Health is a very important issue for people in developed countries. As we are generally able to get enough food and take care of our basic needs, we become increasingly concerned with health issues. Obesity has become one of the biggest concerns afflicting people in rich countries. The seventeenth century Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens, is famous for his paintings of human figures that appear to us today as distinctly overweight.

Peter Paul Rubens, painting in the early seventeenth century, reflects attitudes to obesity that we, in the early twenty first century, probably find rather strange. Photo. Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rubens was painting four hundred years ago at a time when thinness was associated with poverty and relative fatness was associated with prosperity. It is hardly surprising that people had a more positive attitude towards images of overweight people. People did not live as long as they do today and were therefore less concerned about diseases associated with obesity. After all, as an artist, Rubens needed the support of rich people and they were probably overweight. It would have been awkward if Rubens had painted ideal figures as very thin by their standards.

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Rubens’s second wife, Helene Fourmant. Photo.,_1635.jpg

Today, we are well aware that obesity has a negative effect on our health and can lead to reduced life expectancy. Obesity increases the likelihood of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Also, obesity is now associated with poverty as healthy food is less affordable for poor people. As a result, body shape has become an obsession and people often aspire to a body shape that is unattainable for ordinary people. This situation is intensified as the spread of the internet means that ordinary people will often make nasty remarks, on social media for example, about people they consider overweight. Eating disorders are acknowledged as a global problem even though a 2012 study from the National Cancer Institute found that moderately obese people are likely to live over three years longer than normal weight people. This appears to raise important questions about what is really healthy!

People in developed countries have become increasingly concerned with body shape and often aspire to an ideal that is unattainable. At the same time, studies indicate that it is healthier to be a little overweight. Photo. By Victovoi (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even so, the World Health Organization suggests that 65% of the global population lives in countries where being overweight is more likely to kill you than being underweight. Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of risk factors associated with being overweight. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Governments around the world are understandably worried that their health services will come under severe pressure, particularly as developed countries have to deal with rapidly ageing populations. Studies suggest that metabolic syndrome affects about 44% of the US population over the age of 50.

A morbidly obese teenager. Height 177 centimeters; weight 146 kg. Photo. By derivative work: James Heilman, MD (talk) Central_Obesity_011.jpg: FatM1ke Central_Obesity_008.jpg: FatM1ke (Central_Obesity_011.jpg Central_Obesity_008.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While there do seem to be very severe problems facing our health care services, it is not clear that we are dealing with these problems very successfully. In the USA, the danger line regarding waist circumference is 89 centimeters for women and 102 centimeters for men. In Japan, rather puzzlingly, the danger line is 90 centimeters for women and 85 centimeters for men. It is not explained why Japanese women are allowed to have a bigger waist than both American women and Japanese men!

The dangers of lung cancer and its relation to cigarette smoking are well known. Smoking is by far the main contributor to lung cancer. However, the response of governments in different countries can be very different. Photo.

The response to the dangers of smoking offers an interesting cultural contrast. Just about everywhere, people recognize that smoking is the main contributor to lung cancer. Many countries have a small text warning on the cigarette package even in places where cigarette advertising is tolerated. Australia was the first country to ban all logos and branding on cigarette packets and to require a graphic image on packages urging people to stop smoking.

An Australian cigarette packet. No logo or marketing. A plain brown package with an unpleasant picture on it. Photo.

Attitudes toward smoking are also reflecting in cigarette prices. The price of a packet of 20 cigarettes was about 11 US dollars in Australia in 2010 (and almost 10 US dollars in the UK). In Japan the price was less than 4 US dollars. Clearly, there are big differences in government responses to health issues across cultures.

Global cigarette prices in 2010. World Health Organization.

Even so, poverty remains a major cause of health problems around the world. In many poor countries, the average life expectancy can be around 45 years old. In these countries, very large numbers of children die under of 5 years of age. Infectious diseases, often easily treated in developed countries, and malnutrition remain a huge problem.

Anyway, check out the PowerPoint slides here.