Bad news for hip-hop video vixens and fictional “Mad Men” secretaries: according to a recent Northwestern study, memory loss may be related to the curvaceousness of a woman’s body type.
CNN reports that post-menopausal “pear-shaped” women who carry excess weight in their hips are more likely to experience brain function deterioration than “apple-shaped women”, who gain weight in their waists. “Obesity is bad, but its effects are worse depending where the fat is located,” said Dr. Diana Kerwin, the lead author of the study. “The study tells us that if we have a woman in our office, and we know from her waist-to-hip ratio that she’s carrying excess fat in her hips, we need to be more aggressive with weight loss.”
The correlation between memory loss and bodacious, Joan Holloway-esque curves, is a bit sketchy for various reasons. The Northwestern study, which was published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society on Wednesday, used BMI (Body Mass-Index, or the ratio of an individual’s height and weight) to calculate the relationship between memory score and body mass. BMI is a notoriously simplistic statistical measure that only takes height and weight into account, not distribution of muscle, bone mass, or genetic predisposition (this is particularly significant for the study’s post-menopausal subjects, as the loss of height that often accompanies aging will correspond to a higher BMI without any increase in weight.)
More importantly, body type can’t easily be altered by diet or exercise. If Kim Kardashian subsisted on nothing but lettuce and Reggie Bush man-sweat smoothies, she still wouldn’t lose an ounce off that celebrated derriere; conversely, your 90-pound college roommate who could eat a dozen chicken wings in one sitting without gaining weight will probably continue to do so. Where we tend to store fat on our bodies is predetermined, and even Kerwin admits that “we can’t change where your fat is located, but having less of it is better.”
It is this dichotomy of a “better” body vs. a presumably worse one that is most troubling about the results of the study. Using nebulous statistical measures and uncomfortable terminology, the study confirms what we already know about memory loss – i.e., that it increases with age – while privileging one type of body (the “apple” shape) over another (the “pear” shape). CNN.com reasserts this dichotomy in the article’s highlights, reporting that it is “better to be an apple than a pear,” like we’re talking about fucking Veggie Tales instead of women’s health.
The image that accompanies the article – a photo of a heavy-set woman in Spandex pants and a tight top – further drives the point home, alerting readers of the dangers that await them if they allow themselves to look like that, even though over 50% of them probably already do.
The results of the study also perpetuate the widely accepted notion that less body fat directly correlates to a healthy lifestyle. Although we’ve all been told that it’s unhealthy to be too skinny or too fat, there are many physically fit people above and below the optimal BMI range who prove otherwise. The existence of these supposed biological anomalies doesn’t dispute the fact that there are obese people with unhealthy lifestyles; nor does it dispute the Northwestern study’s findings that fat that releases cytokines, or hormones that affect cognitive function, is more likely to be found in certain parts of the body than others. But when we’re dealing with information that could improve the lives of thousands of women, making sweeping generalizations and reducing bodies to pieces of fruit probably isn’t going to get us very far.