Science


One of my Facebook friends posted this article containing “19 New Reasons to Keep Fat Off.” I swear it is like an FA manifesto. 90% of these “new” reasons (not so new to those of us who are fat and deal with this crap on a regular basis) are about how fat people get inadequate medical care due to ignorance or bias on the part of physicians, or how assholes in society treat fat people badly in general. It seems to me like any logical person would see this list as a wake-up call to start examining some of our more poisonous and destructive attitudes toward fat people. Also, if I had done some of the studies they cite that look into these biases and negligence, I would not be well pleased that they were included in a pro-weight-loss article. Miss the point much?

Also, do you love as much as I do the total scientific and statistical FAIL in the #1 reason on the list, which refers to a published study to support its claim that EVERY SINGLE ADULT in the U.S. will be overweight or obese in 40 years? There will be NOT ONE exception. LOL.

“Enjoy.”

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I heard a report on NPR this morning, about a University of Buffalo study on consumer buying habits when food prices are manipulated to make “healthy food” (i.e. fruits and vegetables) more affordable. I have several comments. Don’t even get me started on how the report (it is kind of a mish-mash) starts with an example of how “In a London-based study, dieters got paid when they dropped pounds.” ‘Cause everybody needs to “drop pounds,” and everybody can do it without adopting unhealthy crash-dieting tactics, right? Anyway.

Now researchers are interested in understanding how food price manipulations may influence what ends up in mothers’ grocery carts.

Interesting. Are mothers the only people who buy food? I mean, naturally they are the ones to blame for killing their families with “junk food.” Everyone knows that.

‘Then we looked at the purchasing patterns of these mothers,’ explains Len Epstein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Buffalo who was involved in the study. He says the mothers’ choices were somewhat predictable. When the costs went down, ‘they did buy more of the healthy foods.’

But since the healthful items now cost a lot less, the moms had money leftover. Esptein says they used it to buy more junk food.

‘When you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn’t have improved nutrition,’ says Epstein — they had the same amounts of fats and carbohydrates.

“Didn’t have improved nutrition”? Fat and carbohydrates ARE NUTRIENTS. As Kate pointed out long ago (but most people have yet to get the memo): adding cheese sauce to your broccoli does not negate the nutritional value of the broccoli. In fact–although this is beside the point that in my opinion grownups should be allowed to make their own food choices–some nutrients are fat-soluble, and limiting fat does not seem to be a priori a good thing. I thought we were all on board with that these days?

I get that in this case they are talking about people buying processed snacks, but simply totting up the macronutrients in the cart and concluding that a cart containing a variety of whole foods and some processed, fatty and/or sugary foods is just as “bad” as a cart containing all processed foods (or, to put it another way, that limiting carbohydrates and fat as much as possible is something to strive for) seems ridiculous to me. (Leaving aside that my shopping cart might contain all produce one day and all, I don’t know, baking ingredients, light bulbs, and cleaning products another.) Also, I can’t find the study, but I would be really interested in knowing exactly what the composition of those shopping carts was. Were they really outside the bounds of a reasonable carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio?

The researchers, in any case, conclude that a “sin tax” is therefore the way to go. Great. That should really help poor people get the calories they need to function and survive. WHY do these people always assume that the ideal that we should all be striving for is to live on, like, vegetables and air?

The report then jumps for some reason (under the heading “Effecting Change in the Real World”–and I’m not suggesting people stop trying to find creative ways to give kids access to healthy food, but let’s recall that we learned in Rethinking Thin that even the largest, most comprehensive school nutrition intervention programs aimed at reducing obesity, which is likely the subtext of all this since again, fruits and vegetables are emphasized whereas higher-calorie whole foods are not) to an anecdote about a school which bars any snacks other than fruit during the school day. I have no problem with fruit, obviously, but I think the more telling part of this is a statement by the teacher interviewed for the report that “Once they get it every day, they’ll eat like three bananas.” Maybe these growing kids are just hungry and fruit doesn’t always cut it? How about some dried fruit, nuts, cheese, yogurt, trail mix, or something?

