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Should fat people pay more for their life insurance? To us, this is mainly a moral question: is it ethical to charge people for their unhealthy lifestyle? Hardly anyone questions the underlying assumption, that being fat increases the chance of dying prematurely, even though science studies scholars and fat activists argue that the evidence is weaker than we tend to think. In the decades around 1900, when the life insurance industry grew rapidly, things were different: the question was not just moral, but also medical.
Medical men and life insurance officials were much less convinced than today that being fat decreased longevity. Statistics showed a correlation between (very) high body weight and early death, but this did not result in higher premiums for every fat applicant. This was partly because, for life insurance medics, being heavy did not necessarily equate being fat, but also because, just over a century ago, being fat was not always bad. Life insurance companies differentiated between kinds of fatness. This differentiation had several reasons – moral, medical, financial and practical ones. The companies used various criteria; I analyse the major ones in my current research project. Here, I want to single out the one that may surprise us most: being Jewish.
At the third international conference on life insurance medicine, in 1903, Rupert Norton, chief medical officer at the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York, lectured on fatness:
Il est une classe d’individus, qui ont une tendance plus marquée que les autres races à devenir obèses; ce sont les juifs et surtout les femmes juives, après 30 ans. Ils n’en sont pas moins des risques excellents pour l’assurance sur la vie; des risques meilleurs même que les chrétiens, et les statistiques nous montrent qu’ils sont doués d’une grande vitalité … Ils sont peut-être la seule exception à cette règle générale que les obèses sont des risques inférieurs.
According to Norton, the average Jew both is fatter and lives longer than the average Christian. On both points, many agreed with him. That Jews were seen as fat has been addressed in historiography before, but it has usually been analysed as a negative stereotype. Historians tend to focus on ideas of the Jewish body as diseased and inferior. However, as Mitchell Hart has pointed out, in various sites throughout history, the Jewish body was a healthy body, and even a superior one (to the Christian body). Early twentieth-century life insurance medical literature, although not mentioned by Hart, is such a site. Norton and many of his fellow medical officers considered Jews to constitute ‘good risks’ – and they had the statistics to back this up.
But referring to statistics wasn’t all they did. A common misunderstanding about the early twentieth-century life insurance industry is that its officials focused solely on statistical data analysis, while actually, they were equally concerned with physiologically explaining or nuancing observed statistical correlations. Life insurance medics explained the high life expectancy of the Jews in various ways. Jan Siegenbeek van Heukelom, author of a handbook for life insurance medicine, distinguished two main categories: behavioural and racial. Jews behaved different than non-Jews: the strict food laws, for example, might improve Jewish health. Or perhaps, Van Heukelom continued, not the behaviour, but the body itself caused the increased longevity – for example because it had acquired a certain amount of immunity due to all the diseases it had encountered on ‘its long road through history’; an immunity it managed to preserve because the Jews nurtured the purity of their race.
Note, however, that Jews did not surpass other races in every respect: they were considered prone to diabetes and nervous diseases – the latter perhaps, Siegenbeek van Heukelom writes, because they often lived in cities and worked with their brains instead of their hands, or because they had been prosecuted for so many ages that nervousness had become a racial characteristic. However, in particular because they were less prone to infectious diseases, overall Jews represented a lower risk than the average life insurance applicant, and this applied to fat (or heavy) Jews as well. Several life insurance companies offered Jews lower premiums – either because they thought the possible dangers of fatness were compensated by the superiority of the Jewish body, or because they considered Jewish fatness a racial characteristic, and hence, not the indicator of bad health it was for non-Jewish applicants.
These insurance companies used race to differentiate fatness. Other life insurance companies applied different methods: they used waist and chest circumferences for example, or age or family history. No company treated all fat people as a uniform group. Only in the second half of the twentieth century, when medicine appropriated the life insurance industry’s height-weight tables, became body weight, by then the indicator for fatness, the absolute measure of health it is today – even if you’re Jewish.
Featured image: Hans Dinkelberg, https://www.flickr.com/photos/uitdragerij/8355044248/, CC-BY-NC.
Image in post: Gosaha, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gosaha/6778658435, CC-BY-NC-SA.
 For a science studies perspective, see Abigail Saguy, What’s Wrong with Fat? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Saguy analyzes different frames we use to talk about fatness, including the fat activist frame, and along the way criticizes the assumption that fat=bad.
 Rupert Norton, ‘De l’obésité comme facteur, dans l’assurance sur la vie’, Congrès international des médecins de compagnies d’assurances: rapports, procès-verbaux 3 (1903), 161–66. Note that Norton contrasts Jews with Christians, which is somewhat uncommon for the period. Unlike Christians, Jews were generally considered a separate race, and thus compared with other groups classified as races, like the Caucasians.
 Mitchell B. Hart, The Healthy Jew: The Symbiosis of Judaism and Modern Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 H.J. Coert, ‘Het geneeskundig formulier’, Jaarboekje Vereeniging voor Levensverzekering, 1918, 240–59, 246.
 Jan Siegenbeek van Heukelom, De beoordeling der levenskansen in het levensverzekeringbedrijf (Rotterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 1920), 12–16. Van Heukelom and his contemporaries classified Jewish people as a ‘race’ and considered ‘race’ a helpful analytical category; I use it as an actors’ category only.
 Siegenbeek van Heukelom, Beoordeling, 15.