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Weight and social class

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why am I suddenly paying attention to how much people around me weigh? I think it's because I'm in an environment where living a healthy lifestyle is like swimming upstream. I think if I lived in Colorado or California, maybe the experience would be different. Here in Kansas City, we love our barbecue and IT SHOWS. After all, this is BEEF country where vegetarians are barely tolerated or dismissed as new age-y west-coast eccentrics. But I've also noticed something else.

Weight really is becoming a class issue. Even in Kansas City, the people you see at a chamber of commerce networking event or the suburban country club are going to be a lot thinner than the folks you see at Dollar General or Wal-mart. This week I visited all of these places and the difference is stark. I don't have hard data, but I would guess that only 20% of upper class or upper middle class people here are obese compared to 65% of less wealthy people.

So what's going on? I will grant you that the wealthy have access to gym memberships, walking trails and organic fruits and vegetables. As far as their grilling habits, I have no idea. Maybe they're throwing tilapia and veggies on the grill instead of pork spareribs and burgers like the rest of Kansas City.

I know the daughter of a colleague of mine who is a millionaire. After she had her third child she flew to the west coast to have a tummy tuck and liposuction so she could regain her figure. Predictably, the next time I saw her she looked absolutely fabulous. I know for a fact that these folks throw down on barbecue because they entertain regularly. But I suppose when you can leave the kids with a nanny in one wing of the house while you work out with a personal trainer in the other wing, a few spare ribs here and there is not going to do much damage.

Contrast that with the rest of us who are living paycheck to paycheck, shuttling kids to school or soccer practice and doing our own housework. It sure is a lot easier to grab some fast food than to come home to a fridge full of unappealing leftovers after a long day. And the weekends? That's for housecleaning, yardwork and visiting the in-laws and running all the errands you didn't have time for during the week. Given this kind of schedule, is it really that surprising that most of us are struggling with our weight?

In a nutshell, it takes real focus and effort to drop the pounds when you don't have lots of time or money, but we also know that it can be done. So if weight control IS possible for a majority of us, and 2/3 of us are fat what gives?

I really think it IS about our social circles. If you belong to one that has a lot of overweight people in it, then their habits become your habits. I think the wealthy and upper middle class belong to social circles that reinforce weight control. They probably dine at places that offer calorie controlled options, meet up at tennis clubs, walk the golf course and exchange tips on how they work out, where they work out and what fitness club or personal trainer they use. If all that fails, they share tips on the best plastic surgeons.

I know the friend of a relative of mine who married a wealthy man. Interestingly enough she had to sign a pre nup that included a clause saying that if she gained more than 20 pounds during the marriage, she would forgo her claim to his assets should they divorce. In other words, if she got fat he had every right to divorce her and leave her with nothing. So she was constantly exercising and just picking at her food. I met her once and she appeared to be 5'7" and weigh about 125 pounds. But she was also living in a fabulous house that overlooked the city and driving a fancy car. I'm sure she has a sense of urgency when that scale creeps up.

I happen to belong to a social circle where thinness is frowned upon and the most prized women are "thick" but only in the right places. When I meet up with friends, we are most likely to go to a buffet where the food is cheap and plentiful. My friends only become weight conscious when it becomes a health issue. So I shouldn't be surprised that although I've long wanted to be thinner, it didn't really happen until I got a sense of urgency.

So if people don't have a sense of urgency, then diet and fitness won't be a priority. For upper middle class and wealthy people, the sense of urgency probably kicks in after the first 20 pounds and is fueled by their social circle. Who wants to be the dateless fat friend? How can you join in on boutique shopping with your girlfriends if you wear a size 14? So off to that appointment with the personal trainer.

Anyway, I don't know what happens among the upper middle class and wealthy. I'm just guessing. Still, the bottom line for all of us is that weight loss doesn't happen with complacency. It only happens when it becomes urgent and that sense of urgency is what drives us to change. Aside from a personal health issue, the single largest contributor to our weight becoming urgent is driven by our social class. That's why the wealthy are thinner.

