Two weeks ago, in my post, "Is Obesity Socially Contagious?," I reported findings from a study which was funded by the National Institute on Aging and recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study indicated that having obese friends may increase your own risk for becoming overweight. Critics of the study have quickly raised objections to the study findings and implications.
A Chicago Sun Times article, "Research supporting latest obesity study is pretty thin", purports that the study "may also contribute to prejudice against overweight people."
"This is another example of, oh, let’s blame fat people and shun fat people as socially unacceptable," said University of Chicago professor Eric Oliver, author of Fat Politics. "That’s the underlying message."
Turning the coined phrase ‘socially contagious’ on its head, Healthy At Every Size (HAES) website has published a critque of the obesity study entitled ‘Is fat hatred contagious?’ The article includes several examples of the biased way in which the results of the federally funded study has been reported in the media, including CBS, MSNBC, the BBC and others.
"What the Christakis-Fowler research actually shows is the social contagion of fat hatred, especially in regard to the way it’s being disseminated and reported."
In particular, HAES argues, the media has portrayed this issue as mostly affecting women, while the original findings indicate that MEN were more likely to ‘catch’ obesity from other male friends, and that the average weight gain in those men was "only 5 pounds".
"Among friends of the same sex, a man had a 100%…increase in the chance of becoming obese if his male friend became obese, whereas the female-to-female spread of obesity was not significant…"
According to the HAES author, there has been no adequate discussion over whether the study results are, in fact, a matter of causation rather than correlation. The HAES article asserts that the following are key flaws of the study:
The data was reported as if it applied to all Americans and all social classes, even though it was a non-random sampling of a white middle-class community.
The "friends" and family members included in the study were only those whose names the Framingham Heart Study (FHS) participants.
Using BMI as an indicator of "obesity" is inherently problematic especially for men it doesn’t discriminate between muscle and adipose tissue. Muscular men could be identified as "obese" even though their body fat percentage might be within "ideal" range.
In my original post, I raised concerns over the unintended consequences of this study. Would people begin to ostracize their ‘fat’ friends? Would this just be another excuse for people to blame others for their own inability to maintain a healthy weight? As the Chicago Sun Times points out, weight management and healthy eating are complex in nature, and there are multiple societal pressures that have an impact on obesity. With the media’s eye on the ‘obese friends’ angle, the public’s attention is focused yet again outside themselves and not on personal behavior.
"There’s no denying social pressure can encourage you to engage in unhealthy behavior. Just ask members of AA or gamblers anonymous. But people who take responsibility for their physical condition by eating right and exercising have nothing to fear from overweight peers."
FEAR – especially the fear of fat – seems to always keep great media machine running, and this latest research apparently provides more fuel for the engine. Perhaps we would all be wiser to ‘fear’ the fear of fat! Fat prejudice is detrimental whether directed internally or externally, and often leads to restrictive dieting, unhealthy body image, eating disorders, and – no less significantly – the emotional pain of societal rejection. I’m afraid that, even though the researchers may have intended this obesity study to be helpful in gaining insight into the social impact on and possible treatments for obesity, the end result may prove to be more harmful.
By Laura Brooks