Obesity May Be Contagious!

And several other reasons why you might want to be my friend.
Publish date:
July 17, 2012
relationships, fat, studies, obese lifestyle


The concept of obesity as “social contagion” has garned quite a bit of attention over the past year or so. This idea suggests that fatness is somehow transmitted between people who spend time together socially, and a few recent studies now seem to demonstrate that this is true (although questions remain about how this mysterious transmission takes place). Fat people who hang out with other fat people tend to be fatter, while fat people who hang out with thin people tend to be more likely to lose weight.

It all seems pretty obvious from a common sense perspective. But good research is about identifying and accounting for variables, and a new study attempts to do just that by exploring the friendships and self-reported body weights of high school students at two schools, and assessing how BMI tends to cluster socially.

Do fat people get fat because they’re hanging out with a bunch of fatties -- in other words, is it a causal relationship fostered by shared behaviors? Alternatively, do fat people initially make friends with other fat people simply because, as the study suggests, “birds of a feather flock together,” which would indicate these individuals are connecting because they were already fat in the first place?

OR, do fatties gravitate toward each other based on a biological impulse to pool information about where the best pie can be had in their local community? (OK, I made that one up.)

This particular study found that both possibilities tend to be somewhat true -- kids with fat friends were more likely to gain weight, and kids with thin friends were more likely to lose weight, but kids also tend to forge friendships initially based on shared characteristics, including body size.

I never actually had any fat friends during my more formative teenage years. At least, not that I would have identified as fat, because none of them were fatter than me -- and when I was young and consumed with self-loathing, “fat” only counted if it was as fat or fatter than I was.

This was partly because I was almost always the fattest kid in the room, and partly because I felt like two fat people hanging out together provided a double-wide target for harrassment. So I avoided kids who looked like me.

Later on, as an adult with a good mixture of friends of many sizes, I’ve found that two fat people hanging out together do, indeed, draw a lot of comments and giggles. Fat people in large groups who are not overtly involved in trying to be invisible, or who are actively being sort of loud and boisterous -- they don’t get comments so much as perplexed stares. Do they all know they’re fat? What is going ON? (Actually overheard once during a fat blogger meetup in New York: “Is this performance art?”)

Given the number of said friends who’ve radically changed their opinions of weight and health as a result of knowing me, I’m not surprised by the results of this study at all. Sure, hanging out with me might make you fatter, but it won’t be as a result of my force-feeding you gelato and physically blocking you from taking the stairs. It’ll be because you’re just not stressing about that stuff anymore. I will make you just give up, kids. That’s what I do: I make people just give up.

Other things that hanging out with me might make you do:

Wear more dresses. Man, if I had a donut for every time a woman has told me she thought she didn’t have a right to wear dresses or skirts lest her cellulite-blighted legs strike onlookers defensively blind, I would have enough donuts to get me through tomorrow, AT LEAST. But you’re allowed to wear dresses, no matter what you (or your legs) look like. Same with swimsuits. Same with sleeveless tops. Wear clothes you like, and fuck everybody else with their dumb fashion rules. YOU MAKE THE RULES.

Yell back at your bullies and/or harassers. There are those who will tell you this ish is daaaangerous, and in some cases they may be right. But more often than not, bullies and harassers and anyone else who purposely tries to make you feel like shit about yourself -- be they a family member or a stranger on the internet -- are deeply insecure themselves, and are simply working out their issues on someone whom they perceive to be a weaker target.

If you’re not a weaker target after all, well, you’re no longer good for this purpose. YELL. THROW COFFEE. LAUGH. Take their fun away. Be a wet blanket over their good time. This is what I would teach you.

Eat food you enjoy, without remorse or recrimination. During a recent interview, over lunch, for the Huffington Post, my interviewer interrupted our conversation to comment on my excellent practice of “mindful eating.” I’ll confess I had to think about that for a minute to understand what she meant, and to realize I wasn’t even trying to impress her, but was just enjoying my omelette in the normal way.

Even those of us without histories of disordered eating can develop the habit of bolting down meals as though food consumption is an odious chore to be completed as quickly as possible, and not a pleasureable and thoughtful experience all on its own. Why do we do that? Because eating makes us feel guilty, or uncomfortable, or exposed? Because we want to forget that it’s happened at all? Because eating is often so fraught with baggage that it’s a wonder anyone has room to swallow?

If you want to have dinner with me, clear a few hours from your schedule. And not just because I’ll spend a lot of time talking instead of eating, although that will probably happen.

Live life without a constant apology on your lips for failing to achieve a certain ideal of perfection, appearance-wise or in any other respect. Because you have nothing to apologize for on this account.

I know, I am a terrible influence. But if none of this appeals to you, the answer is simple enough: Don’t hang out with me.

The worry with these sorts of studies, and it’s a reasonable one, is that these findings will contribute to the existing cultural habit of treating fat people like vectors of a fatal disease -- and that obese folks might subsequently be even more socially isolated than they currently are. I don’t mean to suggest that fatties don’t have friends, but for some, making friends can be difficult when you’re not even sure you like yourself very much, and when you’ve already got some self-esteem problems, as many -- although not all -- fat people do.

The one thing these studies do agree on is that regardless of possible obesity “contagion,” social isolation is bad news for human beings, having potential negative effects across the breadth of health and well-being. So don’t dump your fat friends for fear they may drag you down into their obesity abyss. That would make you a crap friend. If nothing else, they’re probably worth keeping around for their extensive knowledge of local pie. Also, the fact that they’re people, and you probably like other stuff about them, fat or not.

But mostly do it for the pie.