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What About Your Friends?

Surely I wasn't the only one to read this story about fat being "contagious" amongst "social networks" without first thinking, "Is MySpace making me fat?"

In any case, this rather ridiculous and strained argument is eviscerated nicely by Kate Harding so I'll point you over to her expert analysis.

The BMI Change of 1998 | Another Fat Person Denied Adoption Rights

Kate Harding's picture
Kate Harding
July 25th, 2007 | Link | auto-reply

I so want to set up an autoreply that says, "I can't respond to your e-mail because it might make me fat."

Thanks for the plug.

MizB July 25th, 2007 | Link | As soon as I read the

As soon as I read the NYTimes article about this "scientific finding," I came to the BFB site for shelter.

You know, for years I've been doing a deadpan comedy routine for friends about weight-gain. I explain that there is a law in physics known as "The Universal Distribution of Fat," which, in the spirit of quantum theory ("that which is observed is altered simply by being observed"), says that there is a set amount of fat in the universe; it cannot be gained or lost, but must transfer from person to person. So, if you're around people who are losing weight, you will get fatter -- but if you're around someone who's gaining weight, you will lose some. People used to laugh heartily at this sarcastic jest. Now it turns out I was right! Not only can fat kill you, just being around fat people is hazardous to your health.

I don't know whether to laugh, cry, scream, or settle myself in a high tower with a sub-machine gun and pick off the thin people below...

About 100 years ago, medical science believed that if a woman did not bear children, her uterus would float around inside her body (I'm not kidding), causing what we now call PMS, fibroid tumors, and other icky women's ailments. There's a name for this condition, but I forget what it is -- besides the earth-is-flat theory of gynecological study. There was even a film a few years back, "Tom and Viv," about T.S. Eliot and his wife, and how this disease literally destroyed their marriage.

What the hell are we going to do? They're going INSANE out there! If this were a novel, a good editor would advise cutting out this portion of the story because it's completely over the top. But hey, facts are facts. Apparently, we're more deadly than persons flying on planes with full-blown TB. I think they should just quarantine us on a distant isle, like they used to do with lepers 2,000 years ago...

However, all joking aside, you know there are lots of people who are going to believe this, even to the point of abandoning fat friends. WTF...when is this gonna stop??

rebelle July 25th, 2007 | Link | Good night! Do these folks

Good night! Do these folks somehow believe there's not enough fat hatred? I realize they didn't say "fat people will make you fat," but rather that they might make you think it's--gasp!--OK to be fat, so you can "slack off" a little, thereby becoming fat yourself. So, we're not contagious, just, apparently some kind of a bad influence. Yes, that's much better. So, where's the companion piece? You know, the one about how fat people with thin friends may be encouraged to emulate their supposedly different lifestyles, thereby becoming thin?

jportnick's picture
July 25th, 2007 | Link | Is thin catching, too?

From another blog, a poster asks, what would happen if she made friends with Rene Zellweger?


Jennifer Portnick
Personal Trainer (who is fat)
San Francisco, CA

Bilt4Cmfrt's picture
July 25th, 2007 | Link | Ran across this unique

Ran across this unique supposition in the Times and had to sprint on over here to make sure my PC hadn't linked to some alternate dimension.

I have a friend I've known since grade school who lives on the West Coast. We E-mail and catch-up about twice a year and I probably haven't spoken to him, directly, in about three. Are these people really proposing that my social influence might, somehow, increase his chances of becoming obese? Or -wait- , both of us being male and therefore having little interest in each others current weight, perhaps HE'S put on a few pounds and subsequently made me obeserer (Hey, If they can massage this 'remarkable' interpretation out of some numbers and call it science, I reserve the right to make up new words. BTW: Triple letter score, ka-ching!).

. . . . . . Well. I guess I only have one further question for the preeminent researchers- Exactly how many layers of tin foil did you find were most effective in the construction of your Obesity Ray Deflection Helmets? Didn't run across that data in any of your references.

Peggy's picture
July 26th, 2007 | Link | I thought I'd let you know

I thought I'd let you know what I've been doing about this as the representative of NAAFA. I've posted this on Kate's blog as well so if you read it there already, you'll already know what I've said. Smiling

I was contacted by the Washington Post and ABC News before this was released in the NEJM. Today Paul Ernsberger, Chairman of the NAAFA Advisory Board interviewed with a reporter from LA, I sent the WP a statement but don’t know yet if they included it or any portion of it, ABC News didn’t follow through after their initial call, I did an interview on KGO in the SF Bay area about 6:15PM Pacific and Kelly Bliss will be interviewed Friday on FOX’s Morning Show in NYC. Just FYI, I sent out the following press release today to more than 700 media contacts in newspaper, radio, television and internet. It will be interesting to see IF we receive any more opportunities to voice our outrage.

