Home >Opinion >Views >A gender gap in ideals of weight reveals lack of progress

According to the World Health Organization [WHO], obesity is one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century". This is the opening line of the abstract of an NBER working paper released this month. Given the apparent emphasis on health, it comes as a surprise when the abstract ends with: “Married couples, therefore, agree on one thing, that keeping the wife svelte is even more valuable than keeping the husband fit." The abstract doesn’t mention the country under consideration, and we presume somewhat naively it must have been based on data from a developing country with deep-rooted beliefs about gender identities. The country in question, however, is seen as among the world’s most progressive: Switzerland.

How does research intended to focus on the health aspects of an individual’s weight end up showing a consensus among married couples that the wife’s weight matters more for their life satisfaction than the husband’s?

The paper uses the ‘compensating income variation’ method to estimate an individual’s monetary value equivalent that offsets the negative impact on one’s life satisfaction associated with their own and a spouse’s sub-optimal body mass index (BMI).

BMI, the ratio of weight over height squared, is a globally-accepted measure to estimate optimal weight. An individual with a BMI between 18.5 and 25, according to the WHO, is considered of normal weight. The study controls for income and education levels and other variables that may influence one’s preferences and ability in terms of the monetary value of a sub-optimal BMI.

The paper reports that being overweight produces higher dissatisfaction for women, while men are more sensitive to being underweight. Men, in fact, estimate being overweight to be more beneficial for life satisfaction compared to being of normal weight.

The controversial result, however, is that men are more sensitive to their spouse’s BMI being above the optimal than to their own BMI, and value a reduction in their spouse’s BMI almost twice as much as a reduction in their own. In contrast, women on average value changes in their own BMI about three times more than changes in their spouse’s. Just to clarify, the statistical results can be interpreted only as average behaviour and do not of course mean every man thinks this way.

What explains these systematic gender differences in weight preferences in one’s own and spouse’s BMI? It does not appear that being healthy is a primary consideration for people, or for that matter even romantic satisfaction. If that were the case, then men and women should similarly value both negative and positive deviations from the normal BMI for themselves and their spouses.

While the paper does not make any direct suggestion that the results could be driven by gender norms, it is difficult to think otherwise. Men and women’s identities in most cultures are built around traditional norms—societal rules that constrain behaviour on how they are supposed to feel and act. In this case, the norms that apparently apply relate to what is considered an optimal body image and how society perceives individuals based on that.

Deviation from the established norms of an optimal body weight impacts socio-economic outcomes through employment and pay discrimination, as well as status notions and incidence of body shaming. Several studies in developed countries have found that gender norms reinforce a thinner body ideal for women and a larger body for men, to the extent that some normal or underweight females falsely perceive themselves as overweight.

In the case of India, in a recent survey by Fortis Healthcare among 1,244 women across 20 cities, 84% felt that women tend to experience more body-shaming than men do; 90% of women felt that film and television shows contribute to the promotion of body shaming ( Even more concerning is that 31% sometimes don’t feel like facing the world because of what people would say about their physical appearance. Such gender norms on body image seem to be so firmly entrenched in society that 95% of women believed that most people do not even realize that they indulge in body shaming. The cultural stigma around body image may lead to stigma internalization, by which women may come to believe that they themselves are responsible for their abuse. For example, in our work with a sample of over 18,000 married women, using National Family Health Survey data for urban India, we find that women who take up paid work, flouting a traditional gender norm, themselves justify wife-beating more than women who are not in paid work.

Further, women in paid work also experience higher marital control by their husbands, since their spouses are more likely to accuse them of unfaithfulness and insist on knowing their whereabouts. This male backlash arises as challenges to traditional norms stir up anger, frustration and aggression.

This month in history is significant for women’s upliftment. On 9 May 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first commercially-produced birth control pill. Many studies, such as the famous work of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, have shown this pill’s power in improving socio-economic outcomes for women.

Unfortunately, 60 years on, little seems to have changed in the pressure that women feel and are made to feel (even by their loved ones) to achieve an optimal weight, not for the sake of health per se, but for the sake of ‘beauty’ and status.

Vidya Mahambare & Sowmya Dhanaraj are, respectively, professor of economics at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and assistant professor at Madras School of Economics

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