Who’s Thin and Why

August 1, 2013 | By | Comments (4)

This isn’t scientific, but unthin people like me divide thin people into two groups: the congenitals and the habituals. (There are no doubt hybrids, as well.) The former are naturally lean and don’t seem to have to work too hard at it: That may not be fair, but it’s how it seems. I’m not sure if they naturally burn more calories or naturally eat fewer calories, or both. Some of them simply seem to lack appetite or even interest in food—I’ve watched tall, thin men eat one-half or one-third of what I consider a reasonable restaurant meal, often not paying much attention to what they’re eating. They do this with none of the ritual plunking down of the fork or pushing away of the plate or setting of the jaw that signals the habitual weight watcher at work. This sort of wanton disinterest in food is interesting and a bit confounding to me, but it’s no model: I kind of freak out with excitement every time it’s time to eat.

The habituals are the ones who maintain thinness out of practice, motivation, and what our culture defines as willpower. For them it may be a struggle, even a titanic struggle, unless they find a way to relax into a relaxed way of eating. Even the relaxed ones report to me that food choice and portions are often on their minds.


Photo: © Jamie Grill/Tetra Images/Corbis

The habituals herd together; they tend to concentrate in microcultures that reward their success. Of these local cultures, I know New York City’s best because I lived there for more than 15 years.  The incentives to be thin can be as specific and extreme as “I’m in the fashion industry and I have to conform to a body type” or as general as “in New York overweight is implicitly associated with Darwinian business-world and social-world failure.” Variations on this exist around the country: “In Boulder, we often run up mountains, and it’s very important to me to be a contributing member of this tribe.” I know the latter is true because I’m often hiking around Boulder and have to stand aside as someone charges up the steep path as if being chased by a cougar. (Here’s a video of typical mountain-running.)

A person of course can thrive in thin-reward cultures and not conform to body standards. You could be a fat editor at a fashion magazine, I suppose; you could maybe run with the herd of lean MBA venture-capital aspirers down on Wall Street. But defying the norm requires compensatory talents that will incent others to overlook your weight. The more brilliant you are, the heavier you can be in a thin microculture—that’s what I’m saying. Also helps if you’re a man—and I’m looking at you, Harvey Weinstein. Those who don’t have such talent or ferocity or confidence have to remain thin, or die a little bit every day trying.

For those of us who are trying to lose weight, the congenitals and the habituals are both exotic species. Oh, to be born naturally thin. Oh, to have the willpower to succeed at being thin. But the congenitals are irrelevant—we do not have their DNA—while the habituals are both inspiring and irritating. Their existence asserts one’s own failure—or at least some of us who are unthin tend to interpret it that way. Especially when some of the habituals agree, loudly, that we apple-shaped people are failures. As one thin person said at dinner a while back, hearing about a study that showed how terrifically difficult it is for obese people to lose weight: “I don’t know why fat people don’t stop making excuses and just show some willpower.”

Ah, willpower: It’s a theme I keep coming back to with the Cooking Light Food Lover’s Social Diet because I don’t understand what it really means in the context of eating. I think it’s a misused term, by both the thin and the unthin. What do you think?

Comment here, email Scott_Mowbray@timeinc.com, and tweet @ScottMowb or @Cooking_Light using #SocialDiet.


  1. Vicente

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    August 20, 2014 at 1:35 am
  2. D Tomas

    As a newly thin person, I understand how difficult it is to remain consistent with the habits necessary to lose weight. The truth of the matter that it is all behavioral & the desire to stick with healthy habits must outweigh the desire for those things that derail our attempts at weight loss. I have found that eating a diet higher in protein helps to keep me full & less likely to eat poorly. I also learned that weight loss success is directly tied to diet not so much activity. Tracking food intake accurately is paramount. The tool that helped me most was the myfitnesspal application. Good luck on your endeavor to lose!

    August 6, 2013 at 1:21 am
  3. Jeannie Landis

    I think you’re on to something really important…I think the language around eating and exercising needs to change all together. “Willpower” (which has so many negative associations tied to it) needs to be ditched and replaced with words like awareness, intention and congruent ACTIONS.

    August 3, 2013 at 11:27 pm
  4. Christina Wyatt

    I am a dietitian and I work with clients who want to lose weight. I agree with you that will power is a misused and unhelpful concept. People speak of it like it is a mysterious thing that they just naturally don’t have and others do have–and citing the lack of willpower as a reason for not meeting their goals makes it feel as if things are out of their control.

    I like to steer people away from citing willpower as a reason for not meeting their goals for the week. I think exploring and focusing on their motivations for change, and finding ways to change their thoughts around food and eating (and getting away from the diet mentality!) helps much more. Also, changing their home environment to make healthy choices easier is key.

    If someones meal plan to lose weight is unrealistic, overly rigid and not enjoyable, why would anyone want to follow that!?

    Great article!

    August 2, 2013 at 9:09 am

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