July 25, 2007

The report released today by the New England Journal of Medicine is flawed. These so-called researchers took collected data from an existing study whose focus was not on weight and size, the same study just used to report that diet soda is just as bad for you as regular soda, did some data mining and presented selected results tailored to support their own prejudices. None of their statistics are standard. Shame on the New England Journal of Medicine for publishing this insidious report. This is one more attempt to create hysteria, hatred, fear and prejudice toward fat people.

As an example of the misinformation, this report stated, “The fact that the increase in obesity during this period cannot be explained by genetics….” More and more legitimate research is finding the genetic link to size. Let’s look at an example. Studies by Dr. Albert Stunkard of the University of Pennsylvania showed that:

• 70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, meaning weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.

• There is a clear relation between the body-mass index of biologic parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that genetic influences are important determinants of body fatness.

• There is no relation between the body-mass index of adoptive parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that childhood family environment has little or no effect on body size.”

• Identical twins have nearly identical body mass indexes, whether they have been reared apart or together.

Bob Schwartz, author of Diets Don’t Work found that by putting his thin clients on weight-loss diets, they gained weight. Maybe we should take a closer look at the influence of weight loss dieting. Quite possibly when thin friends go on diets with their fat friends to lend their support, they end up gaining weight. It has already been proven that pounds lost plus additional pounds are regained after one has stopped the severe restrictions of weight loss dieting in more than 95% of dieters.

We already know that fat people are discriminated against on their jobs and by insurance and healthcare providers. We believe that this report indicates that thin people tend to exclude fat people from their social networks and now proves that there is social discrimination against people of size. We believe that this report encourages even further discrimination against fat people. It’s time to stop the discrimination now!

Founded in 1969, NAAFA is a non-profit human rights organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for fat people. NAAFA works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through public education, advocacy, and member support.

Looking forward, Peggy

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Dr. Wayne Dyer

ladyjane July 26th, 2007 | Link | ouch!

I think my brain has exploded. Anyone got a dust pan and broom?

I'm infuriated, appalled, and scared, all at the same time. Parents are already using their irrational fear of obesity as an excuse to starve their infants to death. Now they're going to have a reason to tell their children that they 'can't play with little Janie. She's fat and you might catch it.' 'I don't want my little Susie in that club with fat kids.' 'I'm going to put little David into the PRIVATE skinny school, so he won't get fat.'
They're going to be segregated into fat classrooms and thin classrooms.

Today on the metro, a thin lady sat down next to me. I asked her, 'Are you sure you want to sit there? I'm contagious, you know' and showed her the headline. She just snorted and said it was ridiculous. Well, there' s one sensible person. Unfortunately, she's in the minority.


Anastasia July 26th, 2007 | Link | You know, I was struck by

You know, I was struck by the whole business of having fat friends might affect your understanding of what's an "appropriate" body size. The word appropriate puts a negative spin on something that seems otherwise positive to me. Essentially, they're saying that maintaining intimate friendships with fat people teaches you that you can be healthy and happy at any size. Where we part ways is in that the authors of the study think this is a bad thing. it's a shame.

Jeanie-R July 26th, 2007 | Link | "Epidemic" "contagion". This

"Epidemic" "contagion". This is science through metaphor, a rhetoric used to evoke an emotional response rather than a thoughtful consideration of the data. I am reading Natalie Angier's book "The Canon", a book not without its gratuitous fat phobia but interesting nonetheless. She states that in considering statistical results one indication that the results are probably spurious is if they do not make sense, if they run counter to commonsense. Also when you start dredging the data you are bound to come up with spurious correlations just by chance alone. She gives some great example of this including a researcher who had studied the use of aspirin following heart attacks. The journal which was going to publish the research insisted that he do more correlations within his subject group. He didn't want to but they insisted and he agreed with the proviso that they publish all his new found correlations. One of the things reported in the published research was that apsirin was effective after heart attacks for most people but not for people born under two of the astrological signs (I forget which ones). He made his point. Dredging the data for more correlations is bad science.

Fledchen July 26th, 2007 | Link | I think it's very sad that

I think it's very sad that our society values friendship so little that something superficial like body shape and size would be the reason for people to "expand their social networks." People should be friends with other people because they like and trust one another, not because they think that being around those people will make them thinner.

pjrichardson's picture
July 26th, 2007 | Link | First I was just fat. Then

First I was just fat. Then I was fat and unhealthy. Then I was fat, unhealthy and a bad person. Then I was fat, unhealthy, a bad person, and personally responsible for exploding health-care costs. Now I'm fat, unhealthy, a bad person, and responsible for both a collapsing health-care system AND everyone else's middle-aged spread.

