Another Perspective

Fat City

Thinness is the real contagion.

By 8.3.07

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"Obesity May Be Catching" ran the headline in a Canadian wire service report last week. Based on a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, that reliable alarm-sounder, which was in turn based on a study conducted of 12,000 patients at a Framingham (Massachusetts) medical center, the story said:

"…Obesity can be 'socially contagious.' A person's chances of gaining weight increase if they have overweight people in their social circle. [Apologies for awful grammar in the original.]

"You're 57 per cent more likely to become obese if a close friend is, researchers say, 40 per cent more likely if a sibling gains weight and 37 per cent more likely to pack on the pounds if your spouse does."

About a week later, a Scripps-Howard columnist, Betsy Hart, the host of a Chicago radio show, "It Takes a Parent," took the results seriously. In "A Little Fat Between Friends," Hart wrote that the case for "second-hand fat" had now been proved.

Lamenting the ubiquity of food as "pornographic," and citing the office food junkie, Hart said, "Why can't such people be told, 'this is a snack-free zone,' and then be forced to suck down the goodies outside the front door of the office on a freezing cold day? Seriously."

Seriously, she wrote that. Watch out. She's beginning to sound like a legislator.

"YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO SKINNY OR TOO RICH" goes the old dictum, usually attributed to Gloria Vanderbilt or the late Duchess of Windsor. I seem to remember Tom Wolfe quoting it. Wherever it comes from, it offers a far more decisive clue to "teasing out" the real results of the Framingham study (as one of its own researchers suspiciously put it): In fact, it proves the contrapositive.

Thinness is the real contagion. Fat shows that you've given up, specifically on an all-around high-performance life. If you are more comfortable with other fat people, that amounts to the same thing as one smoker looking for others, or one pillhead looking for others, or one drinker looking for others. And just as, among high-performnce people, you cannot be a pillhead, a smoker, or a drinker, you cannot be fat.

It may be unspoken these days, but the prejudice against fat pervades. Obesity is anathema in the executive suite. Fat public personages either do -- or desperately try to -- lose weight. How many fat, high-performing people can you name? William Bennett, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh come to mind. Bennett has other problems (or has had, with gambling), Limbaugh has lost weight by several stone, and Newt -- well Newt's Newt, and I'd bet that, in the case of a presidential run, he'll slim down. Think Al Gore and the press watch on his weight, seeking to foretell the man's ambitions.

You must except fat actors, comedians, and comic actors, like John Goodman, who play to type. How many of them are there? If a would-be Hollywood actor, a newbie, shows up fat, he won't succeed. Besides, a depressing number of orotund Hollywood types end up dead, like Chris Farley or John Belushi.

WHAT DO YOU THINK when you see a slender man with a fat wife, or a slender woman with a fat husband? It is practically unprintable.

No, like so many vaunted medical "studies," the Framingham study in effect proves nothing. Or, rather, by setting its own social parameters at the outset, it simply proves what it proves, in an isolated context.

As well, set this supposed study of contagious fat against the preoccupation with (very real) eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, and the widely decried tyranny in public image of the ectomorphic body type.

If fat were truly catching, everybody would be fat. While obesity may be common, even "epidemic," as the would-be regulators among us insist, it is far from universal.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.