A Recent History of ‘Skinny Fat’ or How Fit Were People in the Old Days? 

Recently in an airport, I saw and bought a rather provocative issue of Scientific American.  The cover declared that humans ‘evolved’ to exercise, while the most similar forms of life – chimpanzees and bonobos –  function very well as couch potatoes, according to human standards.  Later, online, I found several related articles, one of which is titled ‘Does Exercise Really Make You Healthier?’ The consensus seems to be that exercise benefits the heart, the bones, and even the brain and strengthens resistance against both cancer and diabetes.  But if it comes to weight loss as such, the most essential exercise is that of ‘push yourself away from the table three times a day’.

Other articles tell us that chimpanzees and bonobos do not develop related health problems with the absence of exercise, but that the human race [pun too delightful to pass up] grew up running – a lot – and so exercise became a near necessity for us.  Even if you believe in the special creation of humankind, as many Christians do, and that we are not bred from a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, they are still the most similar species to ours.  And whatever differences there are between us can, I believe, be considered marks of the imago Dei and of human exceptionalism.

In recent times the word ‘skinny fat’ has been coined to describe people who are not visibly overweight but whose muscle-to-fat ratio is similar to that of a fat person.  Today, most people in the ‘educated’ classes are expected to run on a treadmill and to lift weights habitually, just as we have learned to brush our teeth regularly.

But before the 1970s, it was not so.  Gyms like Vic Tanny’s existed, and Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, which gave us Mickey Hargitay and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  But so-called ‘body-builders’ were considered a rather odd subculture.  And it must be said that most children and teenagers at that time were not skinny fat.  [I was one of two in my junior high school that were; we were the ‘old maids’ who were last to be chosen for teams in PE class.]  This was for several reasons:

  1. PE class was required for both boys and girls.  And, no, most kids were not on teams, but simply participated in PE class.
  2. The culture was less fearful of child molestation before the Great Panic of the 1980s, and it was not only tolerated but encouraged that most children should spend a lot of time outdoors.
  3. The Internet and video games did not exist, and so unless you were extremely clever or bookish or nerdy [as I was] there wasn’t much to do but to get out of the house. Similarly, young people chomped at the bit to get a driver’s license and get out of the house, which they don’t do so much now.
  4. Even apart from regular exercise, the metabolism of young people is much higher.  So less of what they eat turns to fat than that of the average adult.

I think that in those days, however, most adults would have qualified as ‘skinny fat’ according to today’s standards.  Also, I should note that the suntan was not understood to be carcinogenic in those days, and a suntan is highly flattering to a skinny fat person of ‘white’ genetics.  Many of them resorted to this expedient.  In any case, alot fewer people were visibly fat.

Many urbanists attribute the rise in visible fat to the development of automobile-dependent suburbs.  But the rounding of the American people did not take off then.  There were three factors that came along later, interestingly enough, in the same 1970s that saw the educated classes start to run and pump iron regularly:

  1. The boom in inexpensive fast food chains in all parts of our society, rich and poor.
  2. The development of sedentary recreations like video games and the Internet.
  3. The decrease in households which could afford an adult at home full-time to prepare reasonably healthy meals and care for children.

On the other hand, in the days before the Great Compression [1945-75], even then a lot of the less affluent could not afford a full-time adult at home.  But the poor were not bulbous in those days.  In my mental image of The Grapes of Wrath, the poor are not fat but rather gaunt.   It may still be true today that those poor who have physically exhausting and draining jobs [as opposed to merely mentally draining] are not all that fat.

The journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover and took several menial jobs and wrote a book about it called Nickel and Dimed.  When she had the job at Wal-Mart, she commented on the fat women shopping, but she gave no hint that she or her co-workers, though forced often to live on bad food from fast food outlets, had ballooned into a similar rotundity.  The fat women, I think, were poor people for whom the time pressures were similar, and the food they had to live on was similar, but they may have had jobs that were not as physically demanding.  It was most uncharitable of Ms.  Ehrenreich, I think, not to explore this matter.

At the same time, it is the poor who have ballooned up most conspicuously in our time.  And while more and more poor are living in the suburbs, the inner city [or maybe the inner suburbs] are home to most of them. And these places are not necessarily more dependent on automobiles than the places where the affluent live.  So, to credit the ballooning of America merely to dependence on the automobile, in my opinion, does not fly.

I think that healthier food, perhaps through gardens, needs to be made more available to the poor.  On the other hand, poor people think short term, for reasons that are rational for them [life is uncertain, eat dessert first, that kind of thing] and may go for more pleasurable alternatives, especially when they are more easily accessible .

It is certainly possible to exercise some self-control, even if you have to live on fast food.  Don’t order the largest portion, and totally abstain from french fries, sugary drinks, Cheetos, and such things.  These habits will minimize the damage.  However, the poor need the virtue of hope to be able to get beyond focusing on short-term pleasure.  And for them in particular, hope is a theological virtue, not one that can be derived from their earthly circumstances.

Since Christians are supposed to have a special concern for the poor, we need to think about these things.

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