At the turn of the last century, we found all sorts of "scientific evidence" that justified, almost made righteous, the ill-treatment of non-whites... I suppose we'll never learn.

Meowzer July 26th, 2007 | Link | According to this joke of a

According to this joke of a "study," the finding applied only to a specific group of people: men (the findings for women were statistically insignificant) and those who started out with BMI < 30 and wound up with BMI > 30, not men who were BMI > 30 to begin with. That, of course, is not how it's being reported. But that's what the data says.

Now hmm, what is it that men could encourage each other to do that would make them gain weight? A lot of men are into bodybuilding and weightlifting and big-time workouts, aren't they? And don't a lot of them get into it because their friends do? And aren't a lot of bodybuilders and gym rats (like Schwarzenegger) heavy enough to be in the "obese" BMI range? And aren't a lot of them working out because it's supposed to be "healthy" for them?

But it's not being spun as, "Men, don't pump iron, it's bad for you." It's being spun as, "Stay away from the fatties, they're toxic." Over and over and over again. Now, my official position on this is that anyone who's dumb enough to believe this stuff doesn't get to be my friend (or my boss) anyway. But I'm over 40 and I expect people I associate with voluntarily to have rudimentary critical thinking skills. I shudder to think what this is doing to young kids who are exposed to this.

DeeLeigh's picture
July 27th, 2007 | Link | If people actually believe

If people actually believe this crap (and they seem to - I haven't seen any coverage that's at all critical of it in the mainstream media), it's going to increase the social stigma associated with being fat - especially with the way it's being spun.

We had discussed the similarities and differences between weightism and ethnic prejudice previously, and one point that came up is that although certain ethnic groups tend to be larger, fat people as a whole don't have a shared culture or group identity. Most people, in spite of evidence to the contrary, don't consider fatness to be a permanent condition.

The silver lining here is that it may push fat people together. Social networks, indeed! We may be forced to develop our own culture and group identity, much as gay people have done. The prejudice is getting closer and closer to the surface, and sooner or later, the fat people (supposedly 30-60% of the US population) are going to have to organize, claim an identity, and put up a fight.

Alyssa July 27th, 2007 | Link | Fat Friends

It's unfortunate a copy of the actual NEJM article is not available because the news coverage raises so many issues. I was struck by one statement in Kolata's article which I saw repeated in others:

"It did not even matter if the friend was hundreds of miles away, the influence remained. And the greatest influence of all was between close mutual friends. There, if one became obese, the other had a 171 percent increased chance of becoming obese, too."

This statistic defies both common sense and the conventions of research. How can one be 171% more likely to become anything? 100% is the maximum and would indicate that there is a perfect correlation or relationship between associating with an fat friend and becoming fat myself.

CraftyWitch July 28th, 2007 | Link | I think the 171 is a typo.

I think the 171 is a typo. I just found a link to the LA Times story on the study and it says 71%. (Yes, I linked to the second page. That's where the relevant sentence is.)

wriggle99 July 27th, 2007 | Link | They are so easy on themselves

Can we not just dismiss this as TOSH sans analysis? It is the equivalent of SPAM, or junk mail through the post, you take one look at it and throw it in the bin. Cool

The credulity and desire to believe anything negative about fat people is the real story, a continuing theme if you will, the way everyone is piling into the void, filling in with why this 'study' is true, or could be. Fat people have this or that influence over the behaviour of others etc.,

Also, did you notice how civil this discussion is? When talking about how we could be potentially 'contaminating' them, they are so kind to themselves? Where are all the usual exhortations to take responsibility for ones actions, stop blaming others for your own behaviour etc.,

Even though this is so obviously grade A B/S, when talking to and about themselves, they take an almost balanced view, discussing civilly how the fat people they know may have affected them. Whenever I see this it amuses me, we also should remember this ALWAYS when they start on us, how little they can take what they give to us. We are a lot tougher than we sometimes realize. Eye-wink

diane July 27th, 2007 | Link | "First I was just fat. Then

"First I was just fat. Then I was fat and unhealthy. Then I was fat, unhealthy and a bad person. Then I was fat, unhealthy, a bad person, and personally responsible for exploding health-care costs. Now I'm fat, unhealthy, a bad person, and responsible for both a collapsing health-care system AND everyone else's middle-aged spread."

