American women have gained weight as it has become more socially acceptable to do so, according to a paper published in Economic Inquiry (2007; 43 , 571–91).
Co-authored by two economists, “Social Dynamics of Obesity” argues that the population’s weight gain has snowballed as collective perception of what is considered a normal body size has changed. Many economists believe that people eat more—and thus gain weight—when food prices drop. Relative to the price of consumer goods, however, the price of a calorie has fallen by about 36% since 1977, with prices leveling off in the mid-1990s, and yet American women have continued to pack on pounds.
The study authors looked at body weights among American women in the 30- to 60-year-old age bracket from 1976 to 2000. Using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, they found that the average woman’s weight increased by 20 pounds, or 13.5%, during that period. There was disproportionate growth among the most obese women as the 99th percentile weight increased 18.2%, from 258 to 305 pounds.
The researchers also reviewed women’s self-reported real weights and desired weights. In 1994, the average woman said she weighed 147 pounds but wanted to weigh 132 pounds. By 2002, the average woman weighed 153 pounds but wanted to weigh 135 pounds. The fact that even the desired weight of women has increased suggests there is less social pressure to lose weight, one author noted. He cited a previous study showing that 87% of Americans, including 48% of obese Americans, believed that their body weight fell in the “socially acceptable” range.