It also doesn’t help that every time I see a program like this gleefully enforced by an adult (as it is by this teacher, who brags that she “has tried for years to enforce a healthful snack rule in her classroom”–yeah, let’s try to control how families spend their own food budget without offering assistance), I can’t help but think that he or she has probably been dieting his/her whole life, like most people who live in modern society, and is likely projecting those mores onto kids. Making fruit available: good. Making a moral issue out of it: bad. Assuming “more vegetables and less of everything else is always better” or “fewer calories is always better”: also bad.

After reading about Michael VanDervort’s “HR Carnival for Haiti” at Punk Rock HR and considering which charity I was interested in researching for the carnival, I came to the conclusion that there are a lot of folks out there who have done a great deal of research and recommended charities to donate to for immediate disaster relief (the American Red Cross, CARE, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders–USA, and faith-based charities such as the Salvation Army, Lutheran World Relief, United Methodist Committee on Relief, Catholic Relief Services, American Friends Service Committee, and American Jewish World Service are some that I seem to hear mentioned various places and that are given a high rating by charitywatch.org–more on that later), and I am not sure how much I can add to that conversation.

On the other hand, development charities might be a good focus for my own contribution to the carnival since I am an environmental engineer. In my two most recent jobs, we did giving campaigns for Water for People, and I am interested in the work of Engineers Without Borders–USA and Architects Without Borders, which are perhaps somewhat lesser-known. I’ll follow up this post with the information I could find on Engineers Without Borders.

As I tried to look further into these charities, though—and this is really the topic of this first post—it soon became clear that all was not cut-and-dried in the world of evaluating charity performance. My starting point was charitywatch.org, a project of the American Institute for Philanthropy. I recently heard the Institute’s president, David Borochoff, on NPR‘s Talk of the Nation. He described the AIP’s criteria for evaluating charities, based primarily on dollars spent to raise $100 as calculated after an in-depth process of reviewing charities’ financial statements. In other words, the claim “95% of our funds raised go directly to programs” would not be taken at face value but recalculated based on the AIP’s evaluation of how funds had been allocated.

As an example, an emailer to the show stated that she had selected Food for the Poor for her Haiti donation dollars because the organization represents that 97% of its funds go to programs. Borochoff responded that in fact, by AIP’s analysis, only 55% of Food for the Poor’s cash budget goes to programs, earning it a “C” grade. This seemed great to me—charitywatch.org was doing the work of delving into charities’ financial statements and coming up with a more accurate representation of organizational efficiency.

But I started to get a little more confused when I was trying to find information on Engineers Without Borders for this post. See, I love the idea of EWB, but it has often seemed rather sparsely realized to me. There are not a ton of chapters, and much of the organization seems to be driven by student activity, which can be great but can also mean that well-meaning kids started a chapter 10 years ago but by now it is inactive. In other words, this was just the type of nonprofit that I would love to have some help evaluating, or finding alternatives for if EWB itself was not highly regarded. I checked the sites I knew of (charitywatch.org, Charity Navigator) and found no entry for the group. I then googled it (unfortunately finding no independent evaluation, so in my next post I will simply offer some of its history and activities for folks to evaluate on their own), and that is where I started to find various links challenging the use of fundraising “efficiency” in general as a measure of a charity’s effectiveness or integrity.

This was not something I had considered previously, but the arguments made—that groups that do things the most cheaply aren’t necessarily the best in the same way that the cheapest car doesn’t necessarily represent the best value, or that a somewhat high salary for a charity CEO can be justified depending on the organization—also made sense to me. After all, I have long been suspicious of bidding processes that place a premium on the lowest bid; I have seen large, experienced firms lose out to start-ups that have little experience in the project area and that are highly unlikely to be able to complete the scope at the bid price, to say nothing of doing a good job. If they are really the best candidate, fine, but the lowest bid is not always the best bid.

