20 September 2008


I know this is going to sound like defensive overcompensation, but I don’t hate fat people. Really. I realise not all of them are lazy and stupid. I’m sure a lot of them can’t help it.

In fact, out of 50 people at my last birthday party, quite a few were overweight, and three were technically obese. We had catered enough. Chubby folk were welcome.

I guess I’m like a priest with homosexuals: it’s not fat people I hate; it’s just their fatness.

And it’s certainly not that I think they don’t have a right to exist – hey, I’m no Fatscist – it’s just that the corpulent can be an unpleasant sensory experience.

They seem like they don’t care about the affect they have on other, slimmer, people. They’re slow. They get in the way. They block aisles. They block out the sun. They occupy more than one seat on public transport. And they wear girth-inappropriate clothing.

You see, while I care about fat people quite a bit, I know most of them also eat way too much crappy food, and don’t do enough, if any, exercise. Like an obese woman’s Lycra, my toleration is strained.

It would be charitable to report that, when I quiz tubby folk about the amount of exercise they engage in, they all tell me they do a good, sweat-inducing workout for an hour a day. But they don’t. Most of them tell me they maybe walk up a flight of stairs. Once a week.

I had a boss once who was so big that fatty flesh sagged down her lower limbs. I kid you not - even her ankles were obese. I’d like to say I enjoyed working for her; and in many ways I did – but it was a near full-time job dragging the cream biscuits out her mouth. And I suspect she is not alone. There are more than a few who quietly relish being big - whose sense of self-worth flourishes in proportion to their size.

Nevertheless, I’m one of those simple folk who reckon what we have here is not principally a psychological puzzle, but a pretty straightforward problem of physics, chemistry and biology – if you devour more stuff than you burn up, you tend to increase in size.

The one sure-fire way to avoid eating too much, and to expend at least as much stuff as you consume, is for we mammals to exercise. There is just no other way around this, except surgery, which is expensive, dangerous, painful and ultimately unsightly.

We being Homo sapiens, our forebears came out of the trees, stood upright, and started walking around. A lot. They did this to gather and catch food. To avoid predators, they even ran. If they failed to do this they died, their offspring went hungry, and they did not become grandparents.

The state of nature was sort of like flying budget airlines – there weren’t just major penalties for carrying excess baggage, you actually missed the 'plane. Being gross did not confer any evolutionary advantages, as the biologists say, except in times of famine.

I am not aware of any recent shortages of food, except in the Sudan or Somalia. In war-torn, sub-Saharan Africa, maybe it is good to be fat. Unless you have to run away from soldiers.

But in metropolitan Sydney, or London, or Birmingham, Alabama, we do not notice any food shortages, let alone famine. Quite the opposite. Even if you’re broke, the challenge is to avoid eating and eating. Just look at all the fat welfare recipients.

We evolved to move around – and without a motor. So,
a la Norman Tebbitt, I say get on your bike. Or run. Or swim, or row, or gym. Play football, netball, baseball, anyball. Throw a bloody Frisbee. Chase your children. Or the cat. Just get off your fat arse.

This is not to say everyone should be thin. Like Fats Waller, I enjoy a bit of meat with my potatoes. Clearly, if you look at the lads and lasses in athletics or rugby teams, we evolved a whole bunch of body shapes. Lean and muscular are fine, but chunky and stocky are good, too.

The problem is not shape, or even size, so much as sub-cutaneous composition. It’s not just the corporeal structure, it’s the covering: the gelatinous, blubbery, fattiness of fat.

Speaking of Alabama (as we were earlier) they’ve got the right idea on incentives. Not a jurisdiction we usually associate with progressive social policy, Alabama struggles as the second fattest state in the world’s second fattest country.

Alabama’s State Employees’ Insurance Board thinks you should pay more if you weigh more. In August 2008, Health.com reported that the Board will, from 2011, start charging overweight state workers - those with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 35 - $25 a month for health insurance, which is currently free for all state employees.

This is fair – the porcine bureaucrats of Alabama have nearly two and a half years to get their weight down. And the board already charges extra if you smoke.

Another excellent idea appeared in a piece published in The American on August 8 2007, entitled,Targeting Foods Is a Needlessly Indirect Way of Encouraging Weight Loss. It says:

“Isn't keeping the obese in the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed truly an expensive proposition? If it is expensive - managing chronic diabetes and so on - there is a solution that has received surprisingly little public attention: the fat-person tax.

It’s simple, transparent and neutral. This system would operate smoothly…everyone would submit an official Body Mass Index (BMI) report with their annual tax return, and (the Tax Office) would make the tax calculation for you. It would be a progressive tax: the fatter the taxpayer, the higher the tax. The top of the normal range for BMI is 24. A BMI above 25 would pay a small surtax, say 5 percent, BMI 30s would pay 10 percent and so on…”

You know, it’s really refreshing when you see conservative Americans getting serious about public policy issues like this. No wonder in the USA in 1969 the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was formed. (No, this is not a parody. It really exists.)

