Body Image and Health 3/7/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

A few days ago, a few students were discussing diet and body image as I passed. Teaching lab is so deadly dull, and if they’re discussing topics as I pass, sometimes I will jump in. Like on this day.

A couple of preliminary comments. First, I teach at a women’s college (one of the few remaining I suspect), which means the students feel a certain freedom to discussing topics in public that they might not be willing to discuss in a typical mixed gender institution. Second, I should mention that I’m rather slender. While many men my age are sporting “beer bellies” and “dad bodies”, I’m actually relatively slender. I’m not muscular by any stretch of the imagination; I don’t have a “rockin’ bod”, but I very much fit into the “normal” to “slender” category.

Having said that, I must add that personally, I think that our society has not only unrealistic opinions of “attractive” body types, but unhealthy as well. I believe that people should be happy with their body. If somebody wants to change their body image, I support that, but always hope it’s for the right reasons: to improve health; to become more competitive in a desired sport; or because they want to have a body that makes them happier. The wrong reason is to fit into societal “norms” of beauty. What’s more, I believe that comparison to this norm only leads to stress, which is also unhealthy.

So, these students were discussing their weight as I passed. I pointed out that I seem to be unable to put on weight. My diet is actually very bad; I love fatty foods, including greasy fast foods, and sweets to the point of eating entire boxes of cookies in a single sitting. And yet, at 5’9”, I tend to hover around 150 lbs which is pretty much the middle of the “healthy” zone in a Body Mass Index chart. But, am I really all that healthy?

One of the students joked, “Stop bragging!” So, I challenged her asking if it’s really a good thing. See, I have a plethora of health issues; I’m diabetic, have high cholesterol, suffered a heart attack, nearly had my appendix explode among other problems. The reason that I have the body that I have is that I cannot process food normally.

This is not a good thing. With the foods I eat I should be far heavier than I am, so to have the body I have means that I have health issues that prevent me from gaining weight normally. Just because somebody looks slender doesn’t necessarily make them healthy; it can mean that there are deeper issues.

Attractiveness based on weights kind of fascinates me, especially as it has changed through the years. Today, “slender” (or, more correctly, “unhealthily skinny”) and “fit” are the desired bodies, but it hasn’t always been like that. In the Renaissance, overweight was attractive (look at the paintings of the era). I’ve been told this is because overweight meant the financial means to eat and eat well. Wide hips in women used to be considered very desirable because it meant an ability to have many children, while there was a time that the leg calves of men were very attractive to women. Don’t asked me why, but it’s why men used to put out their leg when they bowed in Victorian England.

One of the things that people find attractive is symmetry. This is the result of a relatively recent study. A fun experiment is to reflect one side of a face on the other. It’s interesting, everybody has more or less two faces when this is done, and they will look very different from one another (one usually looks distinctly sweet and the other evil), but it’s been discovered that if somebody looks too dissimilar, it’s not attractive. The authors of the study have suggested that this might be due to health. Attractiveness is linked to a desire to procreate; to have children. A symmetrical body and face is related to health. Asymmetry is often because of health problems, so symmetry means healthier, and healthier genes means healthier progeny.

Most of my students are interested in the medical profession. This institution panders to these medical arts (nursing, physician assistant and so forth). I have to admit, I enjoyed throwing a monkey wrench into their thought processes, getting them to consider that a slender body might not necessarily mean healthy. At my age, with my health problems, my slender body is anything but attractive. It’s just another sign that I’m heading towards the grave.

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