Why do thin people feel superior?

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Let’s be honest. Thin people feel superior to people who are overweight. The prejudice is so deep seated that it has affected the practice of medicine. Rarely a week goes by without some scientific paper claiming to link obesity with various dreadful health problems; yet most are shoddy and poorly done, and almost all are debunked.

Why do thin people feel superior? The causes are economic and philosophical. Simply put, being overweight is associated with being poor. In addition, Americans have a deeply embedded strain of Puritanism that holds that those who have misfortunes somehow deserve them.

Many American predilections are grounded in economic status, and weight is no different. When poor people were thin because they didn’t have enough to eat, being overweight was a sign of status. Similarly, when poor people were tanned because of working outside, white skin was a sign of status. When poor women couldn’t afford anesthesia for childbirth, access to chloroform was a sign of status.

That’s changed now. Thin is a sign of wealth, a tan in midwinter (from a tropical vacation) is a sign of wealth, and preference for “natural” childbirth is also closely associated with upper income levels.

Achieving and maintaining the favored body type requires access to healthy food and special diet foods. It also requires exercise equipment or membership in a gym or, most exclusive of all, a personal trainer. All these things cost money, so weight has come to be viewed, accurately, as a sign of economic class.

Much of this is perceived only on the unconscious level. Nonetheless, it leaves thin people feeling superior to those who are overweight, because, economically, they often are superior. Weight has become a proxy for social class.

America was founded by Puritans and Puritanism is a strong strain in our thinking, hence the otherwise irrational impulse to regulate the private behavior of others, particularly others who are poor. Americans take almost fiendish delight in pointing out the “deserved” consequences of smoking, over eating, and marijuana use. They have stigmatized those behaviors in every possible way.

In my town, smoking is banned everywhere, including out of doors. Many cities are busily promulgating laws to regulate the composition of food served in restaurants. Users of marijuana, even those using it for medicinal purposes, are routinely prosecuted and may be jailed.

It is not a coincidence that smoking, over eating, and recreational marijuana use are more common among the poor. That is what leads, in part, to the zeal for stigmatizing, banning and punishing such behavior. Smoke a cigarette and you are forced outside into the cold; put transfats into your restaurant fare and you may face a fine from your city or town. Smoke marijuana and you may go to jail. On the other hand, steal $50 billion and force people into financial ruin and suicide, and you get house arrest in your Manhattan co-op while awaiting your trial.

Being poor is, in and of itself, almost always viewed as the “fault” of the people who are poor. This is an echo of the Calvinist belief in predestination, a convenient belief that those who prosper in this life do so because they are destined for an even better life after death. Therefore, overweight is routinely viewed as a visible sign of personal sloth, and worthy of serious negative consequences. The health problems of the overweight are simply just punishment for their inability to exert self-control.

There are literally hundreds of studies that claim to show that overweight is a major killer. Except that it’s not. The science is shoddy because the outcomes are predetermined by prejudice.

Of course morbid obesity is a serious health problem with potentially deadly consequences. However, simply being overweight is not only safe, but actually appears to be protective compared to “ideal” weight. That’s what the data really show.

Walk down the hallways of any hospital and look into the rooms. Very few people are there because of weight related health problems. We know this to be true in our own lives. All of us know many people who are overweight, but they are hardly dropping dead on a regular basis.

Thin is in, because it is viewed as a sign of economic status, and an indication of personal rectitude. The prejudice against the overweight is not justified by the scientific data, nor by the fact that weight is now a proxy for wealth. Like any prejudice, it is not justified at all.