1. Archive

Thin isn't in the cards for Americans

Summer is coming in, and women everywhere are starving themselves in hopes of looking svelte and sexy _ or at least halfway acceptable _ in their bathing suits. Well, not everywhere. Pathans, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, find nothing sexier than a fat backside: The erotic peak of a Pathan movie comes when its star waggles her well-padded posterior at the camera.

Pathan women are lucky in at least this respect. They may not have the vote or affirmative action or dishwashers, but at least nobody expects them to live on cottage cheese and undressed Romaine.

And neither should we, according to David F. Williamson, M.D.

Williamson, an epidemiologist at the National Centers for Disease Control, was in the news recently when a study he supervised found that women who quit smoking gain an average of eight pounds _ twice as much as the 1990 surgeon general's report had estimated.

He knows that, to some women, an extra eight pounds is more than good health is worth. And, predictably, he thinks that's dumb.

But he goes further. Williamson thinks that, if we had any sense, we'd give up on being thin in the first place. Just flat out forget it.

Thin just isn't in the cards for most Americans, he says, for several pretty obvious reasons. As a nation, we have access to a steady food supply. We have infectious disease pretty much under control. We have machines to do most of the heavy lifting. A lot of us work sitting down, and almost all of us ride around in cars instead of walking. These are not circumstances likely to produce a lean populace.

Still we try, women especially. A recent survey found that, if Americans could change one thing about themselves, two-thirds would change their weight. A survey a couple of years ago found that two-thirds of all overweight women were on diets _ and so were half of all normal-weight women, and one in six of the underweight women.

Only men ask why. Women already know that what they should weigh to fit late-20th-century America's definition of healthy is inevitably five or 10 or 20 pounds more than what they should weigh to fit late-20th-century America's definition of beautiful. This is why most "normal-weight" women _ and some "underweight" women _ still "need" to lose five or 10 or 20 pounds.

But most of them can't, without starving. Which is why, for so many women, food is a matter of guilt.

It's why the weight-loss industry accounts for $10-billion a year _ $17-billion if you throw in the gyms and aerobics studios that make up the "fitness" industry.

It's why, when an editor of New York Woman interviewed women about food last year, she kept running into weirdness: Women who could tell her exactly what they ate yesterday, down to the last half-slice of unbuttered toast, women who'd only eat chocolate chip cookies when their boyfriends weren't home, women who, even though they weren't anorexic or bulimic or even (technically) overweight, were obsessed by food and by weight. It's why Henry Jaglom, exploring the same territory on film in Eating, can plausibly present a woman who has no problem with food _ as long as she can avoid eating before 11 p.m.

It's craziness, and now scientists are beginning to suspect that trying to get thin is actually making us fatter, thanks to the dreaded "yo-yo effect." You diet, you lose 10 pounds, you celebrate by eating like a normal person, you gain it back, you try to lose it again, but you can't: The diet put your body on famine-alert, and now it's more determined than ever to preserve its precious fat stores.

When it comes to fat, biology truly is destiny. Over zillions of years of human evolution, when famine struck, the thin people died first. Women with fat hips lived longer. Pregnant women with fat hips had a better shot at delivering healthy babies.Nursing mothers with fat hips could still nurse.

We are descendants of those fat-hipped women. It's been drilled into our genes for millennia that we owe our lives to fat hips _ and fat stomachs and fat backsides. We'll never persuade them that looking like Claudia Schiffer _ a woman so skinny her arms are thickest at the elbows _ is more important than survival.

If we had any sense, we'd learn to see the aesthetic potential of fat hips, the way our great-grandparents could.

At the turn of the century, I read somewhere, the average chorus girl was 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 140 pounds _ and people thought her hips were sexy.

Why can't we think so, too?

Patricia McLaughlin has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.