Kicking off the next few weeks looking at the relationship between health and success, we’re looking at male and female body size and how it correlates to wealth. I’m sharing my experience with food because I know I’m not alone. My story will be different from other people struggling with disordered eating. There are a million ways to try and control the way your body looks, and most women I know, and a lot of men nowadays, struggle with food and body image too, even if it’s not spoken about.
What I found this week about body size in relation to success made one thing clear- the body that is most likely to make someone a millionaire is not the same as what is likely to make someone healthier and therefore happier long term.
If you want to read the data about the body size of successful males and females start at the section: Success and body size
If you want to read my story start reading here.
Story: trigger warning DISORDERED EATING
I just finished “I’m Glad my Mom Died” by Jennette McCurdy. My friend Candace gave it to me. I loved it. I loved how honest she was, but I’m afraid of how much I related to Jennette’s story. Not the mom part because I love my mom and she is very much alive, but the parts around calorie restriction and secrecy almost brought me to tears.
Everyone has demons from a cigarette after the kids go to bed to buying a holiday when you’re already £500 in your overdraft. My demon is food. As I’m writing this, I’m currently on my way to Tunisia to work remotely for a week while my boss is in Japan. I feel a weird sense of comradery with the woman to my right, who said hello to me as soon as she sat down. She seems nice. I really hope she’s not looking at my laptop screen, I tilt the screen towards the window to my left. I’ve got a green tea in between my legs I’ve just bought for £3.00 off the cart, and the lady next to me is sipping the English breakfast tea I bought her too. Small happiness tip, The Wall Street Journal said “giving to others leads to greater happiness than spending on oneself”. Today I’ve chosen to do both.
I’m in seat 23A, this next paragraph is TMI but I used to have to pee a lot because the diet girls on YouTube said to drink a lot of water to feel full. In the past, seat 23A would’ve freaked me out because, on a three-hour flight, I’d have to inconvenience the two people to my right at least three times. Now I just enjoy the movie out the window as I listen to a combination of piano pop covers and old playlists to try and chill out. I’ve still got a lot of issues- which you’re about to read about, but at this moment, I feel grateful this isn’t one of them.
How my problem started
I’ve been so stressed lately, I didn’t help myself this morning having coffee on an empty stomach, but I had a small dash of almond milk in it- the first time I’ve had milk in my coffee in two months, so I consider the morning a triumph. I also ate tempeh with some kale chips and cacao butter drops, about a month ago I would’ve avoided both because of the carb content. I log everything I’ve eaten on my fitness pal, and the number seems reasonable- it will be enough to hold me off until lunch, but I still worry about being hungry. The mental preoccupation with food is a consequence of the food restriction I haven’t been able to shake since I was 13.
My problem with food started when I was five and my kindergarten teacher made me finish my entire lunch if I wanted dessert. I threw up almost every day until one day my stomach adapted. I got pretty chubby. By the time I was eight and my doctor told my mom I was overweight and she put me on a diet. There’s one memory from a family gathering around this time where my uncle told me I couldn’t have more than two slices of bacon in front of everyone. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed.
Later I was told he was instructed to tell me that by someone else, which doesn’t change too much except the person who instructed him is highly influential in my life and my self-worth to this day.
Why I’m struggling right now
My latest restriction episode started when I was on an all-inclusive holiday with that same close family member in Mexico. The past two months have been worse than usual. I didn’t touch anything sweet and stuck to greens and proteins, I was eating a lot, but I never felt too full. After a long point of being stressed out to the max a week to relax and recover felt like what my body needed. I felt great until at some point in the week she started commenting about her own eating and then began commenting on mine.
I know her comments were guided by her own insecurities and habits, but by the end of the week, I started judging her for judging my eating given how little she knows about nutrition. It ended with vicious words from me the night before we departed Playa Del Carmen. I regret what I said. I wish I had more patience with her even more than I wish she had kept her comments about my food and my body to herself.
Fast forward a few weeks later, on facetime, she told me in Mexico I looked fat compared to the last time I saw her in April in Italy. I knew she was right. She didn’t say it to be mean, she said it because she’s she loves me. She told me what everyone else was thinking, but no one else would dare say. Everyone else says I’m crazy for thinking this way, but I see no reason for her to lie to me and what she says is a reflection of how I already felt.
