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Wealth and Obesity: A Brief History

Monday, December 22, 2008 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD
The Fat Man's Club of Van Zandt County, April 1894. Minimum member weight of 200 lbs.

A recent post by fellow blogger and friend, Dr. Arya Sharma, brought my attention to a new publication indicating that at least among Canadian men, wealth appears to be a positive predictor of obesity. While these findings are contrary to current dogma (an inverse gradient between socio-economic status and obesity), as I commented on Arya’s blog, such associations were the norm in our not-so-distant past.

The development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution allowed many of those in high power to indulge in large feasts and to significantly increase their weight. Soon after, fatness became an overt physical representation of one’s power or rank. During the mid 18th century, it was the rubenesque figure which was ideal among women, while fat men were considered most attractive. In fact, thinner men stuffed their shirts to conform to the heavy ideal and to heighten their status in society.

So popular was the endomorphic body type during this period that even a “Fat Man’s Club” was founded in 1866. This club was obviously exclusive to men who had achieved a suitable level of adiposity, but was also associated with power, prestige, and wealth of its members.

Then, in the early 20th century, abundant food supplies became available to even to lowest social ranks. Quickly, body ideals in both men and women took a sharp turn, and excess adiposity started becoming unwanted and stigmatized. Predictably, the demise of the Fat Man’s Club followed in 1903.

As an anecdote, I can remember my grandma (who lived in Poland during WWII and its long aftermath) commenting on the attractiveness of a “gentleman with a belly” – which in her eyes indicated wealth and aristocracy. So even though The Fat Man’s Club in England had long disbanded by the time my grandma was an adult, it appears that the obese ideal stuck around a bit longer in Poland – likely on account of the food scarcity which persisted in that country even into my lifetime (one of the many reasons my parents and I emigrated).

Currently, with the exception of the unique finding discussed by Arya, low socio-economic status is a strong predictor of obesity likelihood in Western countries – likely in Poland as well.

It is interesting, however, how something which was once the norm (obese = rich) is today, for the most part, reversed (obese = poor). If the aforementioned study was published just a century ago the observation in men would only confirm what most know, and we’d be discussing the ‘controversial’ finding that wealthier women tend to be thinner.


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1 Response to "Wealth and Obesity: A Brief History"

  1. Anonymous Said,

    Great Comment - funny to see how our blogs are complementary.
    Have a great 2009!

    Posted on December 29, 2008 at 3:08 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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