How did this happen? Fashion aside, the widespread availability of illness-fighting antibiotics and other medical advances during the 50s helped contribute to healthier women, and the disease-free are more likely to thrive in terms of growth. (Other theories as to why we’re taller range from access to better nutrition to new ethnic demographics in the U.S.)
But when it comes to the more dramatic weight-related stats, something else happened during the era that may help explain today’s relatively larger BMI’s: the mainstreaming of television and advent of fast food. It marked the beginning of a country growing more accustomed to sedentary lifestyles and TV dinners, the latter of which was a completely foreign concept to housewives who normally slaved away in the kitchen whipping up homemade meals. Processed foods weren’t just hyper convenient, they seemed downright glamorous.
“In the 50s we’re looking at a huge surge and trendiness in processed food,” says Gruys. “During the Red Scare when Americans were terrified of Communism, our government put a lot of effort into comparing the Soviet lifestyle to ours by emphasizing the luxury of our accessibility to pre-made meals and fancy kitchen appliances, as opposed to having to make things from scratch like the ‘poor Soviet women’ had to.”
Anyone who’s ever compared the sodium, preservative, calorie and fat counts of most frozen meals can attest to the undeniable fact that fast food contributes to the kind of expanding waistlines that simply can’t squeeze into hourglass-shaped dresses. Speaking of fast food, the venerable McDonald’s opened in 1955 (you’ve heard of it?), and to the “billions and billions served,” we all know the rest is super-sized saturated fat history.
As much as we now know how damning these so-called “innovations” have become to our health, the prognosis isn’t all bad. There are certain benefits to being large and in charge. For instance, some scientific research claims that tall people live longer. And a 2009 study found that the underweight and extremely obese not only die earlier than people of normal weight, but get this: Their research suggested that the overweight may actually live longer than people of normal weight. Yet another report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences theorizes that we will evolve to become still heavier, yet shorter, due to a hypothesis that hinges on the idea that “there is natural selection against women being slender,” and that “plumper, shorter women tend to bear more children.”
Now back to looks. There’s no doubt that culturally, recent movements suggest that as our aesthetics have shifted from curvy hourglass figures and then skeletal runway models over time, we may be tending toward a more realistic ideal in terms of what is considered beautiful. The 2004 Dove Campaign for Real Beauty springs to mind, where average-sized women were depicted wearing nothing more than their skivvies (and one would assume, some powerful deodorant and body lotion?). The public responded with unparalleled enthusiasm, and since then, even the glossiest of fashion magazines have embraced the practice of depicting “plus-sized” models (read: average American woman-sized), every now and then at least.
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