Thursday, August 2, 2012

I have a thing for vintage fashion. A lot of folks today do, & the blogosphere is full of like minded thrifters searching for the finest vintage styles {preferably at a bargain price}.

But in addition to being a thrifter, I'm also a teacher-- & my pet peeves are generally of the misinformation/faultily drawn conclusion variety. I borrow a philosophical term when I call them causal lines-- lines people draw through history that "prove" we were better "back then." People do it all the time, & it drives me to distraction.

I'm going to take the opportunity today to address one of these false causal lines-- the belief a lot of bloggers have expressed stating that women in specific or Americans in general were healthier & significantly smaller "back then." They weren't, of course, unless you go way back to the 1890s, when due to poverty, urban crowding & unhealthy lifestyle the vast majority of Americans were smaller, sicker & deader a lot earlier than they are today.

And the smoking didn't help much either...

The reason it is hard to find vintage clothes in "average" sizes today is not because people were tiny back then, in fact, its the direct opposite. Vintage dresses in small and extra small sizes abound because fewer people bought them {meaning more deadstock}, fewer people wore them {like today, women bought dresses that were too small because they were sure the diet would work & they wanted to be ready for a day and a dress size that never came}, & thus more survived in good condition to the modern day. "Average" sizes, however, were worn regularly & hence wore out {except for Sunday bests or wealthier folks with larger wardrobes...just like today}.

Using Marilyn Monroe as an example, she was 5'5" and about 135lbs {her weight, according to her studio dressmaker files, fluctuated between 120 and 140 & she wore a size 16 most regularly}. She was also a sex symbol-- which means she was the ideal, not the norm {just like models and stars today, she would have been taller & thinner than the average woman}.

It is therefore safe to assume that the average woman in the 1950s was not Marilyn Monroe. The average middle class {economic status is important, but more on that in a minute} woman in the US at that time was 5'2" & between 140-150 lbs i.e. 1 inch shorter & around 10lbs heavier than Marilyn.

Sizes have changed, but not because we are fatter-- you can thank the Twiggy-esque models for that. Twiggy was the anti-Marilyn-- she & models like her represented the 1960s response to the materialism, commercialism and mass consumption of the 1950s. Besides, fashion designers likes skinny chics, because they were more like hangers-- after all, they paid models to show off, not show up, the clothes they designed.

An unexpected consequence, however, was that women started feeling bad about themselves when stick thin was in. Though Marilyn Monroe had been happy to wear a size 16, women in the late 60's were not-- & depressed women tend not to shop for clothes. So designers responded by changing the sizes to help women's egos {a 16 became an 12 and so forth}-- a practice which continues today & is commonly referred to as vanity sizing. Its not that women are substantially larger than they were before, they just didn't want to have a large number on their dress tag & fashion moguls obliged.

We went through a similar transition in the 80's & 90's. Models in the 80's were very healthy {at least, our understanding of healthy back then}-- it was the era of Jane Fonda & jazzercize after all...

They are below average weight & above average height, but not terrifyingly thin {again, they are supposed to represent society's version of the ideal, not the average, woman-- whether society's ideal is practical or healthy is another subject all together}. Towards the end of the decade the models started getting a bit boney-- & that's because it was the beginning of the grunge movement--a cultural response to 80's plasticity, superficiality & materialism {sound familiar?}. So like in the 60's response to the 50's, models in the 90's took a turn for the skeletal.

It was ever-so tastefully known as "heroin chic", exemplified by Kate Moss in her 1993 Calvin Klein campaign. And just like in the 1960s, women in the 90's started feeling badly about themselves. And just like in the 1960s, designers responded by adjusting dress sizes so women could feel heroin chic, even if they were average weight. Thus size 10, acceptable in the 1980s, became size 8 in the 1990s...{and it works too-- studies have shown that women will pay more for jeans marked a size smaller; even if they are the exact same measurement & style as one marked a larger size}.

Don't get me wrong, we absolutely do have an obesity problem today{though I deplore the trend in the media to use the word epidemic--an epidemic implies we caught something passively}. And its not just in America-- its in all "first world" countries {I'll come back to this later}.

But it's not because we are lazy now & weren't in days gone by-- its because, in part, we understand the human body better now.