But I still don’t think I am seeing the whole picture. Some of the charity evaluation organizations that are critical of traditional efficiency ratings (e.g. GiveWell) have rated only a few charities to date, and I don’t necessarily understand all of their reasoning. For example, they commend Doctors Without Borders—USA for its honesty about a program that ended up failing, but then give it 1 star out of 3 overall without really explaining why. And they and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy highly recommend a group called Partners in Health for Haiti disaster response in particular because they say the group has a strong history in Haiti and is well plugged-in to local communities. But invariably, folks in comments to blog posts on these topics also make a similarly compelling case for other groups and then commenters argue back and forth about whether they are legit (e.g. here, here, and here). The recommendations are fragmented, and it is hard to see a consensus except for the big disaster relief players that we have all heard of.

My issue with taking recommendations that are not or are only partially based on data, even from experienced aid workers, is that of possible bias. I’m sure every charity thinks it does great work, when the reality could vary from “great” to “needs improvement.” Maybe the GiveWell rep has a good relationship with the Partners in Health rep and that contributes to their respect for the group. (And hey, maybe that is justified.) Perhaps not surprisingly, I am much more comfortable with numbers and data than text describing why a particular charity is best suited for a particular disaster response. Otherwise it seems like the kind of thing where—especially on the Internet—there could be a million right answers and a million wrong answers, and very little way of getting at the “truth.”

It also seems that there is a disinclination (see comments) among those who share this school of thought to trust large American or international organizations when it seems to me that, though not perfect, they often are at least effective at mobilizing large numbers of volunteers and supplies quickly. I think I am suffering from a bit of information overload here.

I have the following questions that I hope will spark some discussion in comments.

  • Is there any reason why I should believe subjective assessments of charities, even if they come from experienced aid workers or from foundations like GiveWell? After all, everyone has a different agenda, goals, and set of biases and beliefs.
  • Is there any objective measure (e.g. numerical formula) of a charity that is at all a reliable evaluation of its fitness for receiving your donor dollars, in your opinion?
  • This question may have been hashed out to the point of futility, but what is your opinion of the American Red Cross as a charity, and would you personally be comfortable directing your donation to it? (Incidentally, here is an article that was helpful to me in distinguishing between the different Red Crosses.)
  • Here’s the part where you do my work for me 🙂 : Which engineering/architecture/development charities would you recommend, if any, and why?

Check out this article, linked by closetpuritan at Shapely Prose, and this paper, linked by Ang on the same thread. Even some of our most closely held beliefs about what is “innate” in terms of attraction are open to question.

Anyone who is still willing to claim at this point that preferences for mates who are thin (tall, “proportionate,” etc. etc.) are hardwired and immutable since time immemorial must simply enjoy reveling in their own ignorance (note, this is NOT me saying that there aren’t biological underpinnings for why we select mates, or even that it might not be interesting for researchers to look into this… it’s just that it is NOT SCIENCE to look at societal preferences or your own personal preference and then go digging around for reasons why these preferences must be “hardwired”). I can see no other explanation.

I will try to head off one tiresome line of argument by saying that the idea that we think everyone should be forced to be attracted to fat women is a straw nonstarter. Still, it is hilarious how often this claim comes up in discussions about mate preference. It has been said many times before, but I don’t care who you want to sleep with, OK? I actually don’t want to sleep with you if you aren’t into me. I just don’t want you to make up fake science about why your preferences are “correct.” The concept of preferences being “correct” is nonsensical anyway.

But this would seem at first glance to be one of the wackiest (I ran across it accidentally while trying to find… not a naturopath, exactly, but I need a new doctor now that I no longer work in the city where my previous doc is located, and am interested in one who is both fat-friendly and open-minded about various types of therapies. These features would unfortunately seem to be mutually exclusive as far as I can determine through internet searches, seeing as most alternative practitioners also seem to be super-fixated on weight loss, colonics, and restrictive ways of eating such as raw diets, but that’s another story).

I especially love an argument I read in the Amazon reviews of a book associated with this plan, basically that it’s a human hormone, so compared to HFCS and trans fats, how could it possibly be dangerous? (After all, he or she argues, it’s used as a fertility treatment! So therefore it must be totally safe for everyone!) Anyway, everyone knows that there is absolutely no way hormones or related substances can cause problems.

