There’s a scene in the second episode of Season 2 of Mad Men where Don and Betty Draper invite their neighborhood “friends,” the Hansons, over for cards, and Don comments afterward on how the husband’s put on weight.
“I think it’s nice he’s filled out,” Betty responds. “It shows he’s happy.”
Being heavier was definitely a status symbol for men at the time. It signaled that they enjoyed a life of luxury and contentment. But women never shared that privilege. Seasons later, Betty, whose social- and self-worth are grounded in her physical beauty, is racked with guilt and self-loathing when she gains weight and can’t fit into her old dresses.
Unfortunately, the weight-related gender norms of hyper-patriarchal, mid-1960s America are still alive today, according to a new study from researchers at Vanderbilt University.
Specifically, the study finds an inverse relationship between body weight and social status for women. That is, the higher up the socioeconomic ladder women are, the thinner they tend to be, reflecting the intense pressure on women to be attractive, according to sociology professor Lijun Song, the study’s lead author.
That society largely values women only for their looks is as unsurprising as it sad. So the most interesting aspect of Song’s study is that the opposite is true for men: The more successful they are, the heavier they tend to be.
I’m not sure what’s more depressing: A society wherein women feel being thin is necessary for success, or one that tells men it’s okay to neglect their physical health, so long as they’re a member of high society. Either way, Song’s results paint a dismal portrait about the intersection of success and gender in our culture.
She attributes the schism to the different social pressures men and women experience growing up. Successful women are merely reacting to a culture that has long told them their attractiveness is paramount, Song tells me. “There are more costs for women if they’re overweight. They’re more likely to suffer in educational attainment, professional attainment and income. And they’re more likely to suffer on the marriage market.”
Men, by contrast, are pressured only to be successful—regardless of their physical shape—and thus feel free to let themselves go. “The expectation is men need to be a masculine breadwinner, and women need to be a slender caregiver,” Song says.
The discrepancy might also explain why so many men luck into dating women far hotter than they are, and how that never seems to happen in the opposite direction. (Note: This phenomenon wasn’t explored in the study; it’s purely based on my own observations and life experience. That said, Song says there may be some truth to it.)
The study was based on data collected in the 2004 General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago, and determined people’s socioeconomic class by measuring the educational attainment of their social circles. The more educated one’s social network, the most successful they were assumed to be.
Granted, this is only a proxy for socioeconomic status, but it’s a sound one considering education level is so closely correlated with income. The median weekly earnings for people with bachelor’s degrees was $1,137 in 2015, above the overall average of $860 and almost $400 more than people with just a high school diploma, according to the Department of Labor.
The results also suggest a degree of peer pressure and conformity among groups of successful women and men, Song adds. “If you’re surrounded by women who go to the gym every day and order salad, you’re more likely to adopt those behaviors.”
But when you’re a successful man, and all your friends are rich fat cats who eat and drink whatever they want and consider themselves too busy and important to work out, the social pressure to keep it tight is nonexistent.