I n 1964, Ronald Reagan said, "We were told 4 years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well, that was probably true. They were all on a diet" (Reagan 1964). Contemporary associations between socioeconomic status and diet/body size vary widely, most notably based on the level of development of the region. While the discourse surrounding the level of "development" of an area is fraught with allusions to a history of colonialism and cultural inequality, such a discussion is beyond the purposes of this text. In general, "developing countries," as opposed to "developed" ones, are not industrialized and have a small economy. In addition, measurements of poverty or low socioeconomic status vary from classification based on income, education, occupation, etc.
It has been found that in more developed countries, low socioeconomic status tends to be associated with obesity, while the upper classes are thinner. Socioeconomic status relates to both ethnicity, levels of education, as well as economic status. In developing countries, as opposed to developed ones, obesity is apparent in higher socioeconomic groups and correlated with declining need for physical activity (Hill, A. 2002: 67-71). However, this trend may only be applicable to women as opposed to men or children. Studies have shown that women of lower socioeconomic classes are six times more likely to be obese than women in higher income brackets (Sobal and Stunkard 1989: 260-75).
In developing countries, those living in true poverty tend to be thin. This is attributed to the inadequate food supplies in these countries that make the prevalence of obesity impossible among the poor. According to Robert Pool, "the explanation seems obvious: only the wealthy classes can reap the same 'benefits' that are ubiquitous in the Western world, such as plenty of tasty, high-fat food and little need to exert oneself physically" (2001: 173). This distinction between developed and developing countries is so unambiguous and universal that if a country's poor begins to shift from underweight to overweight, it indicates that a "nutrition transition" has occurred. At this point, food scarcity is not an issue and the amount of food consumed is more of a matter of free will, rather than circumstance. With the increasing availability of fat and the corresponding increase in fat consumption, this transition is occurring at lower levels of gross national product.
The association between upper-class status and thinness in developed countries has been explained in a number of ways. In the U.S.A., the link between low socioeconomic status and obesity has been attributed to the lack of fitness facilities in poorer areas and the increase of new technologies that yield low paying jobs requiring little physical exertion. Meanwhile, those in higher income brackets can afford the money for personal trainers and gym memberships, as well as the time to use such facilities. Research also attributes the poverty-obesity link to the affordability of unhealthy foods (Drewnowski and Specter 2004: 6-16). Because foods that are high in sugar and fat are less costly per calorie than fish, fruits, and vegetables, people with lower incomes have unhealthy diets and are more likely to become overweight. Discrimination against obese people may also contribute to the class differences; overweight women, in particular, experience greater job discrimination and are less upwardly mobile than their thin counterparts. A difference or increased emphasis in dogma regarding weight and dieting may also be the cause of class distinctions in body size. For those in upper classes, social pressure and the belief that hunger is a virtue and obesity a vice may contribute to a greater emphasis on achieving thinness (Campos 2004: 231; Pool 2001: 171-4).
Given the popular and statistical associations between socioeconomic status and obesity, one might assume that people strive for thinness in order to reflect a higher class standing. However, in the religious sphere, Father Divine of the Peace Mission Movement in the U.S.A. represented an embrace of corpulence as a victory over poverty, which arose from the poverty experienced during slavery. Divine used indulgent food consumption and elaborate banquets to unite his followers, preaching that spiritual improvement would be expressed in one's physical body that would also be free of death and disease. Meanwhile, people outside of this community viewed such obesity as a "sign of poor health, laziness, or (ironically, in this case) poverty" (Griffith 2004: 147-54). Contrary to his society's norms, Divine linked unrestrained eating and large body size to success. This belief may be more widely held in the developing countries where such a statistical association exists.
