SpainExpatBlog: Spain and the average physique
Britt Bohannan digs into Spain’s attitudes to body and food.
I enjoy the sentiment here that people are born looking a certain way, and that the particular certain way doesn't define who a person is, so natural appearances aren't messed with too badly (with the exception of certain socio-economics groups like our aging Spanish ladies). That goes for things we Americans methodically correct as a rite of passage, for example crooked teeth. Lots of crooked teeth here with no closed lipped smiles to hide what Americans would call imperfections. Even if you wish that guy with the tobacco stained, gappy set of chompers would adopt such a smile.
Body acceptance of others is the norm and, to an extent, of one's own body. I don't mean that there are fat acceptance groups or hyper vigilance to be politically correct about fat people (or anything else for that matter). What I mean is, if someone is fat, they may be referred to as fat, but it isn't with disgust or contempt or scorn. It's just a defining characteristic they have and it's an easy reference. No one watches them eat and whispers ‘Does he really need the extra slice of jamon on his bocadillo??' It isn't anyone's business but his own, and no one treats it otherwise.
That being said, the standard body size is far smaller than that of a typical US citizen. I mean in height and weight and everything else. For women, the median dress size here is about a US 4, which means there are also a lot of naturally thin women who are much smaller, like a size 00-2. These are women who do not think twice about what they are eating. They drink beer, they eat a chocolate croissant for mid-morning breakfast, they drink regular coke and they eat dinner well past 10pm and it usually includes something fried. But they also may skip a meal because they get too busy or perhaps just forget to eat. So while there is a level of body acceptance, there aren't a lot of fat people here.
There are a lot of differences in daily diet that I think may contribute to a naturally smaller size. The Spanish do not ever ingest high fructose corn syrup, they don't eat much dairy other than a bit of soft cheese or very infrequently some grated hard cheese, they never eat butter in or on anything (olive oil is used instead), they eat fish daily, red meat and pork and chicken almost daily. I'd go on, but the hype about the "Mediterranean Diet" has already come and gone so you know the components.
Now, I don't know if any of this has anything to do with their natural set point in body weight, because on the other hand, they also put oil on everything and eat crème brûlée and patatas bravas: fried potatoes usually served with some mayonnaise-y type sauce which sounds gross but isn't bad (in fact the whole concept of Mayonnaise came from the island Menorca, here in Catalunya, so it isn't a strange adoption like that of the Dutch who do put straight mayonnaise on fries, which you already knew because you saw Pulp Fiction).
And while the entire male world runs or cycles daily well into their 70s, the women generally aren't very sporty. Spanish women may or may not go to the gym, but if they do, it isn't with the fervor that the dieting (or the eating disordered) put into it. As far as I can tell, they go to socialize or to have something to do during the two hour lunch break everyone has. And they walk or ride bicycles or take public transportation, which involves a lot more walking than you think.
Despite the diet and exercise differences, I think a lot of it is in our genes. We of Anglo-Saxon decent are not just much taller than our Mediterranean brothers, but bigger breasted, assed, bellied and with substantially more back fat as well. Just give us an extra slice or two of pizza a week for a couple months, and we expand 3 pant sizes, while Alberto just has more energy during the day. We must have had some cold winters to naturally select that kind of fat storing efficiency. If we want to keep ourselves in check now that we are no longer hunting and gathering and storing extra fat blankets for lean winters, we have to be vigilant. We could adopt the "Mediterranean Diet", but considering what happens when you spend a week in Italy, I don't think that is going to work for us. (That's a joke, but regardless, I'm not willing to commit to such an experiment.)
Interestingly, I hear Spanish men discussing their diets all the time. As in "I'm going on a diet" and "I need to get some more exercise because my abs are no longer so defined you can scrub your clothes on them". In the US, a layer of fat on a man goes unnoticed by him and is easily described (inaccurately) as muscle by others by using the adjective big, as in "that's a big dude", as in "that's a strong dude" instead of "that's a chunky dude". Men here are inscrutable about a handful of gut and will work hard to rid themselves of it.
Leanness is king. Which means that yes, the smaller and less muscled look for men (what hipsters in the US affectionately refer to as European, or Gay?) is completely acceptable. Instead of fearing a scrawny body and striving for the kind of overinflated biceps that every US high school boy spends hours sweating in his garage while listening to Rush trying to achieve, skinniness is A-OK. In fact it's an asset: you're a skinny kid? Get on a bicycle! Cycling here is so popular that a fit but really skinny guy is universally envied for his climbing skills, potential or actual, while bicycling in the mountains. Because cycling is the way out. It's the equivalent to our poor kid turned basketball star/rags to riches story. (Just read up on Alberto Contador, 2x Tour de France winner. Yes, he is Spanish. Warning, translated site is not fantastic but you get the gist of it.)
Note: The pro cycling world is perhaps an unfair example, as any fly on the wall will tell you that the preoccupation with eating and not eating rivals that of any group of unnaturally slim models: Food restrictions, diet pills, off season binges and of course the deliberate avoidance of speaking of any and all strange eating patterns marks the cycling world in general.
So the average Spanish guy isn't going to weigh his food and abstain from alcohol (ever!), though he may take it easy on the pasta and skip the dessert if his gut is starting to protrude over his belt a whole 10 millimeters. And he is going to admire rather than make fun of the physique of the tiny dudes on bicycles, even if he never wants to be that size himself.
If you are now envious of the Mediterranean natural size zero women and lean men with washboard abs, both of whom who eat bread dipped in olive oil every day with their beer, let me help you feel better: they look older. That type of thinness over age 30 ages you a lot. And god help them if they smoke. (Or smoke while tanning, which I see a lot of women here doing. Trust me, they look 45 by age 35. So wear sunscreen and don't smoke, for the love of Pete.)
And if you visit, or even come here to live, don't worry about having a bowl of those olives and a glass of wine or two. These local delights are delicious treats like nowhere else on earth. And if you start feeling guilty, remember that there's nothing like a little extra padding to make naturally age-thinned faces and necks look younger.
And no one is going to judge you for a couple of extra pounds either way.
Britt Bohannan is an American currently living in Spain, the fifth foreign country she has called home. She has spent the last four years in Barcelona working as a freelance editorial and technical writer and for local magazines and businesses and runs SpainExpatBlog.com.
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