Anthropologists are puzzled by the emphasis on extreme thinness in our society, and especially extreme thinness for women. Weight loss supplements such as PhenQ are experiencing a surge in popularity these days. It was not always so, of course.
In the late 19th century, Lillian Russell, considered a great American beauty, weighed 186 pounds. Even today, in non-Western cultures, fat men are frequently those of wealth and power, and fatness in women is associated with fertility.
In Nigeria, relates anthropologist Claire Cassidy of the University of Maryland, young girls of the Ibo and Ibibio tribes once entered fattening houses when they reached puberty in order to gain weight before marriage. There they were prohibited from working and emerged later, “mountains of flesh’ and fit for wedlock. Cassidy recalls that a few years ago, when she was doing fieldwork in Central America, she began to her dismay, to gain weight. But, she says, “the fatter I got, the more they admired me. Finally,’ one woman told me, “you’re starting to look healthy. And furthermore, you are starting to look marriageable.”
In our culture, fat people, far from being viewed as powerful or fertile, are scorned. So, to no one’s surprise, many people feel extraordinary pressure to keep their weight down. The great puzzle is why staying thin should be so difficult to do. At Rockefeller University, obesity researchers Hirsch, Irving Faust and Rudolph Leibel believe an animal’s– or a person’s–stable weight, sometimes called its set point, has something to do with the fat cells in its body. The signals to overeat, they conclude, may come from the fat cells themselves.
The number of fat cells in an animal’s body is not necessarily fixed, says Faust, although once people or animals acquire fat cells, they never lose them. But what does seem to be closely regulated is how large the fat cells become.
If scientists destroy parts of a rat’s brain that regulate its eating behavior, the rat will become grossly obese. As a consequence, its fat cells grow to four to five times their normal size. Or, says Faust, “we can push the fat-cell size in any animal to a bare minimum by depriving it of food. Knowing this, it is interesting to observe that if you leave an animal or a person alone, the fat cells will stay constant in size. It suggests to us that there is some sort of regulation in effect. We feel that there are signals between the fat tissue and the central nervous system.”
Since obese people tend to have fat cells that are two to two-and-a-half times larger than those of normal people, Faust and Hirsch hypothesize that the signals regulating fat-cell size may be perturbed in these people.
Faust’s first test of the fat-cell hypothesis was to look at rats that have twice as many fat cells as usual. These rats regulated their eating so that their fat cells were the same size as those of normal rats. But since they had twice as many fat cells, they were twice as fat.
Next, Faust removed fat from young rats so that they had only half the normal number of fat cells. These rats, too, ate just enough to keep their fat cells of normal size, but since they had only half as many fat cells as they normally would, they were only half as fat as their littermates.
The next step was to look at people. Hirsch and Leibel began with a group of women and one man who belong to Overeaters Anonymous. All are of normal weight, but each was formerly obese, weighing more than 200 pounds. But although they look normal, their body chemistries are deranged. Their fat cells are tiny and they look like people with anorexia nervosa.
The women do not menstruate, their pulse rates are low–about 50 to 60 beats a minute rather than the normal rate of 70 to 80 beats a minute–their blood pressures are low, they are always cold and they burn about 25 percent fewer calories than would be expected on the basis of their weights and heights.
Not only do they look biochemically like people who are starving, they act like it. “They are always thinking about food,’ says Hirsch, “and many are in the diet business.’ They may become Weight Watchers lecturers, for example.