Don't forget to add aiding terrorists onto that list! An article I saw on yahoo news a few days ago was about the new airport strip scanners that show you naked...(because you's all about "protecting and keeping us safe"), and it said one problem was that an obese person could hide a "weapon" under their layers of fat because the scanners can't see through the fat (oh yeah, perfect place to hide a missile launch huh?). Like we don't have enough to deal with when flying! I suppose eventualy if you have a layer of fat, being digitally stripped won't be enough! I wonder what they'll think up next to give the illusion they're doing something to keep us safe. hmm... scary...I just thought of those "finger men" from the movie Vendetta, I wonder why they came to mind....

Oh,and if fat is now contaigous.... does that mean sitting on the same plane with a fat person is going to somehow make everyone on the plane fat? What about everyone in the airport? If the flight attendant offers a fat person a bag of peanuts does that mean everyone on the plane turns into elephants? Afterall, elephants eat peanuts! Actually I think I'd have better luck with that on a train... I bet I could datamine the circus trains and find some correlation between elephants and people. Hey! The strip scanners turn you bluish gray and elephants are bluish gray! I think there's a connection there....

chondros July 28th, 2007 | Link | Alyssa, I have grave, grave

Alyssa, I have grave, grave doubts about this particular study, but there's absolutely no problem with the chance of something increasing more than 100%. To speak of a 171 percent increased chance does not (in general) defy either common sense or the conventions of research. The chance of something happening increases by more than 100% whenever the likelihood of that thing more than doubles.

Say you put one green ball in a hat with nine red balls. Your chance of picking a green ball if you draw a ball from the hat at random is one in ten (or 10%). Now you replace three of the red balls with green balls, so that the hat contains four green balls and six red balls. Your chance of getting a green ball if you pick a ball at random from the hat is now one in four (or 40%). The likelihood of picking a green ball has gone up by three chances in ten, or thirty percentage points. Either way, the *increase* is three times the original likelihood, or 300% of the original likelihood.

The real problem, as Sandy Szwarc has pointed out, is that speaking in terms of a 171% increase in the chance of something tells you next to nothing about the chance itself, which can still be infinitesimal even after the increase. So using such figures is often a good way to scare people. Another problem is that an estimate of increased likelihood may or may not be statistically significant given the parameters of a particular study.

beakergirl July 28th, 2007 | Link | The problem is not with how

The problem is not with how flawed the study is, it is with how people will interpret it.

Children will shun and ridicule fat kids more ("I don't wanna catch your fat!")

People will probably superstitiously avoid their friends ("I don't know how it works, but I'm afraid she might make me fat.")

Fat people will once again be seen as the villains in this. ("They're MAKING OTHER PEOPLE FAT OMG WTF BBQ!!!11!!")

The truth is - like so many other things - you do pick up cues about what is ok and not ok, socially, from your peers. That makes sense. I know I feel healthier when I'm around someone who accepts their size (whatever it may be) than I am when I'm around someone who's paranoid about gaining an ounce.

And I think it's not just peers - elsewise, why would so many otherwise beautiful teenaged and pre-teen girls be filled with body-loathing just because they're not as thin as supermodels?

If we have to accept the finding that hanging around fat people makes people more likely to accept fatness (which is what I think the REAL finding is here, not some kind of cockamamie "contagion by social network"), it's also true that reading fashion rags breeds a dissatisfaction with bodies....and that is, in my book, a bigger problem. (anorexia, bulimia, exercise-bulimia....)

It bugs me that this is being spun the way it is, and it bugs me that what seems like a commonsense idea (that we gain our cues of what's socially acceptable from those around us) is being turned into a brickbat to hit fat people with.

(I kind of wonder how much longer before they start talking about sending us all to 're-education camps' in order to save us "from ourselves.")

bear's picture
July 28th, 2007 | Link | This is just one more

This is just one more pointless and contra productive study with inhumane message. This message is don’t hang up whit fat people or you will very likely start to pull on the weight. It is similar to message; don’t hang up with drugs dealer. If you have for friend drug dealer you are likely to become one of them.

All what common science can tell us is that people involved in obesity research do not have idea why people gain weight and why people loosing weight and as well do not have idea why they are on them self not overweight or obese.
In reality they are afraid for them self not to get overweight or obese.

Producing such a study they strength own belief that is bourn out of their own fear and they not care how much damage such theory will produce in real life.

It is clear example that shows that people have less and lees humanity in them self because of fear not to get overweight or obese.

Such a study should be put in same category as racial theory of supremacy and other similar theories that spreads racial hatred and should be denounced, condemned and banned from publicity.

Moody Blue's picture
Moody Blue
July 29th, 2007 | Link | My friends come in a variety

My friends come in a variety of sizes and shapes and my family members are all thin, so I really don't know where they're going with this. It looks like they're just trying to find one more way to make people "afraid" of us.

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