Comparison is the thief of joy
Eating disorders are competitive. Part of me feeling bad about my body is because I constantly compare myself to my friends, which is a nasty habit I need to kick. I remember at my birthday party I was talking to my friend Beth (not her real name) about body image. Beth is a great friend and is always there to listen, and I know she didn’t realise how what she said would be internalised. I was struggling because it seems like all my friends are effortlessly thin, and they’re thinner than me.
Beth said “I noticed that too, they’re just petite”, and that’s how I knew I was bigger than them. I think comparison is the devil, and when it comes to body image my devil has a pitchfork filtering what flows through my ears and its horns distorting my vision. Eating disorders are competitive, and as much as I compare myself to my friends, the person I compare myself most to is who I used to be because people treat you better when you’re thin. I wish it wasn’t true, but from someone who’s experienced being overweight and underweight, I can tell you it is.
You know, some days when I’m really bad, I feel it’s worth it. If you want to understand how eating disorders change your brain’s reward system, Andrew Huberman explains it well here. Whenever I start a new restriction period, I always feel great. This feeling doesn’t last long before everything starts slipping. I start to get insomnia, which gets even worse when I add exercise on top of restriction (which I always do). I get night sweats despite being cold all the time, and no matter how loose my jeans are or what the number on the scale is I can’t shake the feeling I look big, which I constantly check in every mirror I can find, but still I stick to the plan until life forces me to stop.
Why does it mean so much to be thin as a woman?
We all care about looking good or acceptable in the eyes of society. Why does it mean so much to me to be thin as a woman? I know my body is not all I am. I’m smart, I’m kind and I live a life filled with passion, purpose, and pleasure. I have great friends and confidence about almost everything else in my life, but I will stress the whole week the second I’m faced with a group dinner where I might have to eat cake or bread because I know people treat me better when I’m thin.
I feel as if I need to be thin, or at the very least not fat to be successful. I’ve let my disordered eating define me because, in a cost-benefit analysis of life, it has paid off for me to be thinner to the point where I’ve let my eating become a central part of my identity. I’m starting therapy with the NHS after being on the waitlist for one year and three months. Going through the process and accepting the appointment is an indicator I want to be better on some level, but I’m so scared of society’s consequences that I’m not sure I do.
Whatever this journey will bring, I have to trust that everything will work out for me. It doesn’t feel good to sit here and feel like the way I eat isn’t a choice, but instead is a box I’m trapped in. Even if I have the exact same diet coming out of therapy, I want to feel like I can eat cake- even if I choose not to and although I can confidently say these days I prioritise my health above my body weight, I want to detach my weight from my self-worth.
Success and body size
My story will not be the same as anyone else’s, but at the same time, disordered eating is not a unique experience in the Western World. For men or women. Influencers in the bodybuilding and fitness community, Mukbangers and underweight celebrities perpetuate behaviours and body types that aren’t healthy for the average person.
The problem is, being balanced and healthy doesn’t sell as quickly as “a dream body that will make your life the best it’s ever been” or something along those lines.
In looking at the data on success and body size, there are two things to consider. First is attractive people tend to be wealthier and second is what the data says about the actual body size of successful people. Society’s ideals for men and women vary slightly. So first we need to look at what body size society finds most attractive for women and for men, and then compare what society finds attractive to how body size correlates to income to draw conclusions on the ideal BMI for success.
What does Society find attractive?
We’ll be looking at BMIs and waist-to-hip ratios for men, women and a portion of the LGBTQ+ community. A healthy BMI for an adult is considered to be around 18.5—24.9. BMI and waist-to-hip ratios are not perfect metrics, however, heavily researched and easier to analyse.
I thought going into this, the ideal body type of a woman in our society would be associated with fertility, but that’s not what I discovered. As I researched, the ideal BMI range for fertility was 20-26, yet the studies looking for the ideal BMI in women found the most frequently selected ideal body had a BMI of 19.79, closely followed by an underweight ideal of 18.26. Another study found that a BMI of 20 was considered the most attractive, while Swami et al. (29), and MacNeill and Best (30), found that an underweight body was most frequently selected As you can see below, not a single average BMI for any age group falls at those metrics.
