Fat People: Are They Bad?

Rod Dreher | Posted on 05/10/10

I eat more than I should. This becomes clear to me every Lent, when observant Orthodox Christians are expected to forswear meat and dairy, and to eat smaller portions. It takes a couple of weeks to adjust to the reduced regimen, but I always find that I'm satisfied by the half-portions I allot myself. As of this writing, halfway through Lent, my clothes fit better and I feel better. And I'm not hungry. The Lenten discipline reminds me that my appetites really are under my control.

Are fat people bad? Is obesity a sign of low moral character? Before answering, consider the bizarre case of Donna Simpson.

Simpson, 42, is a 600-pound New Jersey woman who aspires to weigh 1,000 pounds. That's why she gorges herself on 12,000 calories a day. She supports her grocery bill by hiring herself out over the Internet to a global audience of weirdos who pay to watch her make a glutton of herself via webcam.

"I love eating and people love watching me eat," she told Fox News. "It makes people happy, and I'm not harming anyone."

Is that right? If Simpson were willingly mutilating her body with a knife for pleasure and profit, would we reserve judgment? Well, what's the difference?  

Secondly, it's not true that nobody but Simpson bears the burden of her grotesque quest to weigh a half-ton. She and her boyfriend, who told a British newspaper he encourages her to pile on the pounds, conceived a baby. She admits that she's so fat now she can't walk more than 20 feet, and that there are things she simply cannot do for the child. Simpson will almost certainly die of obesity-related illness, leaving her daughter motherless.

Besides, it took a 19-member medical team to deliver the child via C-section. Who paid that bill? Was it the taxpayer? Or others belonging to a private insurance pool, through higher rates?

Simpson reports that she suffers from diabetes, which will require ongoing medical attention. Obesity will make the cost of her individual medical care to balloon - and this tab will be picked up either by taxpayers, if she's on government assistance, or by private insurance ratepayers. According to a recent Emory University analysis, by 2018, American obesity is likely to add a whopping $344 billion to annual medical costs. Another study reported in USA Today found that in 2008, obesity accounted for $147 billion in medical costs - double the number only a decade earlier.

Plainly it's untenable to claim that one's obesity does not affect others negatively. But Donna Simpson is a freak. Most obese and overweight people don't want to be. I know; I'm one of them. I was an obese child, and though now mostly able to control my weight, I've struggled with food all my life - but I haven't struggled enough.

I hate exercise. Always have. I work at a sedentary job, and I find every possible excuse not to walk or use my elliptical trainer. Moreover, I love food and wine. Though I eat sensible things - junk food is not a temptation - I eat more than I should. To be precise, I eat more than someone as sluggardly as I, and with my genetic heritage, ought to do.

This becomes clear to me every Lent, when observant Orthodox Christians are expected to forswear meat and dairy, and to eat smaller portions. It takes a couple of weeks to adjust to the reduced regimen, but I always find that I'm satisfied by the half-portions I allot myself. As of this writing, halfway through Lent, my clothes fit better and I feel better. And I'm not hungry. The Lenten discipline reminds me that my appetites really are under my control.

And that's one of the key reasons for the long fast: to reboot ourselves spiritually, and to establish the right balance between soul and body. The sin of gluttony arises whenever we allow our appetites to control us, and to destroy the harmony between spirit and flesh. You don't have to be obese to be a glutton, but I firmly believe that many, perhaps most, fat people in America today - myself included -- suffer from gluttony.

Take a look at this map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It tracks the spread of the obesity epidemic over the last two decades - a period in which obesity rates in children have tripled. How can we explain these skyrocketing numbers without recourse to diet and lifestyle - which is to say, foolish human choices?

To be sure, our culture does not make it easy to resist the vice of gluttony. We live in a "supersize me" consumer environment that makes it difficult to control one's appetite for food. It has been well documented that portion sizes have crept steadily upward over the years. Journalist Michael Pollan, among others, has shown how government agricultural policy creates an environment in which the least healthy foods are the cheapest. Anyone who wishes to exercise self-discipline has to swim against powerful cultural currents.

But it can be done, and done relatively inexpensively. I've done it several times before, and have maintained a reasonable weight for long periods of time, until falling back into bad old habits. What people like me need is encouragement to try again. Well-meaning people like Harriet Brown who, in a recent New York Times column, decried the social stigma overweight people must bear, are not helping the cause.

"Despite the abundance of research showing that most people are unable to make significant long-term changes in their weight," wrote Brown, a journalism professor, "it's clear that doctors tend to view obesity as a matter of personal responsibility. Perhaps they see shame and stigma as a health care strategy."

Granted, it's cruel and offensive to make fun of fat people, and I devoutly wish we would scorn the stick-thin, unhealthy runway models held up by the fashion industry as iconic. But do we really want to remove all stigma from being overweight? I don't want to become comfortable with my beer belly, not only because it's going to mean a greater chance that I'll be chronically ill in the future, but also because I cannot yield to the excuse that controlling my weight is beyond my control.

Put another way, I don't want society to give me permission to be a glutton, any more than I want society to give me permission to indulge in lust, greed or any of the other deadly sins. Reformed alcoholics and ex-smokers wrestle to control their potentially fatal weaknesses. Why should current or aspiring ex-fatties like me expect anything different? Nobody tells them they shouldn't be made to feel guilty for being in thrall to immoderate drinking or smoking, thus undermining their fight to conquer what was killing them before.

What you permit, you encourage. It requires no special moral genius to be kind to those struggling with weight problems.

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