In a Facebook group, I recently posted a picture of a ballerina. A member of the group immediately protested that the model is too thin, possibly anorexic. This is not the first time I received such comments. There is a kind of anti-thin sentiment in our culture. The concern here is that some young women may starve themselves to meet certain impractical standards of beauty. Here, we see two issues being confused: (1) There is a question of whether slimness is more physically attractive. (2) There is a question of whether it is advisable to go for extreme dieting in order to meet certain perceived standard of beauty. Clearly, they are two separate issues. The situation is no different from blaming a difficult college-entrance exam because many students deprive themselves of sleep and jeopardize their own health preparing for it. The implicit assumption here is that the young person cannot judge for herself what is the proper and sensible thing to do.
It is important not to succumb to political correctness when it comes to beauty and physical attractiveness. If we do that, there cannot be any objective study or scientific research — for it becomes socially unacceptable to draw certain conclusions despite what the facts say. We will then let politics dominate or dictate science!
Is slimness healthy? A few years ago, I visited my hometown in Hong Kong, after an absence of over 10 years. One immediate impression when I looked down on the street from the upper deck of a tram was how much slimmer the Hong Kong people are compared to a random collection of regular Americans. The contrast is stark. When I was teaching statistics, I once presented a chart called “The Obesity of Nations,” which is an international comparison of different countries’ average BMI. According to the Wikipedia, a study from the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC showed that 39.6% of US adults age 20 and older were obese as of 2015–2016 (37.9% for men and 41.1% for women). The corresponding percentage of obesity among Hong Kong people is somewhere between 4% and 10% This is a huge difference!
I am not saying that even extreme thinness is healthy or physically attractive. When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 60s, thinness was still associated with malnutrition and having a big belly was considered to be a sign of wealth and prosperity. Unlike the US, China has a long history of poverty, famines and hunger. But hunger has never been a big problem in Hong Kong, which is a big commercial city on the East coast of China. Hong Kong people and many southern Chinese are quite naturally thin. Today, however, slimness is no longer associated with malnutrition in Chinese or Hong Kong society. In fact, Hong Kong has recently surpassed Japan in terms of longevity. What is the secret? This probably has a lot to do with the local diet. Hong Kong people tend to eat a lot of fish. When I was back home with my mom in Hong Kong, we ate fish almost every meal. In addition, city people tend to walk much more than suburban people. On this point, it should be noted that people who live in NYC walk more than those who live in the suburbs.
Clearly, to be slim is not the same as to be anorexic. The so-called “body positive” movement can be harmful if it encourages the acceptance of obesity, which can lead to heart disease and other kinds of health problems. I can understand that the standard for beauty should not be set as high as that of ballerinas. But, make no mistake about this, all other things being equal and avoiding the extremes, slim people tend to be more physically attractive than obese people. It is just a fact of life. Let us not be fooled by politically correct thinking. Despite the cliche, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. Modern research has shown that beauty has a certain biological and evolutionary basis. We cannot be forced into thinking that fat is also beautiful.