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Tipping the Scale

Early human evolution was tough on our species. Without gunpowder and with mammoth predators roaming the forests, our ancestors were pretty low on the food chain. Calories were scarce and there was a never-ending need for intense physical exertion. As a result, ancient people were physically stronger, and thinner, than people today. And because it required a sedentary lifestyle and food reserves to plump up, only the rich and powerful had the resources to be overweight in those days and accordingly, excessive weight was seen as a status symbol.

With the invention of modern tools things changed – manual labor decreased and food portions increased. Excessive weight in the West went from a symbol of status and luxury, to a symbol of poor health and laziness. But while fatness is a sign of poor health to many, it is still seen as luscious and desirable to others.

When it comes to body size, what seems clear is that most cultures have a strong opinion, but few agree on the “ideal.”

Packing on the Pounds

Americans have a complex relationship with their body image. Diet schemes are a dime a dozen and advertisements for the “celebrity cookie diet” and the “no calorie diet” clutter magazines, billboards and infomercials. Successful reality TV has been built around the personal stories of overweight people desperate to lose weight. Everywhere you turn, the message seems to be: Thin to win.

But when it comes to how much Americans actually weigh, there is a glaring difference between the ideal and the reality. In fact, studies conclude that nearly 2/3 of all Americans are currently overweight. In the latest Gallup Well-Being survey, 36.6% of adult Americans were categorized as overweight, and an additional 26.5% were categorized as obese.

Just as the lifestyle of early humans made thinness a state of necessity, the culture of modern America makes excess weight inevitable. Many Americans work indoors, sitting at desks or standing behind counters. Fast food is the quickest, easiest way for a stressed out, busy American to eat a meal. The 40-hour workweek makes it difficult for many people to find time to cook healthy meals, or visit the gym. We drive more, walk less, and eat larger portions, while cooking fewer meals at home. Obesity has become a way of life in America.

People who have more money are able to eat healthier, more expensive food. They are also able to buy a bike, hire a personal trainer, and join a gym. Despite our rounding bellies and expanding thighs, Americans continue to desire a thin figure because it is seen as a sign of luxury, health, time-off and wealth. Much of our obsession with being thin is market driven. Marketers have done a good job selling the virtues of a svelte figure, and with advertisements showcasing skinny, happy people; it is easy to understand how skinniness became a status symbol.

No Thanks to Knobby Knees

In several non-western cultures, fatness is still the ultimate status symbol. In most of these places, food is scarce and manual labor is the livelihood of the lower class. This is true in parts of Eastern Africa, where powerful community members have the luxury to over-consume fatty foods. There, the thinking goes: A life of excessive luxury, accounts for excessive body weight.

Amongst the Muslims of Eastern Africa, women intentionally pack on the pounds from early puberty until their wedding night in an effort to appear festively plump for their fiancé. The desired look is one of full, luscious, fleshy abundance. Just as there are gyms, workout facilities, diet support groups, and exercise videos in America, places like Mauritania have classes and retreats for women who would like to plump up before their big day. Girls who visit these weight gain centers are fed milk, porridge, and other high fat foods and are restricted in their physical movement. Even after marriage, these women work hard to maintain their rolls and folds.

One explanation for why being overweight is an important status symbol for some women is that there is more distinction between genders in their culture and males and females are supposed to look as different as possible. The desired look is one of plump ripeness, which suggests that the Islamic East African culture considers child bearing one of the essential roles of women and respects the need for extra body weight during pregnancy and times of fertility.

In addition to East Africa, people in Polynesia, Fiji and several other countries in Africa continue to consider fatness an asset.

Haute Cuisine

Meanwhile, in France there is a complex cultural relationship to weight similar to that of the United States. France is known as the Epicurean food capital of the world and also the fashion capital of the world. So on one hand, it is committed to its fashionista image as an elegant, manicured, and slim culture, but on the other hand, France savors its reputation as a place that has its identity invested in the rich and delicious foods that make it the culinary envy of the rest of the world.

Understandably, France is currently having a bit of an identity crisis with weight issues. Its obesity rates are nearly as high as the United States, but France also has major issues with the other end of the scale – skyrocketing rates of anorexia and other eating disorders. French legislators who were once concerned with rising obesity rates are now lobbying for litigation to outlaw fashion models beneath a 25% body mass index (BMI). One of the worst manifestations of eating disorders in France is the rise of websites and blogs that advocate extreme weight loss at any cost. The websites are called Pro-Ana, as in pro-anorexia, and are targeted at adolescent females. So pervasive are the sites that France’s recent legislation allows for the persecution of any one caught maintaining or running one of the Pro-Ana websites. If caught, perpetrators could face potential jail time.

Even though North America, France, and East Africa have vastly different standards of the ideal body weight, it turns out that people everywhere seem to share a “universal” standard of beauty.

The Biology of Beauty

When British researchers asked women from Europe, China and India to rate pictures of Greek men, the women all ranked the same faces as attractive. What did the chosen faces all have in common? Symmetry. All humans share a love of symmetry, balance, and uniformity – at least when it comes to human features. This is true because symmetry suggests resiliency to developmental inhibitors such as pollution, disease and other genetic hazards. People who are less resilient to developmental hazards are the most lopsided – the least symmetrical – and evolutionarily, would be the least likely selected as a mate by the opposite sex. For both men and women, it also turns out that greater symmetry predicts a larger number of past sexual partners. Another indicator of beauty that stays constant across cultures is the waist-hip ratio of women. Healthy, fertile women typically have waists that are 60 to 80 percent the size of their hips, whatever their actual weight. Indeed, a low waist-hip ratio is one of the few features that an undernourished Barbie doll has in common with a fleshy fertility icon from ancient times.

This shared standard of beauty across cultures makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; the features that humans find most attractive are the ones that most differentiate boys from girls during puberty.

While washboard abs may be “in” here, and big butts “in” there, certain standards of beauty are incredibly consistent all over the globe. Amazingly, as different as people seem, as diverse their features are – regardless of class, age or race – we all seem to agree on what will turn heads. So mom was only right to a point: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but either you’ve got it, or you don’t.

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