Bryan Caplan  

Obesity and Dominance Reconsidered

A Sentence to Ponder... Nobel for Institutional Econom...
Robin chastises:
Yet it is completely crazy to imagine that fat folks have not yet heard that fat might be unhealthy or unattractive.  Believe me, they've heard!  If they are choosing to be fat, they are doing so reasonably informed of the consequences.  Our constant anti-fat "public health" messages are not at all kind - such messages just serve to put fat folks down, and lift the rest of us up.  If anyone is so clueless as to need constant reminders, it is those who can't see their own over-bearing domination, such as putting down fat folks to lift themselves up.
When people put down overweight strangers, I think Robin's dead on.  Almost no one genuinely cares about the health of people they don't even know.  But when the overweight person is a spouse, relative, or friend, Robin's missing an important part of the story: Severe obesity, like other high-risk lifestyles, is inconsiderate to the people who personally know and care about you.  Yes, you've got a right to eat whatever you please, but it's often wrong to do what you have a right to do.  And in the case of a spouse, gaining a lot of weight is emotionally abusive and perhaps contrary to the spirit of the marriage contract.

Still, Robin's largely right about the dominance motive behind the war on fat.  At least in my experience, 90% of complaints about obesity are directed at generic "obese people."  Most of the remaining complaints happen behind the target's back.  What Robin seems to forget: When adults personally know and care about a person with a weight problem, they're usually afraid to broach the subject with him.  On reflection, though, this is yet another dominance game.  People can raise their status by living a risky lifestyle - and taking great offense if the people who care about them object.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (12 to date)
agnostic writes:

"this is yet another dominance game. People can raise their status by living a risky lifestyle - and taking great offense if the people who care about them object."

I don't think this applies here. It would if the friend rode a motorcycle all day without a helmet -- "Let's see you guys call me out on *that*!" We know these people lead risky lifestyles because they demand less insurance than motorcyclists who do wear helmets, and way less than people who use cars.

If stuffing sugar down their piehole all day were part of a larger risky lifestyle, they wouldn't demand health care related to diet at higher rates than non-obese people -- "I don't care what you think about my donut and soda habit. I'm invincible, so I don't need any stinking medications!"

But in reality, they take drugs for their diabetes, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and other facets of Metabolic Syndrome.

Granted, there is the odd crotchety guy who tells his grandkids what to do with their advice about his slice of pie, cigarette, and shot of whiskey, but most sugarholics don't see themselves or otherwise act as though they were living on the edge, daring others to control them -- "go ahead, just try."

So it doesn't seem like a dominance game on their part.

dWj writes:

Of course, as progressives progress in externalizing internalities in the health care arena, other people's health choices start costing us more and more. You can blame this on the people making health choices, or on the progressives, but the costs we bear depend on both.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"And in the case of a spouse, gaining a lot of weight is emotionally abusive and perhaps contrary to the spirit of the marriage contract."

You're only looking at one side of the story.

I grew up in a household in which one ate to live (as opposed to one where one lives to eat). Meals were small but satisfying. We had snacks, but they were well within reason. Because I was very active, I was somewhat underweight, but for the most part, my health was good.

I married into a family that had an unhealthy relationship with food (food=love), and the refusal of a second helping was considered to be an insult. The phrase "portion control" was the equivalent of a four letter word.

There was a point in time where if I didn't eat my food quickly enough or if I simply put down my fork between bites, my husband would ask if I was finished and start to help himself to my portion. Eventually I told him that if ever he reached for my food again without first asking my permission, I would stick my fork into the back of his hand. He got the idea, but, unfortunately, I instinctively began to eat quickly, no longer giving my body the opportunity to signal me when I was full. Within three years of meeting my husband, I put on 30 lbs.

In an effort to please my husband and his family, I got caught up in their dysfunctional attachment to food. I can safely say that the only person I have abused emotionally (and physically) is myself, and I am trying very hard to correct that.

Joshua Macy writes:

But if you care about your friends and family members and their weight, is it really helpful to you and them for society to be sending them the message "You're fat! You suck! We hate you and you are costing us money!" It seems to me the message and signaling that Robin is talking about is different from, and probably interferes with, any genuine messages of concern you might personally wish to express.

Tracy W writes:

And in the case of a spouse, gaining a lot of weight is emotionally abusive

Come on! I'm willing to agree that severe obesity (of the sort of "can't participate in ordinary life") has high costs on other family members, but emotionally abusive?! Talk about language inflation!
(Yes, given the massive variety in human life, there probably is someone out there who has gained weight in an effort to dominate, degrade or demean their spouse, but that's likely true of any other human activity).

