You don’t need statistics to point out that we’ve all got fatter in recent years. As a race we have grown in height and our feet have gotten bigger too – less instantly noticeable, but still a fact. Despite such changes, it’s hard to escape the fact that obesity is the major visible difference to society as a whole (apart from tattoos, but that’s a whole other topic that we are not going to get into here!).
A person is considered overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29, and obese with a BMI of 30 and above. Even countries that are considered as third world are noticing a growing rate of obesity.
Our ideal of the perfect male and female shape has changed too and, at a time when people have never been fatter, many models and celebs are increasingly skinny.
So what changed in the last 50 years? Let’s take a quick trip through the decades to find out what happened.
In the 1960s, the average woman in the UK, was just 5ft 4 and was a size 12. Average statistics were 34-24-35.
The average American women weighed 140 lbs with an average BMI of around 24.9. At this time men were also smaller. The skinny look was fashionable and the average British man weighed around 11 stone 8lbs, was 5ft 7.5in tall, and had a chest of 38 inches and a waist of 34 inches.
Why was this? One reason is that back in the 1960s people still did a lot of physical work as part of their daily routine.
Housework, cooking, childcare and working outside the home in various occupations meant that most women got plenty of exercise into their daily life. Yes, it was an age of sexism, and although flower power sounds fun it was still the women who did the chores.
Many men also had physical jobs, and the idea of spending long hours working on a computer was unheard of. However, car ownership was becoming more common and this meant that for many people life was becoming easier and less active.
One of the major differences if we went back in time was the difference to food. Fifty years ago most people tended to cook from scratch, and although convenience foods were just coming in there was not the same choice as now. Portion sizes were also smaller than today’s, so most people just did not eat as much as we do now.
In the 1960s Twiggy, the world famous model, was setting the bar at an unachievable level even then with her BMI of just 15. Her boyish look reflected the new ideas of women’s freedom.
However, other fashion icons and actresses were curvy, with Jane Fonda and Sophia Loren leading the way in the hourglass figure stakes. Sophia Loren had the “perfect” hourglass – 38C-24-38.
Another decade, another fashion, and this saw the rise of a fit, healthy look with celebs like Farrah Fawcett considered one of the most beautiful women of the decade, and actors like Robert Redford and Paul Newman leading the way for the men.
Ordinary people looked generally fitter and healthier than today’s counterparts. But that said, life expectancy was not as high as it is now. Most people smoked, and this combined with the medicinal constraints of the day meant the average life expectancy for a UK man was just 68 years old, with women 75.
Obesity was rare at this time in the USA, Australia and the UK. But a change was coming. Statistics show that by the end of the decade in the USA, food was becoming cheaper as fructose started to make its appearance in food.
According to statistics, the 1980s was the decade which first saw the rise in obesity, which nutritional experts have linked firmly to the increasing use of fructose in food.
High fructose corn syrup used to be a waste product of corn (maize) production and when food manufacturers found that this cheap substance could “improve” all processed foods and sodas it was added to just about everything. It meant that food and sodas in the USA became cheaper to buy and portions generally got bigger.
Fast food outlets became more popular too and, in the UK, this was the decade that saw McDonalds and other takeaways hit the High Streets.
By the end of the decade, the average weight of men in the United States rose from 181 pounds to 196 pounds.
The average woman, meanwhile, expanded from 152 pounds to 169 pounds while her height remained steady at just under 5 feet, 4 inches.
According to obesity researcher Antony Comuzzie speaking with CBS, the average weight gain,
means that someone who was on the high end of normal weight would have likely moved into the overweight category, and those at the high end of the overweight category would have likely moved into the obese category.
This decade saw the rise of the super model. Cindy Crawford with her good looks and BMI (body mass index) of just 19 compared to the average BMI of US women, was now in the overweight category at 26.6.
By 1990, the USA was beginning to see changes to the average body shape of men and women, but even then very few states had more than 15% of the population technically obese.
In Australia, obesity figures were beginning to increase, rising to between 11-15% of the population obese by 1995 – a dramatic jump from 1980 levels which were around just 6%.
In the UK, obesity figures had hit the 15% mark in 1995, a figure that has steadily risen each year.
This was the era of supermodel Kate Moss, with her waif-like looks often described as heroin chic and with a BMI of just 16 she seemed widely out of touch with most of the US population of women, where the BMI average was 28 – overweight but not obese.
Moss was famously quoted as saying,
Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels
Although there was a lot of speculation about her notorious party lifestyle.
This decade saw models and celebs becoming thinner as the general population grew in size. There was also an explosion in the cases of anorexia nervosa. Celebs such as Kate Moss and other skinny supermodels were accused of fuelling the need to be ultra skinny, often with tragic consequences.
The Noughties saw the same trends continuing and these have continued to the present day. Overall weight has continued to increase and health authorities have major concerns about the rising obesity epidemic because of the dangers to health.
Work has become increasingly sedentary with most of us spending our days sitting behind a computer screen. These days you have to make an effort to move and with increasing time concerns, it can be hard fitting in the time to undertake exercise. A lack of exercise would have been unimaginable back in the 1960s, when leisure for most people meant a chance to sit down and relax.
By 2010, 1 in 4 people in the UK were obese and with 61% of the population either overweight or obese, fat had become the new normal.
In the USA, many of the Southern states saw obesity levels at over 35% of the population.
With the rise in obesity hitting poorer areas it has become a sign of poverty. Food is plentiful across the western world and, although most people don’t go hungry, cheap unhealthy food is no substitute for a healthy diet. Places that are hit by the most economic deprivation, such as the US Southern states and the North of England, also have the highest rates of obesity.
Despite the fact that so many of us are bigger, lingerie firm Victoria’s Secret have established a new benchmark for the desirable female shape. The Victoria’s Secret Angels – tall, thin and leggy models with big breasts, flowing hair and toned bodies – are about as realistic as Barbie dolls for the rest of us.
It is not an exaggeration to say that as a race we have all become much bigger over the last 50 years.
Average shoe sizes have increase to size 6 for women and size 10 for men. We have grown in height too with the average man at 5ft 11 and the average woman 5ft 6.
However, obesity is THE serious worldwide problem and this is the most visible reminder that our bodies have certainly changed.
It is not all bad news. Life expectancy is up thanks to advances in medicine and a decrease in smoking, and although the obesity statistics are gloomy, we don’t have to just sit down and suck it up.
The answer lies in what we choose to eat and what we do. We can’t put the clock back, but we can certainly improve. Perhaps in 50 years time, this era will be the seen as the one where obesity levels finally started to fall and we all became a lot healthier.