The same reviewer states “I am very surprised by the negative reviews of Trudeau’s book. Amazon’s suggested tags have words like ‘fraud’ although this book has mostly positive reviews.” I mean, how can something be fraudulent or misguided if it is POPULAR, am I right?!?! LOL.

I would certainly never go off-topic and start ranting about a pet peeve (ha), but come to that, most diet books I have seen on Amazon have mostly positive reviews. That is because they all seem to say “I have been following this diet for 3 months and feel great and have lost x pounds!” or “I am 30 pounds into a 60-pound weight loss and better yet, I am keeping it off!” Um, I don’t think that means what you think it means. Rarely do you see an update from someone saying “I lost the rest of that 60 pounds and 8 years later, it’s still gone!” I wonder why that might be.

In any case, I think most of us can probably agree that eating 500 calories a day and injecting pregnancy hormones is perhaps not the most sane-sounding plan ever hatched.

I recently wrote a post whining about the anti-reflux diet that I was debating whether to try in response to some swallowing difficulties I was having. If you recall, the main hurdle I was having trouble getting over was that of coffee. I love coffee. I drink tons of coffee–usually one 16-oz travel mug or oversize ceramic mug of regular in the morning, and half again that much decaf in the evening, sometimes with a latte or another 16-oz cup of regular or decaf in the afternoon. I drink it black.

So naturally, what was probably the most ritualized, pleasurable food item in my life is the absolute #1 prohibition on the anti-reflux diet. According to the sheet I was given, pop might be tolerated if you let it “de-fizz” for a while; alcohol is prohibited but with the wording “especially carbonated beverages such as beer,” leading me to believe that there is a little wiggle room for wine and liquor; and all of the other foods on the list except for chocolate can potentially be added back in after the initial stricter period of the diet, depending on what you personally can tolerate. But coffee is a no-gray-area prohibition. You cannot drink it during the initial period, and, the sheet warns, if you add it back in later, acid damage will recur. I might have been able to hear a recommendation to cut down, but I wasn’t sure I could handle this.

But I decided I would follow the diet fully, or as fully as I could, for a few weeks, and see if it made any further difference to my swallowing; the problem, which used to occur at almost every meal, had almost gone away anyway, but I had noticed it maybe twice over the two weeks leading up to my follow-up appointment with the GE, so I figured maybe I could get it to go away completely if I followed the diet and took my Prilosec for awhile. (To be totally honest, having never suffered reflux before, I was and still am secretly assuming that the reflux is a one-off peculiarity resulting from the fairly drastic changes I made when starting my weight-loss diet, and that after cutting some stuff out long enough to fix the current acid damage, I could probably go back to my usual habits.) So I went around buying various anti-reflux-diet-friendly snacks, and although I learned to my irritation that Kraft had picked now to discontinue Postum (which I had never tasted but had certainly heard of, seeing as I grew up very near the Cereal City), I found a similar coffee substitute called Kaffree Roma from Kellogg/Morningstar Farms.

Turns out, I actually really like Roma. It tastes enough like instant coffee that I can tolerate it as a substitute, but has its own smooth, pleasant flavor. I’d still rather be drinking Peet’s with my husband, but I can deal. I even enjoy the fact that I have more or less cut out caffeine for the past several days (OK, so there was a little laxity this weekend as I “celebrated” my 10K success), and I think I feel a little better for it after an initial period of exhaustion and grouchiness, although I still think there is no inherent reason to moralize quitting caffeine. Mind you, I am not really a person who does things in moderation–I used to drink 3 or so cans of diet pop a day before I managed to cut that out–and the fact that Roma is instant makes it even easier to make than coffee, so I had been drinking up to 3 or 4 oversize mugs of it per day. But considering I wouldn’t really have batted an eye at drinking that much coffee, I wasn’t too worried about it other than the cost. In other words, I had found a solution I thought I could live with.