Tobias Schmidbauer writes:

The connection between diet and obesity seems to be clearly overstated if not mostly made up. Sure..., everybody can lose weight by nearly starving which makes people think "so eating less makes you thinner, eating more makes you fatter". But this is just a popular myth, it only works in the extreme case of undernutrition. There's this guy here in Germany, Udo Pollmer, who has written books on the subject, according to him body fat has more to do with the hormones of a person than their diet. Putting people under pressure to lose weight does make a lot of them fatter because the stress changes their hormone levels.

Do you know of a good way to make people less fat? If "no" then why bother fat people with something you don't know how to change? I'm sure somewhere out there must be some working ways against obesity but IMO changing diets is not one of them.

Kurbla writes:

    Almost no one genuinely cares about the health of people they don't even know.

You do. Few months ago you wrote the post, you said that one extra man is great wealth for humanity. Because of externalities, and invisible hand and his relatives ... we have some emotions ot that kind. Perhaps not very strong, but still... stronger for some inner groups, nation, local community, children.

Cupboard: yes, you have the point. Take care.

frankania writes:

Psychology and sociology aside, there IS a cause for the increase in obesity in the USA and elsewhere.
I just returned from Poland where I made an informal study of counting how many obese and "plump" people walked by me on a city street. Well in downtown Warsaw, in the first 100, I counted ONE obese person and 2 plumps.
Later in the country village, I counted 5 obese and 11 plumps.
In the USA, try it and you will find MANY more I am sure. And, just 50 years ago the USA didn't have this problem.
So, WHAT EXACTLY IS THE CAUSE? It is a scientific question and has a definite answer; such as corn syrup; zoning laws that don't allow corner stores--thus you must DRIVE everywhere to shop; stress; or who knows?

Granite26 writes:

The point could be made that by contributing to a society where the overweight are mocked, we are either:

A: Signaling our unwillingness to pay the costs that would be put on us by overweight friends


B: Taking out personal stuff out in an impersonal way. I.E. We're too polite to call people fat to their face, but not polite enough to refrain from harrassing obesity in general. The fact that people in the middle are more likely to stand by an overt... (health nut?) whatever than they are an overt racist is a similar case.

Dr. T writes:

The recent attacks on obesity merit discussion. Here are some myths that need airing:

The number of obese persons has increased tremendously in the past 10 years. -- Wrong. The CDC, NIH, WHO and other organizations inappropriately redefined obesity based on body mass index values. This redefinition bumped up the numbers of "obese" persons in the US by at least 50%.

Being even mildly obese is a significant health risk. -- Wrong. Being morbidly obese (at least twice your desirable weight) is a serious health risk. Being moderately obese is a mild health risk. Being overweight (slightly obese) is a health benefit conferring a lower risk of death and a longer lifespan than normal weight. Note: Being thin confers a higher risk of death: just as great as being moderately obese.

Nearly everyone who is obese could easily lose weight by just eating more sensibly and being more active. -- Wrong. Many people who are overweight have a genetic condition that predisposes them towards diabetes mellitus. They are resistant to the carbohydrate-lowering effects of insulin. As such, they need more insulin to clear sugar out of the blood, but those high insulin levels tell the body to convert sugar to fat. This goes on for years, with persons typically gaining 2-5 pounds per year. That doesn't seem too bad, but after twenty years, they are obese with a 40-100 pound weight gain. The weight gain is hard to prevent without taking drugs to counteract the insulin resistance. Note: Genetic propensities towards insulin resistance are common (over 100 different versions are known) because they help people survive famines or long, lean winters. People who lacked such genes didn't gain enough weight in good times and died in the famines. In some ethnic or tribal groups the prevalence of insulin resistance genetic patterns exceeds 90%. Most of the adults in those groups are obese by middle age.

I'm in favor of helping morbidly and moderately obese people lose weight to improve their health. But the continual stigmatizing and ignorant moralizing about obesity makes the problem worse, especially since stress worsens insulin resistance. The idiotic "one diet plan fits all" propaganda from the CDC and the USDA also makes the problem worse. A more rational approach is needed.

Bill Drissel writes:

As I paged down to comment on the article, I came across Dr T's comment. He makes the point of my comment in much greater detail.
The article assumes fat = unhealthy. Big studies using death as an endpoint support Dr T's assertion that overweight people are healthier.
Extensive references at
The popular press has this all wrong.
Bill Drissel

tom writes:

1. Is everyone assuming that this bullying-dominance would be a bad thing? Ostracism/ mockery is a soft way to enforce a norm, compared to legal penalties.

2. How many skinny people maintain their skinniness because they know how they themselves feel about fat people?

3. Do we really want to live in a country where I can't judge fatties?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top