Economic Working Paper Entitled 'The Value of a Slender Spouse' Is Exactly As Bad As You'd Think

Economic Working Paper Entitled 'The Value of a Slender Spouse' Is Exactly As Bad As You'd Think
Photo:Patrick Sison (AP)

In the year 2021, the National Bureau of Economic Research decided that, for some reason, it was both appropriate and necessary to provide a platform for a working paper that is literally entitled: “The Value of a Slender Spouse: Couples Agree that Keeping the Wife Svelte is more Valuable than Keeping the Husband Fit.” It’s hard to know where to begin with this title, but I can’t help but wonder how these authors managed to pluck their study topic directly from the mind of an early ‘00s sitcom creator!

Now I will not even pretend to have read this entire study, as I only have an hour to write this blog, and also I’m afraid if I start reading it I’ll actually lose brain cells—a belief that is further supported by just reading the abstract, which literally begins:

“According to the World Health Organization, obesity is one of the greatest public-health challenges of the 21st century. Body weight is also known to affect individuals’ self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, including romantic ones.”

….. So somehow the first two sentences of the abstract are even more wildly fatphobic than the title!

And it turns out the very premise of this study is scientifically unsound, as it uses BMI as a means of measuring “fitness”—despite the fact that BMI has been widely known to be unreliable as a means of measuring “health” for over a decade now, and is often used by medical professionals as a justification for dismissing fat people’s legitimate health concerns. The assumption that if a person’s BMI falls within a certain range they must be “healthy” can also lead to doctors overlooking serious medical concerns in thin people, such as disordered eating habits….. the very same disordered eating habits that could be triggered by reading a study that flat out states that wives have to be thin to keep their husbands happy!

I won’t go through the abstract line by line (let’s be honest—none of us really want that), but it concludes with another particularly disturbing passage:

“Women on average value changes in their own BMI about three times higher than changes in their spouse’s BMI. Men, on the other hand, value a reduction in their spouse’s BMI almost twice as much compared to a reduction in their own BMI. Married couples therefore agree on one thing, that keeping the wife svelte is even more valuable than keeping the husband fit.”

In other words, women experience significant pressure both from society and within their marital relationships with men to lose weight or remain thin, while the heteropatriarchy does not put the same fatphobic expectations on men within the structures of their marital relationships with women. That’s not to dismiss or even minimize the very real fatphobia experienced by men, especially Black men and other men of color, but rather to recognize the specific way these systems of oppression can function within heterosexual relationships.

It’s incredibly unclear what the purpose of this research even is other than to provide further “evidence” to validate people’s fatphobic, heterosexist, and misogynistic beliefs—what is the purpose of quantifying the societal “value” of thinness within heterosexual marriages without being at all critical about WHY it has that so-called value??

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