So of course I almost immediately discovered that Postum (and, one would assume, every other coffee substitute including Roma, since they all also have a roasted grain base) contains almost freakishly high levels of a chemical called acrylamide (I like to use Chemfinder for work, but they won’t let you link to a completed search, and Wikipedia’s information actually seems more complete anyway, so phhbbbt in Chemfinder’s general direction), which arises naturally during the Maillard Reaction that occurs as foods brown during cooking. The FDA report I found puts Postum at an average of 4,573 ppb acrylamide by weight (which is therefore equivalent to μg/kg). From this, assuming Roma has the same levels, I calculated that at my current rate of intake, I am consuming almost 110 μg of acrylamide per day (1.4 μg/kg body weight). The same report puts brewed Starbucks Colombian at 7 ppb, which would mean that if I switched back to coffee, I would be reducing my intake to about 6 μg per day.

Now, I am not really a person who puts much stock in the health scare du jour. For one thing, I can’t stand the tone of health-related “news” articles, all of which somehow manage to work obesity into the topic whether it should be there or not, so I usually just avoid them altogether and let NPR decide whether something is important enough to tell me about. But this is not just a little acrylamide. (If I were concerned about acrylamide period, I would be freaking out about all the coffee I’ve ingested over my lifetime also). This is a LOT. Even if I cut back to one mug per day, below which point I feel like I might just as well cut it out altogether and reduce the joy in my life by at least 25% (only partially kidding, and yes, I do realize I have an unhealthy attachment to steaming hot beverages in the morning, but let’s leave that aside for the moment), I’d still be consuming 27 μg. I think perhaps this is enough to be of concern, and that I should stop drinking the Roma. Other foods analyzed by the FDA and in studies may have higher concentrations of acrylamide per portion–I think French fries are a big culprit, for example–but none of them are something that I would consume every day without fail like the Roma is.

To look at it another way, even though I don’t agree with the sentiment because I know that certain substances are highly toxic or damaging at very low levels, I can understand the sometimes dismissive tone people take about regulation of very small quantities of environmental chemicals, as in drinking water standards. After all, it’s one part per BILLION (or even trillion as analytical methods improve), or 0.001 to 1 micrograms per kilogram or liter–how can a concentration that low of anything be dangerous? But even if I subscribed to this belief, I think 110 μg of acrylamide per day would give me pause. That’s 0.1 mg, an amount I could probably measure on some laboratory balances and that would be visible to the naked eye, though I think it would likely be just a small speck if I’m thinking about it right. I picture ordering a bottle of acrylamide from Fisher, pulling the bottle off the lab shelf, reviewing the MSDS with all the accompanying scary information, measuring out 0.1 mg of it, and EATING IT, then repeating this each day, and I feel a little uneasy. Don’t get me wrong–I know that almost everything is considered a potential carcinogen or at least potentially dangerous in large enough quantities. I remember catching sight of the label on a bottle of regular sodium chloride (i.e. table salt, except it was laboratory instead of food grade) in our lab, and as I recall, it instructed you to wear goggles and gloves when handling it. So a lot of chemical safety information is overly alarmist for CYA reasons. But this still worries me.

However, mainly, right now I am pissed off and ranting because every time I think I’ve found something that tastes good with no strings attached, information seems to arise indicating that it can kill me. Regular pop gives you THE OBESITY with THE HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP and causes tooth decay; diet pop contains scary, evil aspartame (and as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t like the taste of acesulfame potassium or sucralose, which in any case I have no reason to believe are any better for you); flavored sparkling water (which I was starting to really enjoy) is acidic and a no-no on the anti-reflux diet; bottled water is bad for the environment and is too expensive; tap water drunk from my Nalgene bottle will expose me to THE BIS-PHENOL-A; coffee will destroy my esophagus; Postum will give me cancer; and Genmaicha (the only tea that I actually like) is also made of roasted grain and is therefore likely not much better acrylamide-wise than coffee substitutes. It seems that I have no recourse other than to start living some kind of CSPI/sad WW/raw diet existence where you shiver while eating organic baby carrots dipped in hummus for lunch (except I’m not actually supposed to eat hummus right now because it contains spices) and never drink anything other than plain cold water.

