About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

"Lookism" about fat people??

OK, this is close to my heart because I used to be overweight, so I know first-hand the problem and the emotional experience. But for ABC's Good Morning America to have a feature dedicated to "discrimination" against fat people, it seems to me to overreach in the area of political correctness.

First off, the segment presented an informal survey done in the streets of New York. ABC's people went around showing three photos of a woman -- same head but different bodies (average, slightly overweight, obese). Ah, the pleasures of image-enhancing software! They asked men how they rated the three "women." Big surprise, the ratings were highest for the average body, less good for the overweight, and decidedly low for the obese. The comment was that this was evidence of "lookism," i.e. of discrimination based on looks. My (non fat) ass! It would have been discrimination if the interviewed people were about to hire somebody for a job that wasn't obviously related to physical appearance (such as model for Victoria's Secret). But the survey simply told us what we already knew, and moreover what's perfectly normal: fat and obese people are not attractive!

That, of course, doesn't mean that overweight people shouldn't do anything in their power to feel better about themselves, though by far the best thing they could do is to eat less and exercise more (again, I speak for personal experience here). But to accuse the rest of society of discrimination based on aesthetic standards, c'mon!

The segment became even more ridiculous when it showed a beauty pageant for fat women, featuring a special section on lingerie. A beauty pageant? Talk about political correctness. Have these people not considered that it is the concept of a beauty contest that is demeaning to women in general, not just fat ones? And I'm sorry, I tried to see the featured models as sexy and beautiful (as the voiceover shouted they really are), but I still prefer Victoria's...

To top it all off, the segment ended with the anchor asking the obvious question to the overweight guest: what about health? Isn't it true that being overweight carries health risks? The implication being, isn't it a bit dangerous to extol the virtues of being obese? The answer was astounding: first, the guest argued, just because the majority of overweight people have health problems it doesn't mean that everyone will. Duh, would be Homer Simpson's insightful comment. Second, she said, it's all about your body: exercise and take care of it, and you'll be fine. Right, you would also be less fat...


  1. Hmmm... as you probablt know common sense is hardly common or reasonable. Recent studies have shown that while obese people have a higher mortality rate, overweight people have a lower mortality rate than those whose weight is "normal".

    On top of that, of the people I know, the people who are obese tend to be the best dressers ( probably out of necessity ) and end up looking damm good compared to the mass of average looking people that surround us every day.

    While I agree that personal preference does not equal discrimination in any sense of the word, but we also must be careful since it's all too easy to demonize people that are heavy because of chemical imbalance or other physical dysfunction ( even though the vast majority are because of personal habits ).

    FYI I am overweight myself ( never obese ) and am working back to a "normal" weight. Personally I have always like "Rubenesque" women because they seem more real and less like men.

  2. Anonymous, you make good points. I don't disagree that one needs to be careful about stigmatizing people who actually have a biological imbalance. But, as you say, those are by far the minority. As for the famous recent study that overweight people are better off healthwise, it has actually being criticized on methodological grounds in the scientific literature -- though of course that hasn't made it to the mass media. It is true that being slightly overweight seems to be better than being thin, largely because the body has more reserves to draw upon during disease. But the higher the poundage the more likely this advantage is of being offset by increased likelihood of heart disease, diabetes, etc.

  3. Didn't realise I could leave a name and not log in :-)

    Death is a wasting disease and in all wasting diseases it's generally better to have "a few extra" pounds. No a few hundred. The study did note an increase in weight related disease in overweight people as well as lower mortaility rates, so you are correct as well.

    I think that people need to be healthier and that requires more activity. They could stand to loose a few pounds too, but generally your body will take care of that with proper eating and excercise. ( and a little simple math )

  4. "Se un professore dice allo studente che è sbagliato affermare che il triangolo rettangolo bolle a 90 gradi, o che Giuseppe Mazzini era un urbanista, costruttore di molte vie omonime, non si configura un reato di mentalismo? [...] È davvero mancanza di rispetto verso un giovane comunicargli i dati della propria esperienza? Non si daranno casi (e in effetti se ne sono dati, è cronaca) di studenti che si sono ritenuti discriminati perché l'insegnante ha guardato troppo fissamente il cerotto che avevano sulla punta del naso, o si è fatto istintivamente indietro perché parlavano con lo spruzzo? [...] Paradossalmente, all'insegna del rispetto per tutti, si fa strada un neokhomeinismo, pericolosamente intollerante."
    (Umberto Eco, "La bustina di Minerva", 1993)

  5. For the international audience, here is an approximate translation of what Pierino posted. It's an extract from a weekly column published by the Italian writer and professor of semiotics Umberto Eco (most famous in the US for his novel, 'The Name of the Rose,' as well as the movie with Sean Connery).

    "Suppose that a professor says to a student that it is wrong to say that a triangle boils at 90 degrees, or that Giuseppe Mazzini [an Italian political figure of the 19th century] was an expert in urban planning, is the professor going to be charged with the offense of 'mentalism'? Is it really lack of respect toward a youth to try to pass to him the fruits of one's experience? There are cases in which students have considered themselves discriminated against because the teacher was looking a bit too long at the bandage on the tip of their nose, or because the teacher instinctively backed off because of the student's spitting while he was talking. Paradoxically, under the banner of respect for everyone, we yield to a neo-Khomeinism, dangerously intollerant."

  6. What is wrong about the reaction people have to the fat or obese is that they attibute many qualities to people based on one fact. In other words, they assume fat people are less intellegent, less moral, less wealthy, less healthy, and inferior in a host of ways. Its not rational. All a person's obesity says about them is that the consume more calories than they use. End of story.

  7. Paula, actually, being fat does imply a few other things (I speak from past personal experience). It tells you nothing about morality, but it does say something about health. At any rate, my point was that we shouldn't glorify a problem by pretending that it is just an "alternative" life style.


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