We know now that high cholesterol leads to heart disease & is caused, in part, by certain foods-- we did not know that in the 1950s...

We also know that diet plays a key role in a lot of other diseases like diabetes & we have medical tests now, so more people are diagnosed with weight related illnesses {like diabetes or high blood pressure} early. We know the warning signs, which we did not know back then.

Incidentally, it has nothing to do with our activity level either. A landmark study conducted by several major colleges across the country has shown that a sedentary lifestyles is not the problem. Its called: Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity, and here is their synopsis of their findings:

Western lifestyles differ markedly from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and these differences in diet and activity level are often implicated in the global obesity pandemic. However, few physiological data for hunter-gatherer populations are available to test these models of obesity. In this study, we used the doubly-labeled water method to measure total daily energy expenditure (kCal/day) in Hadza hunter-gatherers to test whether foragers expend more energy each day than their Western counterparts. As expected, physical activity level, PAL, was greater among Hadza foragers than among Westerners. Nonetheless, average daily energy expenditure of traditional Hadza foragers was no different than that of Westerners after controlling for body size. The metabolic cost of walking (kcal kg−1 m−1) and resting (kcal kg−1 s−1) were also similar among Hadza and Western groups. The similarity in metabolic rates across a broad range of cultures challenges current models of obesity suggesting that Western lifestyles lead to decreased energy expenditure. We hypothesize that human daily energy expenditure may be an evolved physiological trait largely independent of cultural differences.

And here is a link to the complete study.

Another part of the obesity problem is that less people are enduring the sort of poverty that leads to starvation in all "first world" countries. In the 1950s, if you had enough money to feed yourself & your family, chances are you were obese by today's standards-- but because there were more people enduring extreme poverty, the averages were skewed. When a news organization says we are 30lbs heavier than were were 20 years ago, or example, they mean on average-- counting all people who had their weight recorded-- including people living at the poverty level. Its not that we ate better before, its that a lot of people couldn't eat at all back then. Does that makes sense?

Today food is plentiful to more people, but nutritional education is not, and trying to educate people on what is healthy and what is not has, bizarrely, become a political issue. Defying nutritional guidelines has become a sign of political independence in certain circles {"I won't let the government control what I eat"}-- and again, this phenomena is not unique to the US.

{As an aside, England has 52 million people, to the United State's 312 million-- so of course we have more obese people than England, but that is due to our population combined with economics. According to studies, in the UK, 1/4 of the population is obese, 1/2 of all Germans are obese & overweight, and 1/4 of the French population is obese}

The key to all of this is body acceptance-- we need to stop beating each other up over weight. Of course we can be healthier, if we want, because now we know what healthier is-- but if someone chooses not to, that is their choice. Insulting, pontificating or worse yet, trying to politically control what people eat is not doing anyone any good.

Its through acceptance that we all benefit, and through education that we can change how our children view food. When you attack a person you make them less likely to change, not more likely-- after all, when was the last time you radically adjusted your lifestyle because someone called you names?}

The perfections we imagine existed are based in a nostalgia we have for bygone days, not reality. They simply could not have existed before because we didn't know about them before!

I study the past. Trust me on this one. It wasn't better-- in fact, it wasn't much different than it is today.

Childhood obesity, of course, is another subject all together. Not that kids didn't eat crap back then...

After all,  McDonald's was founded in 1948, franchised in 1953 & was the largest food franchise in America by 1968.

And no, nothing substantially changed in the way McDonald's prepared their food over the years-- they even avoided the "quick packaging food" favored by other fast food joints, and were proud of the fact they resisted altering their recipes despite the advent of mass produced foods. Their menu expanded, but the food preparation and composition didn't change, it as our understanding of nutrition that was always bad for you, we just didn't know it.

Childhood obesity is not because of evil corporations {corporations are not people-- they are non-emotional and amoral by design}, video games, lack of stick ball or anti-dodge ball agendas either. Its caused by the same factors as adult obesity, combined with No Child Left Behind & the false hysteria about our education system that led to it. But that will have to wait for another post on another day...

Throughout this post, I've linked to various articles-- I actually used more to verify what I was saying, so if you'd like more sources, I'll be happy to add them! Its the academic's curse-- we have to "prove" what we write lol.

What are your thoughts this fine Thursday?