So now what do I do? Buy the somewhat-intriguing-looking Toddy cold-brewing system? Try “low-acid” coffee? Bite the bullet and give up coffee and its delicious hot ersatz cousins altogether (waaahhhh)? Or just quit panicking and buying or not buying shit in response to health scares? Do any of you science-y types have an opinion? Sandy has a post on this topic, but it doesn’t reassure me too much because my intake of acrylamide if I keep drinking Roma every day will be higher than any of the categories in the studies she analyzes (the rat toxicology seems to indicate little cancer risk at any kind of reasonable intake, but in general I dislike toxicology and don’t pay much attention to results stemming from it, so). Which in itself is sort of scary. But for the most part, I just want to be able to… eat stuff… without being worried that I’ll get cancer 20 years from now and have only myself to blame. At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss genuinely worrisome findings just because I find them inconvenient.

I have very little time for the general idea that seems to be arising that if you do everything “right,” you’ll live forever–and that conversely, if you don’t live forever, it’s your own fault–but it seems that applying the same logic to myself is more challenging. This is a concern that I have seen raised in FA before (e.g. it’s all very well for me to say as a young person who does not have diabetes that I don’t believe obesity causes diabetes, and that therefore I would refuse to go on a weight-loss diet if I became diabetic, but what would I actually do or say if I was standing in my doctor’s office at 50 with diabetes and it was no longer theoretical?), and these days at least I can easily see how these questions become much more murky when you’re talking about your own life.

Thanks, as usual, for listening to me rant.

I have recently been thinking quite a bit about the nature of attraction and attractiveness–when Kate blogged awesomely about the subject a few weeks back in response to a dumbass troll’s comment, it so happened that I had been mulling the same topic over myself, and then more recently I’ve had a couple brief discussions/arguments with an acquaintance on the nature of attractiveness. Here is part of my comment from Kate’s entry (and yes, this is only about a third of the comment so you should all be very afraid of my capacity to spew verbiage if you are not already):

I feel like there are two worlds operating in parallel here: one where nobody would ever consider laying a hand on me and that’s a self-evident truth because attractiveness is some kind of universal, predictable, objective continuum from attractive to ugly, and the one where I am happily married and my husband finds me really hot, whereas I’m sure our friend the troll would puke if he saw me naked, and as Kate said, both of those things can be true at the same time. I believe that there are a lot of people who really and truly dwell in that first world, and they and I have a complete inability to understand or relate to each other. It’s not really a question of what their aesthetic preferences are or how important physical attributes are to that equation, either; it’s whether they can understand that those preferences are anything but the same for everyone. I once had an argument online with someone who never could be made to understand how my husband could be attracted to me without having a so-called “fat fetish.” Of course there’s no reason I couldn’t have been married to a man who prefers fat women, it just so happens that there actually isn’t much pattern to the sizes of the women my husband finds attractive. And the person I was arguing with could not for the life of him understand how weight–be it preferring fat women or thin women–might be a central part of attraction for some but not for others, and that’s fine.

Essentially, my acquaintance believes (if I am interpreting him correctly) that there really is some kind of objective continuum of attractiveness, and that it 1) can be elucidated by considering what “the average person” would find attractive, and 2) may be based on attributes that can be identified and quantified scientifically, such as symmetry, size and spacing of facial features, body size and proportion, etc.

Now, do I agree with him that there are almost certainly patterns that would emerge if you did a large, well-designed study intended to determine which faces and bodies Americans (for example) tend to find the most attractive, and I’m sure I have heard of people doing such studies–although I’m not finding much just via search engine, so I can’t link to any of the results. I also think this is an intriguing research question, and I can see why a scientist would ask it and would then go on to ask “OK, now that we know which subjects are considered the most attractive, can we determine what it is about them that causes this perception of attractiveness?” So I can totally see why my acquaintance finds this question interesting. It’s just that I think the question’s utility is pretty much limited to the academic.

