The skinny culture vindicated by science? I hope not…

A graduate research project carried out at the University of Tennessee claims to have found that marriages work better where the wife has a lower body mass index (BMI) than her husband. In fact, both men and women ideally prefer a partner with lower BMI than themselves, apparently, but women adapt over time.

The researcher has pointed out that this finding does not particularly suggest that women need to be skinny; it is all a matter of relative BMI. In other words, they just need to be somewhat thinner than their rotund husbands. However, that qualification would probably be lost on the audience, and the risk must be that research of this kind reaffirms the skinny-body-and-diet culture that has created so much psychological and physical harm in western society.

Healthy lifestyles, exercise, nutritious food and the like are all quite proper objectives in today’s culture. But it is not OK to suggest to women that their happiness in life and that of their partner is in any way connected with being thinner than him. We need to lose that kind of message.

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12 Comments on “The skinny culture vindicated by science? I hope not…”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I am somewhat confused by your post. If, for argument’s sake the science is right [and that may be a big if: one study, small unrepresentative sample etc] , does it not follow that yes indeed there are benefits from a woman having a lower BMI than her husband? That seems to be exactly what the research says.
    My reading of your reservation, is that this will be incorrectly translated into a skinny-is-better message which, we know, has particular risks. Well it might, but it would be a bizarre recommendation that we suppress the discussion of the implications of research for fear that they might be misinterpreted. After all, if women understand the implications correctly, they would see that they don’t benefit from having low BMI per se, it simply needs to be lower than their partners [not too difficult in many cases alas].
    I think the real and rather complex issue is how scientific research gets translated by the media and is then used by individuals. Wanting publicity for your research is normal and the universities like it. If it is on quantum mechanics or Old English there is little danger of it being misused but if it is on health in particular, there is a risk that it is given some normative (or clinical) significance.
    I have a few papers out on mental health. But I am not a clinician and I would not want people making decisions on the basis of them [not likely anyway] but I think it is right to publish but everyone needs to be responsible about publicizing any such work.

    Details of that BMI paper if interested:

    • Kevin, I am not arguing that we suppress science research or hide its findings. But we must be careful as to how we evaluate it. In this case for example, we have had decades of the media suggesting that women should be thinner. It seems to me to be perfectly possible that this, rather than anything inherently present in human nature, is the cause of men liking thinner women and women accommodating themselves to that. The research could be right, but it may not be handing out a worthwhile message.

      To take another example, if a properly conducted survey revealed (as it probably would) that a majority of people would feel more secure in their lives if there were capital punishment, this would not constitute a good argument for introducing it.

      I haven’t read the actual research paper (maybe I should), but if it does not examine the possible social and cultural causes of the preferences it outlines, then it needs to be taken with some caution.

      Science should not be suppressed, but not all science is worthwhile science.

      • kevin denny Says:

        One obvious question is “who decides whats worthwhile?”. If the research is right (whether on the BMI issue or capital punishment) then I think it should be published.
        The issues for me are (A) its seldom a question of research being simply right or wrong in areas like this & (B) how is the research disseminated?
        By (A) I mean we know that lots of research results are very partial, not replicated in subsequent studies etc. Recent work has argued that lots of psychological research does not generalize because the studies are just based on “WEIRD” people ((“Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.”, ).
        By (B) I mean, its one thing to have your paper published in an academic journal but quite another to have it also in the Daily Mail. Thats where the danger lies. The researcher and the media need to exercise responsibility. Some do, some don’t
        I agree that preferences may be partly socially constructed. But from the individuals point of view “So what?”. Say this BMI result is entirely socially constructed , this doesn’t change the implications (if any) for what the individual might choose to do.

    • anna notaro Says:

      *I think the real and rather complex issue is how scientific research gets translated by the media and is then used by individuals. * I think you raise a relevant point here, interestingly last year the BBC Trust launched a review of the impartiality and accuracy of BBC science coverage ( Also, I would warn against too deterministic a view of cultural (beauty or otherwise) models transmitted by the media to a *passive* audience, it is a bit more complex than that…

  2. Vincent Says:

    Is there not another an aspect of danger in this. Could not a 120kg husband say to his 110kg wife. ‘See Mags, we’re doin OK. You’ve a lower BMI so we’re sorted. Them scientists say so’.
    And anyway, just suppose one likes the sporty gal, or the gal with a bit of back. What about the fellow that has a grá for the woman a few or more cm taller. Heavens there are a myriad of combinations where the fella has a lower BMI. So, who the hell did U-Tenn decide were the ideal couple, some rugby jock and his cheer-leading squeeze ten years out of high school. Honestly this seems to smack of those experiments of the 1880 and we know where those tracks terminated.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    so, another recipe for a happy marriage, this time body mass index…don’t these scientists know that *happiness and marriage* make for the most fitting of oxymorons?

  4. Newell Says:

    Surely this comments more on society and the people asked that create a definitive answer. In cases like this, I’d view the researcher as a reporter not a qualifier. The value is in showing society’s opinion at this moment in time. 100 years ago, being overweight was a sign of luxury & wealth and very admirable in a mate. In years to come it will be useful contextualisation to other events when analysed by historians.

    It may even help historians explain Cheryl Cole.

  5. Al Says:

    Someone open a can of indignation?

    This was the idiot segment on the news wasnt it?
    These come and go and reflect journalist pursuits more than scientific pursuits.

    The one that raised my heavy eyebrows was the recent pontification about ones waist size in relation to everything in life.

    This is a shameful waste of taxpayers money and some journo should investigate the costs invovled. Imagine, you have to wait how long in A&E do get medical treatment, but only turn on the radio to see where the money was spent so that you wait longer!

  6. SC Says:

    Hear, hear! Good post.

  7. cormac Says:

    I think it’s a great result – husbands can now stuff themselves knowing they are helping thier marriages.
    More seriously, that’s a great science communication link Anna, many thanks

    • anna notaro Says:

      you’re welcome Cormac. Tangential to this, Elliot Handler, the father of the (in)famous Barbie doll has just died. Barbie is an interesting case in point when it comes to beauty models for young girls, academics from the University of South Australia suggest the likelihood of a woman having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000 whereas the chances of a man having Ken’s (Barbie’s long-time model consort) body shape is one in 50. There is an extensive cultural studies literature on this but this article on the BBC web site sums up matters rather well..

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