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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    Interesting. I feel like a contrarian, but here goes. Although I'm not extremely wealthy, I was fortunate come from a privileged background. As a result, I guess I can say I've shared your observations from the other side of the fence. I've pondered the cultural phenomenon many times, and I do believe your theory to be true. We grew up with a housekeeper, and meals were planned and dinnertime was a must. Any food outside of home was a social occasion, and I can't ever remember carryout. The closest thing I remember to fast food was when we went out for ice cream cones. :) Although I REALLY hate exercising, we all grew up with socially "proper" summer and winter sports. Bowling would have been embarrassing. :) You're right, an overweight woman was very rare, although I can remember a number of big, fat, unselfconscious men. It's just the way it was.

    Until I started gaining weight (god's gift to us middle-aged people who love cookies) I never even thought about not being thin. As I grew to become a "Walmart and Dollar Tree lover" I noticed the same things you have. My initial thought was, why do people without much money let themselves get so fat! I'm convinced it's cultural. The food, the activities, the education and the components of acceptance are very different in different circles. I also don't discount the genetic factor - - that is, people tend to marry within their culture and, logically, thin people would have children predisposed to "thinness." Whatever it is, you're right that there is little acceptance of being overweight among the privileged class.
    1909 days ago
    I see the same correlation that you do, and find your speculations as to cause plausible. I'd add one other thing, though . . .

    It's noised about that eating healthfully is no more expensive than eating unhealthfully. That's BS. Optimizing grocery shopping for health may not be any more costly than optimizing for convenience, but it certainly is more costly than optimizing for low cost.

    Right now, I spend about twice as much per month on groceries (food only) than I did pre-Spark. It's worth it, but it is also noticeable in my budget.
    1909 days ago
  • MPLANE37
    I think your analysis is pretty accurate. Essentially you can't overcome the momentum of the society that you live in. If you hang around with people who are fat, the chances that you will end up fat too skyrockets (this was shown scientifically). It works the other way around too, so it is better to hang around with health-conscious people.
    1909 days ago
    My husband and I noticed when our refrigerator was out that cheesburgers and fries at McDonalds were a lot cheaper than a grilled chicken salad at McDonald's. Also that none of the 2 for $20 deals at restaurants in our area include the healthy choices on the menu.
    1909 days ago
    I think there have been studies that support your observation. But I think it's also the other changes in society that contribute to rising obesity in general. I grew up fairly poor and none of us were overweight. My mom cooked all of our meals at home, partly because fast food wasn't as readily available, but also because it was a lot cheaper to cook from scratch when you had a large family. And while cable and video games and computers weren't available yet either, my mother always kicked us out of the house to play during daylight hours so she could clean and do laundry without us in the way. So we biked and swam and played at the local park. But now fast food is plentiful and we all tend to sit still for our entertainment.
    1909 days ago
    You know you hit the nail on the head there. Even in Ireland where I live, the wealthy are generally thin and a large proportion of the working class struggle with their weight. Class wise I'm in the middle myself and noticed that the more educated people become about their health, the better choices they make which impacts on their lifestyle.

    In my opinion the working class are more likely to be overweight because junk food is cheap, quick and easy and this attracts people with less time and money to spare. They are also less active, less involved with sport and spend more time in front of the TV or playing computer games. Maybe their parents were never educated and they were brought up not knowing what good and bad food choices are. The wealthy usually eat better quality food and have always been more conscious of health and appearance. After all most designer clothes are made to fit slim people. They are also into sports in a big way from the time that they are children. A lot of their socialisation revolves around sports. That's my theory anyway! Great blog, very thought provoking!

    1910 days ago
    Sad, yet a true phenomenon.

    1910 days ago
    I live in Southwest Missouri and seems to be even more the theme here...
    1910 days ago
  • CYLIB1
    Quite true!
    1910 days ago
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