First, sure, there are probably one or a few “types” of face and body that are going to be statistically preferred by the study participants, but the “less preferred” categories in terms of attractiveness are going to be so large that they too are significant. Even if only 0.1% of respondents thought a certain face was attractive, that still means (if the results hold true) that there are 300,000 people just in this country who would agree. It seems like that should be plenty to keep those “unattractive” genes in the gene pool. And just the fact that one sees people walking around every day (just in the U.S.) ranging from very thin to very fat, very traditionally “masculine” to very traditionally “feminine” (regardless of whether the person is male, female, or transgendered), very short to very tall, very small to very large breasts, etc. tells me that a variety of genes are certainly being perpetuated, and widely. I don’t think, to put it another way, that such a study would have any value in terms of predictiveness. And therefore I don’t think it would really make sense in the real world, where real people are living and befriending and loving and hating and being repulsed by and marrying and fucking and breeding with various other people.

So the kind of question I have been wrangling with my acquaintance about–essentially, I think he was arguing that the way you rank people’s attractiveness is with an eye not just for what I think but for what I think everyone else thinks–is, I believe, sort of misleading and beside the point. It’s easy to make the (IMO logically incorrect) leap from “this is the popular/media perception of beauty” to “this is what the average man or woman finds most attractive” to “this is what I expect you, as an individual, will find attractive.” As I said, you can probably find the strict numerical answer to “what the average man or woman finds most attractive,” but that does not mean that you could walk up to me on the street, present me with 10 photos, and predict in what order I would rank their attractiveness. Nor could you get the most widely-agreed-upon-as-attractive man in the world to sneak into my bed and be able to guarantee that I would necessarily want to have sex with him when I found him there. So, this is the kind of topic where you constantly end up conflating academic tendencies with individual preferences, which I think the following conversation is evidence of.

Acquaintance says “Guy X is more attractive than Guy Y, right?” I say “No, Guy X is a little too Abercrombie for my taste.” Acquaintance argues that “on the most basic level,” I would have to agree that Guy X is objectively more attractive than Guy Y. I disagree–in my opinion the “most basic level” is who I am more drawn to or, I suppose, who my brain tells me I would rather have sex with. I suppose the one thing I would concede is that Guy X did look a little more like the type of image I would usually see in the media, held up as “attractive,” than Guy Y. But that piece of information just doesn’t seem relevant, or to make any sense, to me. (Furthermore, I am highly suspicious that media representations actually get at the truth of what is considered attractive even by “the average person,” never mind all the other people.) Actually, all I think this does is to set up a circular self-fulfilling prophecy. Somehow, through forces that I’m sure are way too complicated for me to understand, we have arrived at the current belief that the faces we see in People or Us are the ones that are beautiful.

(As an aside, when did Star turn into like a fucking feminism/FA textbook? Every issue seems to feature both “stars who are too skinny” and “stars who are too fat”–almost always women, and often with a “diets of the stars” feature thrown in for good measure, and gee, I wonder why stars would ever starve themselves or gain weight under this kind of scrutiny–but I guess that’s another entry.)

Anyway, then, I feel that the circular part comes in because what my acquaintance is asking me to do is to codify the cues that I get from external sources like the media and to agree that these cues truly do define “beauty” or “attractiveness.” So what is attractive is attractive because the media says it’s attractive because it’s attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he believes that he is asking me to essentially act as a media aggregator–he thinks he is asking me to express my understanding of what human beings innately find attractive. But I don’t see how that is possible to do without being told by someone (and the only “someone” I can think of is “the media and other social forces in current U.S. society”) what the answer should be. All I can know is what I find attractive, and if I wanted to know what another individual person found attractive, I guess I would ask him. Guesswork about what such a person is likely to find attractive–regardless of how “set in stone” current beauty ideals may appear to be–seems clumsy and useless to me.

If my acquaintance is truly asking me “what do you believe studies would show as to whether Guy X is widely perceived as more attractive than Guy Y?”–and don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s less rigorous than that and he’s just trying to get me to validate what “everybody knows”–then I guess I find that a profoundly uninteresting conversation to have over a beer. And furthermore, I am not really qualified to comment because I don’t exactly do research in this area. I could offer an opinion, but we all know what they say about assuming. Going even further, I believe that offering my completely unsupported opinion could actually be damaging because we already make way too many hackneyed assumptions about attractiveness vis-à-vis biology (e.g. “people prefer thin mates because thinness represents health, it’s just BIOLOGY”), and I would just as soon not feed into that. So in some ways it’s just shooting the shit, but I think that I find the conversation sort of more profound and potentially dangerous than he does.

