Free Will Strikes Again


I thought you all would be interested in these two articles from William Saletan, one of my favorite columnists at Slate. They discuss a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine that indicates that the prevalence of obesity is at least partially attributable to the relaxation of social norms regarding the acceptability of being overweight. After the first article was published, Saletan was taken to task by many readers for its insensitive tone — he said, I think in jest, that the study indicated that you should “ditch your fat friends.” The second article answers those criticisms and clarifies his thoughts.

What do you all think about the results of this study? Are they likely to be replicated? How much does our own perception of what is socially acceptable affect our weight? After reading Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth a few years ago, I became convinced that weight was almost purely genetic, and to the extent environmental factors were involved, they were about the availability of nutritious food (i.e., people in poor neighborhoods have access to more fast food and less fresh produce). But this study indicates that our friends, even ones who live far away, have a greater impact on our weight than our spouses and siblings. My experience does not bear this out — my friends and I all seem to have the body types we were given (and as someone who loves cheeses and desserts, I can attest that it’s all about the genes for me). What about you all? If this study is correct, what does it say about our culture? It seems to me that there is still a great deal of stigma attached to being overweight, but I can see how this would vary among communities. Is stigma a solution to obesity, or is it the problem?


4 Responses to “Free Will Strikes Again”

  1. urbino Says:

    Apologies at the outset for this one. I can’t seem to say anything in one paragraph or less, these days.

    Is stigma a solution to obesity, or is it the problem?

    I haven’t read the Saletan article or the study it cites, yet, but I’m inclined to say peer pressure (stigma) clearly does give the obese by choice some motivation to make better choices. Unfortunately, it also makes the obese by nature even more miserable, and over something they can’t control, which is hugely unfair. OTOH, I really don’t know what anybody can do about that. People find attractive what they find attractive; it isn’t, so far as I can tell, a conscious choice.

    As for your question about whether there still is a stigma, I’m a single man who’s reached the age where a certain amount of pot belly is extremely difficult to avoid, and I definitely am aware of the fact that I’m “supposed to” have a six-pack, not a pudge. I’m aware that it makes me less attractive to the single female population out there, and less cool to my fellow males. The message from society is clear.

    Would I like to lose my belly? Absolutely. Am I going to let my life revolve around that pursuit? Absolutely not.

    There are too many much more important and much more interesting things to do. If spending my time on those things rather than shedding my belly makes me less cool or less attractive, so be it. That is a choice people are free to make, and I don’t blame them; I, myself, don’t find a belly attractive, so I can’t very well begrudge the same choice among others.

    The thing is, I’m willing to live with whatever level of uncoolness or unattractiveness my belly causes. I know a person can’t have everything, and I’ve looked at my options and made my decision. I think I’m a better person as a result of my choice, I like me better and enjoy my life more, and I’m not willing to give that up in exchange for what a smaller belly would get me. (For the record, I do exercise and eat sensibly to stay healthy, but losing my belly would take a MUCH larger time commitment and a focus on fat-loss to the exclusion of all other exercise goals.)

    ISTM everyone has to answer these questions for themselves, and be willing to live with their choice. Otherwise, they’ll spend their lives trying to be what somebody else wants them to be, not what they want to be.

    (I realize this doesn’t address those who are obese by nature, since they don’t really have a choice. I don’t have anything very helpful to say on that score, unfortunately. One bright note is that the field of epigenetics is finding that a good many things we thought were locked into our DNA are turning out to be, to one degree or another, modifiable through environment. There may be hope.)

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Okay, other than the references to the “field of epigenetics” and the other terms far beyond my current level of comprehension, I completely agree with Mr. Urbino.

    But my question is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

  3. urbino Says:

    It’s an enigma, inside a conundrum, wrapped in a riddle.

    Here is a good example of somebody who made the opposite decision — that he’s going to be whatever he has to be to be attractive, regardless of what kind of person that makes him.

  4. urbino Says:

    Saletan sez:

    In a 1985 survey by the NPD group, 55 percent of U.S. adults agreed that “[a] person who is not overweight is a lot more attractive.” By 2005, only 24 percent agreed. The firm concluded, “Perhaps Americans have found that the easiest way to deal with their weight is to change their attitude.”

    Personally, ISTM much more likely that both the 1985 and 2005 numbers are artificially low, as people are squeamish (and were even in 1985) about coming right out and saying “[a] person who is not overweight is a lot more attractive.” It’s impolite. My guess is the numbers dropped even lower by 2005 because it’s become even more impolite for a variety of reasons.

    I’ve never known anybody of either sex who, when being completely frank, didn’t find overweight (or extreme underweight) generally less attractive than appropriate weight. I don’t think the true number would be 100%, but it’s probably in the 80s.

    The whole “ditching friends” discussion is bizarre to me. What kind of a “friend” would do that? Besides, I value my friendships too highly to call them off over somebody’s body mass. These people who can just run out and get a new [thinner] set of friends, these people are alien to me.

    Other than that, Saletan’s article, in its revised version, seems pretty sane to me. To the extent obesity is spread psychosocially, we should try to resist it.

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