The strong link between obesity's consequences and low socioeconomic status has affected our "battle"
against obesity. Based on the assertion that buying cheaper, unhealthy foods contributes to obesity, some advocate the creation of a "fat tax," which would make unhealthy food more expensive with the hope of compelling people to make healthier diet choices. In addition, the widely publicized cases of fat children being removed from their homes are more prevalent among those of lower socioeconomic status. The case of Anamarie Regino of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is one example where obesity is linked with relative poverty, as well as ethnicity. At a very young age (three years old), Regino grew unusually quickly to a large size (130 pounds and twice as tall as average). The state took her away from her parents and placed her in foster care, claiming that Regino's health was in grave danger, even though her parents had visited hospitals and doctors in search of a remedy for their daughter's weight. Healthcare experts had advised putting her on a diet that was essentially a third of the normal daily caloric intake for a three-year-old. Eventually, the parent's regained custody of Regino under the condition that she conform to a diet and exercise plan (Campos 2004: 99-106). The extreme measures taken with regards to children may be due to their vulnerability. In addition, many studies have suggested that one's socioeconomic status as a child influences adult obesity from "the early establishment of behavioural patterns, such as diet and exercise, or through metabolic changes associated with early deprivation" (Okasha et al. 2003: 509). However, the dearth of cases of anorexic or underweight children being removed from their parents underscores our aversion towards obesity and may also indicate a lack of willingness to question the parenting skills of the upper class.
Yet the link between poverty and obesity does not mean that low-income persons do not diet. According to a i994-6 survey by the American Dietetic Association, of people whose household income was 30 percent below the poverty line, 15.2 percent were reportedly dieting. This is only slightly less than the 16.7 percent of dieters among people with larger household incomes (Paeratakul et al. 2002: 1248). This dieting behavior shows that a smaller body size is valued by all of society, regardless of socioeconomic status.
The existing link between socioeconomic status and body size is ultimately reflected in society's greater respect for the higher-income group's body type. The connection may be influenced by the people's surrounding conditions but is also reinforced by societal pressures.
Consequently, it appears that body size is now among
"the most visible markers of social class," which, therefore, encourages dieting behavior (Campos 2004: 225).
See also Anorexia; Developing World; Globalization
References and Further Reading
Campos, Paul (2004) The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health, New York: Gotham.
Drewnowski, Adam and Popkin, Barry M. (1997) "The Nutrition Transition: New Trends in the Global Diet," Nutrition Reviews 55 (2): 31-43.
Drewnowski, Adam and Specter, S.E. (2004) "Poverty and Obesity: The Role of Energy Density and Energy Costs," American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 79 (1): 6-16.
Griffith, R. Marie (2004) Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press.
Hill, Andrew J. (2002) "Prevalence and Demographics of Dieting," in Christopher G. Fairburn and Kelly D. Brownell (eds), Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, 2nd edn, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 80-3.
Hill, James O. (2002) "The Nature of the Regulation of Energy Balance," in Christopher G. Fairburn and Kelly D. Brownell (eds), Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Comprehensive Handbook, 2nd edn, New York: Guilford Press, pp. 67-71.
Okasha, M., McCarron, P., McEwen, J., Durnin, J., and Davey Smith, G. (2003) "Childhood Social Class and Adulthood Obesity: Findings from the Glasgow Alumni Cohort," Journal of Epidemiological Community Health 57 (7): 508-9.
Paeratakul, Sahasporn, York-Crowe, Emily E.,
Williamson, Donald A., Ryan, Donna H., and Bray, George A. (2002) "Americans on Diet: Results from the 1994-96 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals," Journal of the American Dietetic Association 102 (9): 1247-51.
Pool, Robert (2001) Fat: Fighting the Obesity Epidemic, New York: Oxford University Press.
Reagan, Ronald (1964) "Address on behalf of Senator Barry Goldwater: Rendezvous with Destiny," Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library, available online at <http://www.reaganfoundation.org/reagan/ speeches/rendezvous.asp> (accessed April 13, 2006). Sobal, Jeffery and Stunkard, Albert J. (1989)
"Socioeconomic Status and Obesity: A Review of the Literature," Psychological Bulletin 105 (2): 260-75.
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