Maybe one of the big sticking points here is that I am way less convinced than my acquaintance of the likelihood that the average person on the street actually, deep down, prefers the current beauty ideal. Many truly do have that preference, some probably express that preference despite not feeling it strongly because of social pressure (e.g. to have a “trophy” wife or husband), and I suspect that there are very, very many who have other preferences ranging from a little outside the norm to WAY outside the norm. Jacob of Television Without Pity once wrote a recap that I wish I could find and link to (but I can’t even remember what show it was for, grrr), where he essentially said that people should stop making the mistake of assuming any given person fits a “type.” I think one awesome hypothetical he gave is that your coworker who you always thought of as a stereotypical, perfect sorority girl might actually have something like a drawer full of fingernail clippings that she saves compulsively. Similarly, reducing the “type” that people might prefer to an academic question just makes the world so much less interesting in my opinion. Or as Sarah succinctly commented to Kate’s post, “Do they [commenters like Kate’s troll, or those to another post arguing that fat people are essentially universally considered unattractive] live in the real world? I see ALL TYPES of people paired up on a DAILY basis.” Isn’t that amazingly varied reality so much cooler than trying to figure out if Guy X would be considered attractive by more women out of a hundred than Guy Y?

Few will believe this because I am fat and we don’t really get the benefit of the doubt in this arena, but I didn’t type up this entire post just to convince the world that I personally deserve more hot ass because I am a good person, or to cry about how nobody thinks I’m pretty. (If I were single, I wouldn’t exactly be jumping at the chance to screw somebody who found me disgusting, so the idea that fat people just want to FORCE everyone to date us whether they are attracted to us or not is pretty funny, by which I mean stupid.) Also, perhaps more importantly, I am married, so I can afford to look at this whole thing a little detachedly.

Growing up, I got vast quantities of crap for being fat (and being shy and smart and for crying easily and dressing weird… so who knows how much of it was actually the fat), but every so often a guy would come along who seemed to not only find me attractive, but to think it self-evident that I was attractive. My husband was one of those guys, which was fortunate for me and also a real-life data point that has served to illustrate to me how individual attraction really is. I didn’t do some PR job on my husband to show him that sure I was fat, but I had other characteristics that “made up” for it or that hey, maybe he should give fat girls a try because we’re really not so bad, and wouldn’t it be the sensitive nice guy thing to do for him to “get past” my appearance. He was attracted to me to start with, despite that he does not, on the whole, prefer fat women over thin women. In the same way, physically I would have said before we met that he wasn’t really my “type,” but when I heard his voice and learned how smart he was and had several great, easy conversations with him, he was very attractive to me–and we’ve been together so long now that what I thought was my type seems kind of silly and simplistic, and he is pretty much the definition of my “type” at this point.

So I believe that you are attracted to whomever you’re attracted to. I just think that people need the space to work out for themselves the degree to which that attraction is based on various physical characteristics, various personality and intelligence traits, etc., and don’t deserve to be made to feel guilty whatever the outcome of that self-analysis, “shallow” or otherwise. And then my one “should” on this topic is that people SHOULD, then, understand and honor the fact that attraction is a different mix of factors for everyone. Take fat–for some people, a partner has to be thin or they can’t be attracted to her. For others, she has to be fat. For others, they prefer fat or thin but other factors can override that. For others, weight truly doesn’t matter. And everything in between.

So anyway, I think the only utility my acquaintance’s question might have in the real world would be to further obscure the importance of personal preference in questions of attraction and shift the emphasis to what “normal people” like or what you “should” like, which I think we get enough of in modern society as it is. And since I am basically Pollyanna and want everyone to be happy and all marriages to work out and everyone to be having awesome fulfilling dirty sex with people they are truly attracted to, not just people they feel they should be attracted to–not to mention that I enjoy irritating my acquaintance–I think I’ll just keep refusing to answer.

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