Nobody wanted to be fat, and dieting became the norm for most American women and girls. Ironically, in the following decades, although thin continued to be in, many woman’s bodies blossomed until they went past Marilyn Monroe’s voluptuousness to become truly fat. (Men, too, have put on weight since the 1960s, but a thin man is not considered as sexy or as desirable as a thin woman. Buff, yes. Thin, no.)
All sorts of theories developed as to why women couldn’t be as thin as they desperately wanted to be. They were weak; they lacked will power; they had psychological issues; they were compulsive; they were food addicts; they couldn’t control their appetites. (And is there anything worse than a woman who can’t control her appetite?) All these theories created a lot of guilt, and much shame and scorn was heaped on overweight women. The feminists, bless them, sensing that something was rotten in the land of being thin, claimed that fat was their issue, and to hold women to impossibly thin standards was damaging both physically and mentally.
The older I become, the more I am aware that life is full of contradictions, and in this country, being fat is rife with them. Women are held to impossibly thin standards, and fat is a feminist issue, although perhaps not in a straightforward way. (Can it be a coincidence that the thin craze began at around the same time as the women’s movement and the advent of birth control pills? It could be, but I don’t think so.) Yet women, and men, have indeed gone beyond being fleshy to being truly fat, and children are fatter than they ever have been in our nation’s history. We are an obese nation, despite our almost crazed obsession with being thin, and with this obesity come real health problems, ranging from diabetes to strokes to joint problems.
Here’s another contradiction to consider. Back in the supposedly repressed 1940s and 1950s, when it was acceptable to be a little plump, men, women, and children ate cake, cookies, and other sugary treats with a guilt-free abandon that we in the 21st century can only marvel at. But on the whole, they were thinner and healthier than we are today.
There are several hypotheses for this: more home cooking, less commercially processed food, less high-fructose corn syrup, less fast food, more time spent outdoors, and less time in front of a screen. Who knows? Perhaps all these things play their part, and maybe over time there will be a definitive answer.
One thing is certain: fat is a complicated issue as well as a feminist issue. Will power is also an issue, but in an unexpected way. Perhaps even more surprisingly, it seems that our own biology and how we evolved as humans play a big role, and in upcoming posts, I’ll be writing about how will power, biology, and evolution have influenced obesity.