Weight Loss Is A Status Thing

By Graham Peterson

It’s tautological to say that weight loss, or skinniness, is a status thing.  Everybody knows that it’s more desirable to be athletic and slender than it is to carry substantial fat.  The question is why.  And I’ve never heard a great answer.

We think fat is “gross,” but there is virtually no reason to think so.  It’s a completely arbitrary cultural distinction.  The link between fat intake and heart disease has been, like just about every other diet insight that’s emerged in the last 50 years, taken down.  And I could probably spend a much longer blog post linking all of these rousing arguments about biophysical mechanisms linking diet to various health outcomes.

It isn’t the physical content of diets that make them desirable.  It is the form of dieting itself that is important.  To wit, dieting is a cultural expression of self control, and rituals of self control have been widely recognized in social science to be a distinguishing feature of modern (at least Occidental) definitions of civilized behavior.

People who act “ghetto” or “white trash” are marked for expressing their emotions in an unbuttoned way.  Presumably everyone feels about the same things at about the same level of intensity, and the variance in human action comes from people’s outward performance of those emotions.  The difference between a child and a grown-up, too, is marked by the degree to which one confines their emotions to “socially appropriate” channels.  Crazy people are, by definition, just people who don’t have control over the outward expression of their internal states.

And so you see: crazy people, children, and the poor, are all low status because they do not control the expression of their internal desires.

In a a post-industrial society where the real price of food has fallen through the floor because of technological improvement, where manual labor is no longer common, and where people still looove tasty food, people get fatter.  Suddenly, a new opportunity for a status ritual to emerge presents itself, and all manner of dieting and exercise rituals have emerged in order to give people a sense of moral purity and distinguish themselves from one another.  It’s sociology.

Who makes a point to show off their exercise routine to others?  Upper middle class people.  They jog around their neighborhoods in get-ups that are designed to fit close to the body and accentuate the slender effect.  “I have a lot of self control.  Accept me.”  The men run with their shirts off.  People go to places that are literally called “the [health] club” in order to hob nob with their status peers.  They go to Whole Foods to demonstrate their moral purity, eating “clean” foods and making sure to keep those pounds down.

When people enter in to old age, they get a status distinction purely in terms of their life tenure.  We respect our elders.  So we let it slide when Grandma turns a little senile and makes comments about blacks at Thanksgiving dinner, and when older people literally “let themselves go” and get fat.  It’s all about self control.  As soon as people don’t have to search for a partner, which is of course itself a giant status game, they often times start gaining weight.

This isn’t to say that various measures like eating only steak three meals a day or exercising five hours a day won’t slim you down.  They will.  But the motivation for the ritual has absolutely nothing to do with the physical effects of poor diet, and everything to do with cultural status distinctions.  It’s entirely about the outward performance of self control and discipline that provide people a sense of in-group moral sanctification.

Update: I also think this is why diet foods have one thing universally in common: they all taste bad.  Again, denying oneself the pleasure of the taste of their food is the important part of the ritual, not the physical attributes of cardboard kale.

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4 thoughts on “Weight Loss Is A Status Thing”

  1. Just because saturated fats are not the cause of obesity, doesn’t cancel out any negative health consequences associated with “fat”/obesity (and the medical science on that is far more convincing). Additionally, the positive health benefits of regular exercise are also well documented – including studies showing improved mental functioning. Even outside of these reasons explicit “health” reasons, a jog or exercise session can be a nice way to clear one’s head and can even have a relaxing effect afterward.

    Of course, there is an incredibly large gap between what is considered a medically healthy weight and what is considered a socially “desirable” weight (same thing applies to amount of exercise). For this the meatheads and the organic raw juicers deserve all the ridicule they get (especially the ones who post images like these on facebook: http://www.allthingsgym.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/socrates-quote-physical-training.jpg), but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. There are very sound medical reasons for wanting to “slim down”; it’s not all social status seeking. I guess I’ll give some disclosure here: My knee problems saw a drastic improvement when I went from 260lbs to 215lbs over the course of a year, accomplished mostly through eating out less.

    And as a final side note regarding this sentence:
    “Who makes a point to show off their exercise routine to others? Upper middle class people.”
    The gym closest to my current residence in northwest Detroit is a data point against this claim.

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  2. Good point on the Gym memberships. I used to live in a (different) ghetto in Chicago where there was a makeshift community/youth gym down the street. Moreover, gym memberships are a function of income, so it’s not totally surprising upper middle class people frequent them more often.

    I think I overplayed the “weight loss has absolutely nothing to do with physical outcomes” hand in the post, and a more nuanced analysis would figure out what portion of exercise and diet is motivated by improved physical outcomes and what was motivated by improved cultural outcomes.

    Nice comments, thanks.

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    1. I see the point you were getting at, and understand the type of people you to whom you were referring. At an old job of mine there was a husband-wife coworker pair who were really into fasting, juicing, raw food, vegan, organic, pesticide free, going to the gym before and after work, blah blah. They pretty much thought it made them immortal. Didn’t have the heart to tell them that they would probably die of cancer circa 80 years old like everyone else. I do however, enjoy the looks from the obsessive gym rat/crossfit types when I mention the severely REDUCED lifespans of hardcore athletes.

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      1. Yeah I think the new left health craze crowd is a particularly good caricature of what I am talking about, but I am definitely going for something more general here. I had a history professor point out once that cultures with very low technology often privilege heavy people, and we, a culture with high technology, privilege skinny people. I think the diet-asceticism-as-moral-rectitude mechanism gets us at least part way to an explanation. Thanks for coming by!

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