My mother tells the story of how, when she and her sister were kids during the Depression years in Detroit, the neighborhood ladies would say, in Polish, something to the tune of, “That one will live”—pointing at my chubby, golden-ringleted mother—“but the skinny one’s not going to make it.” The “skinny one” was my mother’s older sister Dorothy, cursed from the start, as family lore goes, with a high metabolism and a picky appetite. As my mother tells it, poor Dorothy, refusing to eat much of anything, was given a nutritional supplement called “Lydia Pinkham’s” by my grandmother. Now Lydia Pinkham is remembered for her 40-proof herbal/alcohol concoctions that relieved symptoms of menstruation and menopause, so what exactly Grandma was giving to Aunt Dorothy and for what purpose is anybody’s guess.
More to the point, though, are the observations of those old Polish ladies. At a time when a fairly large number of American children suffered the debilitating effects of malnutrition, and penicillin would not be introduced as an antibiotic treatment for at least another decade, a pale, skinny young girl with “monthly” problems would have been seen as being at high risk of premature death. You would also have to take into account the innumerable child deaths those ladies had experienced and attended to throughout their lives—deaths of siblings, friends, neighbors, and their own children and grandchildren, their bodies carefully washed, dressed, and laid out in candlelit receiving rooms in family homes by the women who loved them. Indeed, through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, child mortality was so common in the United States that, in 1909, the country created the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality, which for the first time kicked off a nationwide effort to address the problem.
So naturally my chunky mother and skinny aunt–in the creased, fading photos I have of them from the later 1930s, they both look drawn and haunted– came to mind when I read about the results of a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health that suggest that a little extra padding on a body might actually lower one’s mortality risk, in contrast to every single thing we’ve been told about how being fat is going to kill us all.
Now, of course what we extrapolate from the naked data is limited to the information provided by the study, which did not control for access to health care or economic status or genetic predisposition. The only fact the study results appear to show for certain is that people who fall above the standard “normal weight” measurement of the popularly used Body Mass Index (BMI) but below the standard for being grossly obese appear to have the fewest common risk factors for death. Alarmist news stories reporting the study’s results made sure to tell their presumably idiotic readers not to run out and “gorge” on “triple cheeseburgers” in an effort to stave off certain death by thinness. (Because, yes, that’s exactly what I was going to do.) Paul Campos observed in an editorial in the New York Times that the root of the American problem with weight may very well lie in our American problem with money and class: “Over the past century, Americans have become increasingly obsessed with the supposed desirability of thinness, as thinness has become both a marker for upper-class status and a reflection of beauty ideals that bring a kind of privilege.”
I have a friend who might be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life, which is the response pretty much everyone has to her. She’s as thin as the typical supermodel. She also lost her colon to disease at a young age. Another friend has told me about how, when she lost a dangerous amount of weight due to a difficult-to-diagnose illness, everyone kept congratulating her on her successful weight loss. My grandmother, knowingly or not, caused permanent ill feelings between my mother and my aunt by labeling my mother “the pretty one” and my aunt “the thin one.”
I was a fat kid, a skinny young woman, and am now, having borne two children and reached solid middle age, slightly above the “normal” range of the BMI. What I’ve found at every age and weight is that there is always somebody who is unhappy with your appearance. If you’re a fat kid you get called names and put on various diets and exercise programs and told by relatives that you’re sure to be a “big woman” when you grow up. It’s not exactly encouraging. If the weight comes off by itself as you grow up and you end up being thin, people will ask you if you want to be that skinny and when you’re finally going to get married. If you gain 40 pounds during pregnancy, they’ll pat your hand comfortingly and say something like, “Don’t worry—that weight will come right off once you’re chasing after the baby.” Chasing after the baby? What am I, a greyhound running after a dummy rabbit?
Nine years later, the last of that baby weight might or might not come off, depending on whether or not I decide to put the effort into it instead of putting the effort into doing fun stuff like roller skating with my kids or walking in the snow with my dogs. If a woman who could stand to lose ten pounds spends enough time going roller skating instead of fussing about her place on the Body Mass Index, will her risk of mortality rise or fall? All I know is that I feel about a thousand pounds lighter now that I’ve finally dropped all that bullshit baggage I carted around for so many years.