I saw Supersize Me, a very fine movie, last week. One of the film’s most-praised segments involves an interview with a Reason editor (Jacob Sullum, I think) wondering when it would be socially acceptable to hector obese people the way it is acceptable to hector smokers. Leaving aside the fact that all moralistic hectoring about personal habits by strangers should be met with a request to cram it walnuts, ugly,it’s strange that this segment has gotten praise in reviews, because the argument is so obviously specious. First of all, the argument ignores non-puritan reasons for finding smoking annoying. The analogy between smoking and obesity in obviously null, because smoking has adverse health consequences and is unpleasant for third parties; obesity does not and is not.
But more importantly, if the logic is that people should be criticized for making bad health choices, then everybody should be hectored for eating at McDonald’s, regardless of body type. As Paul Campos points out in his terrific new book The Obesity Myth, the health effects of body weight, as an independent variable, are negligible. There are many people–especially women–stigmatized as “overweight” who eat well and exercise; there are many thin people who are sedentary and don’t eat balanced diets. The former are, absolutely without question, healthier as a group, but are also stigmatized where the latter are not. This is because fat people aren’t stigmatized because they’re unhealthy, but because people think they’re gross. The health issues are just a convenient ex post facto rationalization.
What’s strange is that Supersize Me conflates obesity and health constantly, while the movie proves the opposite point. By the end of the movie, Spurlock, while he has put on an alarming amount of weight, would not be considered obese by anyone outside of the fashion industry. But his lipids profiles are scary, his major organs are close to ceasing function, and he’s nearly impotent. Eating lots of fast food, in other words, is unhealthy because it’s unhealthy. Obesity is just a potentially aesthetically unappealing side effect.