The Sunday Times Published 24 June 2012 Lois Rogers
IT IS the phenomenon that is providing experts with plenty of food for thought: while everyone else is piling on the pounds, professional women are slimming down.
According to official figures from the National Obesity Observatory (NOO), an organisation established in 2007 to provide authoritative data on the nation’s obesity epidemic, females who have careers in fields such medicine, the law or business are the only social group to lose weight in the past 15 years.
In 1997, 15% of professional women were obese. By 2008, the last recorded figures, the figure was 14%. The proportion actually fell to as low as 10% in the early part of the last decade, although NOO says that may have been because of the low number of women questioned during that period.
By contrast, the percentage of professional men classed as obese rose from 15% to more than 20% between 1997 and 2008. NOO, which is carrying out further work on the data, also found that there were larger differences in the prevalence of obesity among females of different social class groups, compared with men.
The trend among professional women has been attributed to women’s desire to outperform male rivals in the workplace or a belief that, despite decades of feminist campaigning for equality, a perception that women will be judged on appearance rather than skill persists.
Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University, believes that professional women are particularly aware of prejudice against those who are overweight.
“Appearance is the most important attribute for women in our society,” he said. “Valuing them only for their appearance is a way for men to subjugate them. There is absolutely no doubt that to be fat in our current society is a disadvantage and particularly if you are female.”
Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister who suffered jibes about her appearance before re-inventing herself as a slimmer television personality, agrees that society makes demands on how women should look.
“There is possibly more pressure on young women, but I think the pressure on women to be concerned about their appearance has always been there,” she said.
The theory was supported by Sponsor Effect: UK, a report released last week into the lack of British female executives that found women are 39% more likely than men to believe that looks and appearance contribute to success in the workplace.
“Women often don’t get promoted because they don’t have executive presence — a huge part of which is being slim and toned,” said Sylvia Hewlett, an economist who leads the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation, which published the report. “No wonder professional women are sticking to those diets.”
Last month a study was published by researchers in Manchester and in Melbourne, Australia, that involved asking student volunteers to assess the leadership potential of six fat and six thin women with identical educational backgrounds, based on their CVs and photographs. The fat candidates scored more poorly.
A body mass index (BMI), which is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared, of more than 30 is generally considered to be obese.
Helen Jackson, 61, a barrister from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who weighs more than 16 stone, believes that while portly male lawyers are tolerated, female ones are not.
“I make a point of dressing smartly and giving the impression of being a together person but the pressure on women to look the part has definitely got worse since I was called to the bar in 1975,” she said. “Women now are slaves to their appearance more than they ever were.”
By contrast, some ascribe the trend to a realisation among women that a healthy body creates a healthy mind.
Heather Jackson, chief executive of the Women’s Business Forum, which brings together leading businessmen and women to discuss the positive effect of gender-balanced boards and workforces, said: “This data is no surprise to me. You only have to look at the FTSE 100 to see that the best leaders — men or women — are not obese people. You have to be healthy and fit to be effective.
“I don’t think professional women are going out to look the part. They have just been the first group to wake up to the damage to health caused by too much weight.”