Personality and obesity

As I have asserted in earlier posts, personality is partly genetic, partly malleable (let’s say 50/50 for the sake of simplicity). Hence, one cannot blame oneself for every negative outcome or behavior, but still to some extent a person can be changed – hopefully in the right direction.

For instance, a person can learn to be more extrovert, conscientious, agreeable and less neurotic; and a too agreeable person – someone who might be used by other people due to a complete lack of cynicism – can learn to be slightly more antagonistic and calculating.

Personality traits can often be linked to the so called Big Five personality factors: Openness, Conscientousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. In addition, there are of course other important characteristics such as the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy). However, in the current post I will only focus on the Big Five and their links to obesity, or adiposity.

As substantial research indicates, personality traits are related to people’s tendency to gain weight. The research article “Personality and Obesity across the Adult Lifespan” (2011) stresses the significance of personality traits for obesity:

Societal shifts in food quality, quantity, and availability are certainly major contributors to this recent increase in obesity. Yet, many other factors are also implicated in weight control. In particular, personality traits are consistently associated with the controllable behaviors that lead to obesity (Provencher et al., 2008) and personality has an effect on adiposity even after controlling for known demographic and genetic influences (Terracciano et al., 2009). Most studies of personality and weight have been cross-sectional; long-term longitudinal studies are needed to test how personality is associated with weight change across the adult lifespan.

The authors also emphasize the importance of avoiding obesity for a variety of reasons – health, individual well-being, as well as economic and social status:

Body weight is a fundamental individual difference variable that has a pervasive effect on nearly every aspect of our lives. Although most commonly implicated in physical health, adiposity contributes to a variety of psychological processes, such as well-being, identity formation, and person perception. Overweight individuals are prone to depression (Luppino et al., 2010), have poor body image (Schwartz & Brownell, 2004), are evaluated negatively by others (Crandall, 1994), and are ascribed traits based on their body size (Roehling, Roehling, & Odland, 2008). In fact, just being associated with someone who is overweight can lead to negative evaluations (Hebl & Mannix, 2003). As such, body weight contributes to how we understand ourselves, how we see others, and how others see us.

As far as earlier studies indicate, Conscientiousness is the most consistently related to overweight of the Big Five. More conscientious people are less likely to be obese and the other way around. This has got to do with one of its corresponding main characteristics, self-discipline:

The traits within the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, have been linked to health behaviors and outcomes in general (Friedman, 2008; Goodwin & Friedman, 2006; Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006) and to abnormal weight in particular (Brummett et al., 2006; Chapman, Fiscella, Duberstein, Coletta, & Kawachi, 2009; Terracciano et al., 2009). Of the five traits, Conscientiousness is the most consistently associated with adiposity. Across different personality measures, populations, and both self-reported and clinician-assessed weight, conscientious individuals have lower adiposity (Brummett et al., 2006; Chapman et al., 2009; Roehling et al., 2008; Sullivan, Cloninger, Przybeck, & Klein, 2007; Terracciano et al., 2009). In particular, the order and self-discipline facets of Conscientiousness are strongly associated with weight (Terracciano et al., 2009). Presumably, those who score higher on Order and Self-Discipline are leaner because they are organized and stick to their diet and meal schedule. The lifestyle choices of individuals high in Conscientiousness likely contribute to their healthy weight. These individuals, for example, are physically active (Rhodes & Smith, 2006), restrain from binge eating and drinking (Rush et al., 2009), and are less likely to have disordered eating (Bogg & Roberts, 2004).

Another important notion is that weight is not static – it is misguided to put oneself into everlasting categories. The important thing is to change the ‘eventual fact’ that one has to gain fat weight over time in one’s life span:

For most people, weight is not static, but fluctuates over time. As individuals age, their metabolic needs decrease, but their energy intake typically remains constant or increases (Bosy-Westphal et al., 2003; Elia, Ritz, & Stubbs, 2000). As a result, until old age, adults tend to gradually gain weight as they age. Similar to weight at any one given point in time, there are considerable individual differences in the extent to which BMI fluctuates across the lifespan.

The general conclusion:

Neuroticism and Conscientiousness are both associated with the health-risk behaviors that contribute to abnormal weight. Individuals high in Neuroticism and low in Conscientiousness are more likely to smoke (Terracciano & Costa, 2004), abuse drugs (Terracciano, Löckenhoff, Crum, Bienvenu, & Costa, 2008), be physically inactive (Rhodes & Smith, 2006), and binge eat and drink (Rush et al., 2009). Consistent with these more recent studies, a meta-analysis found that Conscientiousness correlated negatively with health behaviors that are among the leading behavioral contributors to mortality, including disordered eating, physical inactivity, alcohol and drug use, and smoking (Bogg & Roberts, 2004). Individuals high in Neuroticism, in addition to their other health-risk behaviors, tend to be overly concerned with their shape and weight and, despite their attempts at restraint, tend to lose control over their food intake (Provencher et al., 2008). One outcome of these maladaptive cognitive and behavioral patterns is difficulty with weight regulation.

So if someone has a problem with binge eating, obesity and/or fast fat weight gains, it may important to try to be less neurotic (easier said than done for many who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders) and more conscientious. Perhaps a well-planned and consistent diet schedule with the aim to lose weight over time may be a very wise investment – and even to help save money in the long run.

