Spain and the Average Physique

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 (other than from 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 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 meals 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 braves: 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 (most of middle American and all of Northern Europe) 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.

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 o women and lean men with washboard abs, both of whom who eat bread dipped in olive oil everyday 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.


15 thoughts on “Spain and the Average Physique

  1. nice! I do tend to forget about how my baby fat is keeping me looking ridiculously young. I’ll go help myself to some brownies & ice cream now….

    I LOVE how the men are so much more body conscious. I really wish overweight American men would realize how completely unattractive they are to most women.

  2. Starting January of this year, I have been trying to avoid high fructose corn syrup and other sugary foods. Measuring myself at the end of April, I lost 2.5 inches off my waist.

    On a side note, when I was in Australia last year, their treats are sometimes fatty and rich, not generally real sugary.

  3. You comment about height is ludicrous. It is true that height has changed a lot during recent years all over Europe. In the case of 11 cm since 1965 due to better conditions in medicine and diet. Fact is that young male Spaniards average 1,78 tall, even taller than the American average for males, which is 1,75. Psychologists claim that we see what we expect to see or what we have been told to see. Your case is worth of study!

    • YOu might want to retract the ludicrous statement, Philips.

      I’ve studied my case quite a bit more thoroughly than you, as you will notice that the Wikipedia link you cite as evidence actually has three problems: The first and largest is that the measurements for Spain are self reported and therefore cannot be taken as fact, while the average for all American males was physically measured and is in fact 1.776 not 1.75 as you wrote. (Then, if you look at the average for caucasians, which is what I was referring to in the post as the majority of the population in the US is caucasian, is in fact 1.789m). But none of this actually matters as Wikipedia should never be cited as factual information – it is rife with errors as anyone with a free account can contribute (or edit) and no fact checking is done. In fact, that self reported measurement of 1.78m for Spain doesn’t even exist in the original resource that it was supposedly taken from. The tallest height cited for Spain in the reference is 1.76 (mind you, this is still self reported and thus subject to systematic reporting bias):

      So then if you look at non self reported data for Spain, you will see from several different sources that the average height for the male population in Spain is way off that self reported claim of 1.76m:


      again, 1.70m with US at 1.78.2

      These numbers are closer to reality – and trust me, I am aware of observer bias, having two degrees in psychology and being a psychologist myself.

  4. Firsr of all, average height in Spain is in constant change, due to enormous increases due to better living conditions. From 1965 to 1985 it has gained 11 cm. At the beginning of the 20th century Spain had a horrible life expectancy and now has one of the longest life expectancies in Europe and in the world:

    That is a major cause for human height , not Anglo Saxon ancestors.

    Young Spaniards are growing every year due to better living conditions. The latest measurement point to 1,77 or 1,78, in 1965 1,67. 1,77 or 1,78 is the same height for young people of countries like UK, Ireland, France, Italy, etc. Only in countries like Germany, with 1,80 is for young people it is 3 cm taller, not much taller. The Dutch, who at the beginning of the century were only 1,64 are now 1,83 or 1,84, quite tall, being the Mediterraneans inhabitans of the Dinaric Alps the tallest in Europe with about 1,85. Unfortunately Spaniards are getting fat.

    The latest studies are already several years old. It is calculated that young Spaniards born in
    2000 will reach 1,80 as an average:

    And as far as personal impressions it is concerned, I live in the US and have been to the UK and people there do not seem very tall to me. About your comments on race, no comments!
    Anyway, it seems that this Briton has a very different personal impression than you:

    From there I cut and pasted this:

    The improvement in Spaniards’ lives is instantly visible. Many elderly people are short, stunted by the hunger they suffered as children in the hard years of fascist autarky after Franco won the civil war of 1936-39. Young Spaniards are strikingly taller than their grandparents, exemplified by Pau Gasol, who measures seven feet (2.13 metres) and was voted the most valuable player when Spain won the latest world basketball championship.

  5. Continuation: About your other comments about “Mediterraneans” anbd “Nordics” and “Aglo-Saxons” seem to have been extracted from a 19th century pseudoscience anthropology book. Nowadays genetics is studying all those issues and relations among people and I am afraid that you are in need of an update. I hope that you know what Haplogroups are to understand the following information:

    In short, your impressions seem to be very subjective and I think that you need an update on other issues!

    [Editor’s response: Those are the terms that are still currently used in the US, sorry if you don’t like it. And of course my impressions are subjective — that’s the point, it’s a personal blog.]

    • From the last article I cut and pasted the following:

      The study, conducted by the University of Munich and Princeton University, found that the United States had the shortest population in the industrialized world, and the reason may have to do with the way people live.

  6. From the previous article I cut and pasted:
    La cruz de este informe es que existe una tendencia creciente al sobrepeso y la obesidad se sitúa a niveles similares a la población norteamericana, sobre todo en los hombres.

    Which means: The negative side of this article is the existing trend to overweight and obesity is at similar levels as in the American population, especially in men.

    So, sorry mate, but your personal impressions do not seem to coincide with a lot of research!

    [Editors response: Hi Philips. I didn’t read any of your links because I have other things to do. I know that populations around the world are growing and that Americans have stopped getting taller and are getting shorter. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong when I say that Americans are taller than Spaniards, especially when I am talking about my personal experiences and observations. I am sorry you feel bad about not being taller, but debating it isn’t going to convince me otherwise nor will it change the perception of all the other Americans I know in Spain. Sorry, that’s the way it is. Remember also that this is a personal blog, you don’t actually have to agree with it — or even read it.]

  7. Are you are joke or what? You delete comments that you do not like so as to seem that the poster is idiot. I think you are one of these wannabes that the net is so full of! Stick this petty page up your ass and make me a favor and delete everything that I write. goodby show-off wannabe! Go to the psycologist! I am outer here!

    [Editor’s note: Hi Anonymous. I don’t delete comments. I don’t need to do that to make you look like an idiot. I think raging on someone’s personal blog about their own experiences does the job just fine]

  8. HI I just traveled for 3 weeks to Spain with my husband for our honeymoon and we cant wait to return. We did find all across Spain that Spaniards were very tall. In most places my husband, who is 5’11”, was shorter than most men. The only short folks we found were the older generation or immigrants from Latin America or Easter Europe.

    And yes you are so right, they all have wonderful bodies, candy eyes faces and very white skin. Only in the south we saw some olive skin, which is like what our Italian-North Americans are in the USA, and most Spanish eyes went from light brown, to green to strong blue. Most of the hair we saw, BTW nobody there has black hair at all, were brown or light brown and plenty of blonds up north and all across Galicia.
    We do agree with you they are much more slimmer than “fat” USA folks 😦 It has to do with their wonderful food, one of the best, and great wine. But also the fact that they, like in most of Europes except for the UK, eat less. In the USA any plate given to us at a restaurant would feed 2 or 3 people anywhere in Europe. IN the USA we are used to waiting more and I mean MORE! Great article except for the height 🙂

    • Perhaps it is just where I live–there are a lot of old people who lived through the Spanish civil war and WWII, lots of malnutrition and so on so they are tiny people. Or maybe there are just lots of tall people in Southern California. Either way, I’m 5’7″ and at home I’m average and here I am a giant.

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