Average BMI Women (UK)
16-24 years old 23.3 25-34 years old 26.8 35-44 years old 27.7 45-54 years old 28
Additionally, research from FitRated polled over 1,000 people, and came to the conclusion women feel happier with their bodies when they’re technically underweight at a BMI of 18.5. Women whose BMI ranged from 18.5 to 24.9 rated their body confidence a 3.4 on a scale of five, while overweight and obese women rated their confidence 2.8 and 2.1, respectively.
This matches the literature when it comes to the ideal hip-to-waist ratio. A healthy hip to waist ratio for women is within the 0.67 to 0.8 range are healthier. The female ideal is 0.7 which is technically healthy but on the thin side. What’s clear is society finds women that are thinner than what is average most attractive and often finds what’s underweight and by definition medically unhealthy, attractive too.
After researching women, I started on men. I wasn’t sure what I would find. The ideal BMI for men is in the same range as it is for women, however, the ideal BMI for Male attractiveness answered by females was a BMI of 26, which is technically overweight, but is around average.
BMI Men (UK)
16-24 years old 23.7
25-34 years old 26.8
35-44 years old 27.8
45-54 years old 28.8
There was not a similar study I could find on how males perceive their own bodies. I have a feeling men with disordered eating have a higher ideal BMI than what is found on average for males, but I can’t say for sure because there needs to be more research done.
The hip-to-waist ratio data matches the BMI data for men. Healthy men have a hip-to-waist ratio of 0.80 to 0.95 with the ideal hip-to-waist ratio for attractiveness being 0.90. Society’s ideal of the male body type is a healthy one, on the upper end of average.
How does the LGBTQ+ Community differ from the general population?
** This is a community I’m not a part of and believe deserves more representation, if I misspeak on any terminology I know I don’t mean any offence. Please let me know so I can fix it, I will not be upset at the correction, and I want to get it right.
More research needs to be done on the LGBTQ+ community in general. I could not apply the same rigour to the below sources as I did for heterosexual males and females and some of the studies below are more than 10 years old.
There is some research on gay men and women, the inverse of heterosexual trends is observed. Gay and bisexual women are more likely to be obese or overweight and be comfortable with it while gay men are more likely to be thinner. Gay men also have higher rates of eating disorders compared to the average male.
For people who identify as transgender on weight related disparities for college students (the study was in the USA so for the UK this would be university) found transgender subjects (N=53) were more likely to be either underweight or obese. There is not a clear studied BMI for attractiveness in the transgender community.
How does BMI relate to income?
For this data, I focused on the developed nation part of a study from The National Library of Medicine.
In high-income countries, obesity is highest among poor populations, while overweight people are prevalent across all wealth groups.
The study shows that richer people actually tend to be overweight- but not obese.
This week’s findings make sense to me. Success is linked to health, attractiveness and happiness. The data I found helps me better understand why myself and a lot of women have problems with food than men, why men still make more than women and why the LGBTQ+ population is significantly more likely to be in poverty than the general population in the United States. For women, to use attractiveness as a way to success means you are likely creating problems for your health and happiness. Men don’t face this barrier because you are more likely to be able to eat enough calories and be attractive at the same time. This makes sense and simultaneously, it makes me uncomfortable because I think the pressure we put on women is wrong, but I still care about being thin myself.
Despite the link between attractiveness and wealth, it’s important to remember being attractive isn’t a long-term metric but rather a short-term strategy to capture attention at career peaks (watch the below interview from Taylor Lautner). Additionally, once you become wealthy, it is easier to stay wealthy through smart investments. Once people become successful, they're more likely to be overweight. I think this is because they relax a bit about how they look or become more social (we eat more when with others) which leads to the increase in overweight individuals in the wealthier income brackets over time.
I hope you found this information useful. You’ve read about my struggles with body image and food. I believe you should have autonomy over your body, which is why I have no actual recommendation for how to use what I found. One thing I will ask is that no matter what body size someone is, that you treat them with respect. Tune in next week where I’ll be exploring the diet and exercise habits of successful people.
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