The parallels between K-pop and fitness and bodybuilding

K-pop is not just the name of an umbrella music genre – South Korean pop music – which mainly attracts teenagers and young adults in East Asia and other locations of the world, but a phenomenon that is used as a means for national branding by the South Korean government and even as a concrete soft power tool in the context of a seemingly even more rancorous armistice between the two rivalry Korean states. Hence it is far from trivial, although a large share of the K-pop content indeed is very banal (and that is in turn an integrated part of the contemporary South Korean culture and something which its isolated northern neighbor lacks).

However, in this post I will not dwell on these particular sub-topics but instead briefly describe some of the characteristics that K-pop shares with bodybuilding and fitness. The increasing popularity of bodybuilding and fitness in South Korea is a subject of its own, and I may eventually write more about that as well. Nevertheless, there are some interesting parallels between the K-pop industry and the fitness industry that I will focus on. Part of the inspiration is obtained from this article and other observations.

First of all, both K-pop and bodybuilding/fitness are mostly about appearance and to make money out of it. (And this is not the same as to say that there is no passion in it.) The obvious difference in this regard, on the other hand, is that within K-pop a thin model look is praised while bodybuilding and fitness are, more or less, about muscle volume and definition. Even Men’s Physique competitors appear quite distant from their male K-pop counterparts, although there is also a partial overlap in terms of low percentage of body fat and even in relationship to the universal ideal face, as well as with regard to other secondary traits such as hairstyle and make-up (especially among girls/women). An additional difference is that K-pop, of course, is more audio-visual than fitness and bodybuilding which are mainly visual-only.

As with most comparative analyses, one can focus on either differences or similarities, or both. In terms of similarities, I think that one of the most striking parallels is the extent to which K-pop artists – often called idols – and competitors as well a large amount of non-competitors within fitness/bodybuilding are willing to go to succeed. The types of training within these two fields are of course very different from each other: dancing, singing, social etiquette and language practice are not being part of bodybuilding and fitness, whereas hypertrophy training and particular posing routines are not being part of K-pop. Additionally, the amount of training in total is not the same since K-pop artists train much more and more diligently than fitness athletes and bodybuilders.

Moreoever, K-pop performers are mostly educated and trained from an early age within the frames of their entertainment agencies’ talent systems, whereas bodybuilders and fitness athletes tend to start while they are teenagers or young adults and mainly as mere amateurs before they eventuallty become some kind of professional and then can make a living out of it. And within both categories, one is expected to smile most of the time, especially in a stage setting. The analogy between these two categories is perhaps harder to imagine with regard to heavy-weight bodybuilding, such as the Mr. Olympia, but easier in relationship to fitness and Men’s Physique. ‘A total package’ – and oft-repeated phrase within fitness – implies good looks and an overall appealing presence.

Another parallel that I can come to think of is the far-reaching changes of outer appearances by means of various ‘unnatural’ – besides ‘natural’ ones such as the conventional training and dieting patterns – measures: in K-pop plastic surgery and cosmetics, and in bodybuilding and fitness, the frequent and widespread use of anabolic steroids. Perhaps Brazilian butt lift and breast implants are used by females within both K-pop and Bikini Fitness but these are much more widespread within the latter domain, whereas alteration of facial features is the main route within the South Korean entertainment industry (and in fact, the South Korean society in general).

There are of course some ‘naturals’ within in K-pop that do not require any double eyelid and/or nose surgery, as there are some professionals in fitness modelling, Men’s Physique and even bodybuilding classes that do not use so called performance-enhancing drugs. And needless to say, not everyone uses either plastic surgery or anabolic steroids to the same degree and extent, and there is also a quite broad spectrum of different mixtures and components that may be utilized. In this respect, there is also an interesting difference in that sense that plastic surgery is completely legal and vastly promoted in public, particularly in Seoul, while anabolic steroids are illegal and banned from sports of all kind.

Further, another analogy is the visual extremes in terms of perfection – not just in relationship to training and dieting – but also regarding stage presence and performance. While among people in general, a large share may often tend to think that good are well enough for themselves, their friends and families and what they achieve, in K-pop, as in professional fitness, bodybuilding, and Men’s Physique there is virtually no limit to how perfect, ripped and/or big a group or individual and their performances should become. Just look at acts such as TVXQ, Girls’ Generation, Super Junior, EXO, and GOT7 among many other; and then at Men’s Physique competitors and fitness models such as Jeremy Buendia, Sadik Hadzovic, Jeff Seid and Sergi Constance to mention just a few. Of course, people’s tastes may differ but the ideals of perfection are rougly the same. Just good is definitely not good enough.

Spectators and audiences of K-pop on one hand, and bodybuilding, Men’s Physique and (Bikini or Figure) fitness on the other, may be stunned by the skills and perfection – and sometimes, in a seemingly contradictory and implicitly resentful fashion – wish for some balance and slack to it; but still want more and complain if they find flaws after scrutiny of the individuals who are blessed to act as the stars in their respective orbit. And this is also the case with the global fitness industry’s main marketing tool and, at least indirectly, primary consumer platform: social media, and its innumerable amounts of pictures that paint the individual strivings for quasi-perfection, also among millions of amateurs.