There was recently a study that said obesity spreads through social networks. Basically, if you have fat friends, you become more likely to become fat yourself. As with all obesity studies, there has been some debate as to whether the study actually shows what it claims to show. Is it true or not? I have no idea. My ability to interpret statistical data died the same day as my TI-82 calculator, which I used more often to play the skiing game than to calculate standard deviations. I know two different people can look at the same data and come up with wildly different conclusions. Basically, your fat friends may be making you fat or they may not be making you fat. Enlightened, now? I may or may not be a space alien with backward bending knees too. Hope that helps you.
I will share some stories though, and you can analyze them with your slide rule and spreadsheets if you like. At BlogHer I complimented a blogger on her dress and she told me she’d gotten it at Dress Barn. She’d shopped there because Big Fat Deal had done a post about how they were respectful of plus-sized shoppers. I had seen that post too and had read the original entry by Nicole a day earlier. When I was searching for a dress to wear to my brother’s rehearsal dinner, I too went to Dress Barn, a store I’d never entered in my life, and bought a pretty red faux wrap dress that I also wore to BlogHer. So to sum up, Nicole posts about how Dress Barn is not full of cow dung and hay, Big Fat Deal picks it up, and at least two people have gone out and bought dresses there as a result. And those are just the purchases I’m aware of. Dress Barn should send Nicole a free gift card. How many people are going to read this entry on my blog and think, “Hmmm, perhaps I too should consider shopping at Dress Barn?” Tell me if you do.
Story number two: which is not so much a story but several observations. After I started talking about roasting broccoli, I got comments from people saying they were going to try roasting broccoli (but I only did it because another blogger was doing it). After I started doing Pilates, I got e-mails from people asking me what DVDs I would recommend (which I had only started doing because other bloggers were doing it). After I went for a bike tour of Chicago, I got a comment from someone saying they were now convinced they should take a bike tour around Paris this month (this one was all me, so thankfully at least part of my mind does belong to myself). I am somewhat tempted to post a story about how I’ve started eating cockroaches after my morning workout because they are a great source of protein and save me money on the exterminator, just to see if anyone starts floating them in their milk and cereal as a result. But I’ve sworn to use my powers for good and not evil, so I have refrained from posting recipes for sauteed spiders and boiled beetles.
So, does obesity spread through social groups? I don’t know. If it does, it would not surprise me at all, and if it doesn’t Dress Barn might want to find out a way to make sure it does. I do know that when we are born we’ve got fresh, un-programmed brains, no operating system installed. We can’t speak any languages, we don’t have any prejudices or biases, and we can’t control when we poop. All that has to come from somewhere. You learn to speak by listening to the people around you. You learn who to hate by who the people around you hate. When I see a three-year-old girl holding a sign saying “God hates fags” at a protest rally, I doubt she knows what those words even mean, but if she hangs around those people long enough she’s going to learn. You learn to control when you poop because if you don’t you won’t have any friends to influence you.
You can break out of those routines and biases if you try hard enough, if you educate yourself, and if you surround yourself with books and blogs which are all written by…other people, and if you move to a big city where you are surrounded by…other people. We take our cues from other people. If people respond overwhelmingly negatively to something I say, it makes me seriously ponder my perspective on an issue. If people respond overwhelmingly positively it makes me think, “Hey, I’m right! I’ll keep thinking like this because it makes people like me!” If all my friends were to become fat or obese, I doubt I’d give up my running and my Pilates and my cheese sticks. The way I’m living right now has made me very happy. But it would also mean there were less social penalties for being fat, which I cannot honestly say wouldn’t affect me. Maybe I’d grab an extra cookie off the buffet table or I’d take an extra scoop of ice cream. I can’t be sure.
I was somewhat surprised to see many of the fat acceptance sites immediately write off this study, especially considering how many posts I’ve seen about how super-skinny supermodels increase the likelihood of anorexia and bulimia in women. If Kate Moss is driving women to starve themselves, it doesn’t seem like much of a leap to say that our friends influence our body image too. I know I care a lot more about what my best friend thinks of me than what Anna Wintour does. It seems like the findings may even be good for FA because all they have to do is start a campaign to make friends with everyone on the planet, convince them it’s okay to be fat, and 20 years from now they’ll have taken over the world. On the other hand, it’s understandable that they did not like being called “contagious,” as if a fat person could sneeze on you and give you cellulite. I think they are also worried that people will read this study and decide to ditch their fat friends. I solemnly swear not to ditch any of my fat friends. And if someone decides they don’t want to be your friend because you might make them fat, they weren’t really your friend to begin with.
So whether this study proves it or not, I know I personally am affected by my friends. It’s how I learn about new music, where to buy jeans, and how to roast my radishes. Would it necessarily be a bad thing if obesity became more acceptable in our world? It depends. I was certainly in really good shape at this time last year when I was obese. I don’t think you have to weigh 100 pounds to be healthy. But when I weighed 372 pounds I was not a paradigm of health and fitness. Ultimately everyone has to watch out for their own health and make their own decisions about their bodies, but I have to admit that for me those decisions are at least in some way shaped by what other people think. But you also have free will. Which is why I will never, ever buy a Coldplay CD, no matter how many millions of copies they have sold.