Gain Weight! Stop Being Skinny And Tired!

Last week I came across a fascinating post on Retronaut with pictures of weight-related ads from decades past.  What caught my attention in particular is that, in contrast to any ad we see today, the ads in these magazines were all promising weight gain, rather than weight loss. It’s not hugely surprising, since our views of the “ideal” body weight have changed dramatically over time.  For example, a high body weight was traditionally associated with wealth and prestige, which even led to the creation of ‘Fat Man’s Clubs‘, which Peter has described in the past.

Even today, a low body weight is looked down upon in many developing countries.   For more on that, take a listen to the below interview with Kenyan obesity researcher Vincent Onywera, who explains that he is considered by some to be a bad parent for having lean children.

It’s pretty obvious that we’ve swung way too far in the other direction in North America in recent decades.  But it’s always interesting to have a reminder of how the “ideal” body weight really is a social construct, rather than an objective one.

You can find the full Retronaut post on vintage weight gain ads here.  And while you’re there, be sure to check out their vintage exercise machine ads too.


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9 Responses to Gain Weight! Stop Being Skinny And Tired!

  1. Those ads are hilarious. Really puts things into perspective. Sadly I’m pretty sure being too skinny was just an issue of vanity, rather than health, back then. Also I had no idea that obesity was a problem in Kenya, but it makes a lot of sense.

  2. Very funny ads; however, while this is an interesting viewpoint, it doesn’t say why. Why should we be thinner or fatter? Shouldn’t this be based on health and longevity? Ideal body weight was actually derived by Met Life – so this was used to risk stratify individuals based on weight. So no, I don’t agree that we’ve swung way too far in the other direction. Objectively, we’re getting heavier and heavier and this poses a significant health risk to our society, regardless of what is happening in Kenya. Although I haven’t fact-checked this, I’d also suggest that we have a substantially longer life expectancy here in the U.S. Is that related to weight??? Great, thoughtful post :-)

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Thanks for the comment, Ethan, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      An important caveat to the Met Life tables and BMI in general is that they’re quite useful for estimating disease at the population level, but less so at the individual level. While there is a relationship between body weight and health in the general population, it is likely less important than the relationship between behaviour and health. For example, an obese person with a healthy diet and an active lifestyle could be quite a bit healthier than a lean person with an unhealthy diet who gets little physical activity. Then there are some other conundrums, for example studies suggesting that being overweight or obese is actually protective against certain causes of death and disease in old age. And of course the “optimal” BMI is likely different for different ethnic groups. So while we may be able to determine that, on average, a BMI of 22.5 is optimal at the population level, that doesn’t mean that an individual with a BMI of 22.5 is healthier than another individual with a BMI of 27.5.

      All that to say that it’s the simplistic idea that lean people are healthy and that obese people are unhealthy, with no room for nuance or complexity, that I’m referring to when I say that things have swung too far. Body weight is one factor that influences health, but it’s far from the only one.

  3. Chris says:

    Context is important. As I recall the army had a big problem in WW-I because so many of the recruits from rural areas were malnourished. The 20s were fairly flush but then you had the Great Depression and again food was an issue for many people. Then there’s the war and rationing.

    So in the late 40s and 50s you had a generation of parents and grandparents who were undernourished much of their life. No wonder they see extra weight as desirable.

    Of course this brings up the other point – their well-nourished is probably still pretty thin by our standards.

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  5. Cynthia says:

    Then there is the discrepancy between rich and poor why are the poor fat and the rich thin?? … and the whole celebrity thin thing. Has anyone noticed how skinny actors and actresses are these days?? I recently watched a couple of Clive Owen movies and his thinness was actually a distraction.
    I’m with Travis when he talks about healthy fat people and unhealthy thin people. I lost about 35 pounds a couple of years ago (following the low carbs/so called paleo plan & still am). I’m slim yes, but am I healthy? No, I need to be doing way more cardio and weight bearing exercise. I’m much too sedentary, this blog has helped me wake up to that. Am slowly getting on track.
    I’ve come to believe very much that weight and health are separate things, related and somehow co-dependent but separate. Does that make sense?

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