I bet NAAFA has something to say about the article in the July 7-14, 2008 issue of Newsweek entitled, The Obese Should Have to Pay More For Airline Tickets, in which Jerry Adler observed that it is indisputable heavy people are more expensive to fly.

Over the last decade or so, out-size Americans have required an additional 350 million gallons of jet fuel a year, just because of their increasing weight.

And they take up more seat space.

One of the few experts reported to endorse a penalty for fat fliers is Laura Zoloth, who heads the bioethics center at Northwestern University in the USA.

For her, it's a question of fairness to the person in the next seat, rather than carbon emissions. (Right on, Laura. One seat per passenger, or pay double fare.)

By contrast, Jerry tells us, the director of research at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, a Rebecca Puhl, thinks weight should be a protected category, like race or gender, which would make discrimination against fat people illegal.

"Some people can diet, exercise, do everything right, and still have a tough time losing and keeping weight off," she says. Must be a member of NAAFA.

This is a theme also articulated by Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times Magazine of 13 August, 2006 – he reported Richard Atkinson, who has been studying obesity, as having always maintained that overeating doesn’t really explain it all.

Apparently Atkinson’s epiphany came when he was a medical fellow at UCLA engaged in a study of people who weighed more than 300 pounds and had come in for obesity surgery.

“The general thought at the time was that fat people ate too much,” Atkinson said. “And we documented that fat people do eat too much — our subjects ate an average of 6,700 calories a day. But what was so impressive to me was the fact that not all fat people eat too much.”

OK. So some fat people are not gourmands, they just have big guts (and butts). But 6,700 calories a day? What’s more, if some people in the study ate normally, others must have consumed more than 6700 calories per day! Riders in the Tour de France, the world’s toughest annual sporting event, wouldn’t come close to consuming that much fuel.

Still, the Australian ABC Online reported on 12 August 2008 that researchers have also shown it may be possible for at least half of overweight adults to be both fat and healthy, with close to a third of obese men and women having normal blood pressure, cholesterol and other measures of heart health.

And being lean does not necessarily protect people, either. Close to a quarter of normal-weight US adults in one study had risk factors for heart disease or diabetes. (Well, du’h.)

"We really don't know as much about obesity as we think we do," said Judith Wylie-Rosett of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who oversaw the study.

So maybe we should just get over fatness as a problem.

Except of course that, even if a third of obese people have normal health, two-thirds of them don’t. And, as The American pointed out, they have lots of chronic health problems, all of which are slated to rise dramatically in the next five to fifteen years.

We also know a very important social fact, too – poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity are, like smoking, all strongly correlated with class – as I alluded to above, the poor and welfare recipients are unhealthily fat. Far fatter than the middle class and the well-off.

And, in decent western societies (except most of the USA), we end up paying for their health care. So obesity affects us all, if not on our hips, then in our hip pockets.

* * *

In the problem of free will, Compatibilism is the thesis that determinism and free will are compatible. There are differing versions of Compatibilism that need not detain us here – they are all essentially variations on the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too theme; one that is going to be intrinsically appealing to fat people.

Because, of course, if you eat your cake and you still have it, there is in principle no limit to the number of times the one cake can be consumed. (This is just like in the Magic Pudding, which confirms my suspicion that its author Norman Lindsay was not only a fine drafter of risqué art, he also had a philosophical bent.)

There are two other basic positions in the free will debate: Strong Determinism (in which there is no free will, properly called); and Incompatibilism, the thesis that there is free will, and some things are not strictly determined.

One feature of the problem of free will is it seems to come in differing grades: there is FREE WILL, Free Will, and plain old free will.

FREE WILL is the full blown, fuck you, I’ll do whatever I want kind of free will – for instance when, despite years of careful upbringing, your sole heir and successor comes home and tells you they’ve made a really disappointing lifestyle choice - like deciding to become a motor dealer.

On the other hand, Free Will is not as confronting. It’s more the, I’ll just have another slice of pizza with the glass of Chianti and go for a jog after lunch, kind of position. We quietly know we could go for that jog, but after the second glass, and especially the third, the lifestyle benefits can happily be put off until tomorrow.

Little old free will is the weakest of all – it’s the well-known, I’ll just shove this needle in my arm again and I’ll feel better and all the pain and self-loathing will go away for a while, kind of free will. Which is to say, not really free will at all.

So, if some form of Compatibilism is right, which is the kind of free will that best applies to portly people?

Many will want to tell you its just little old free will. And perhaps, for some, it is. Maybe their weight, appetites and incapacity to exercise are strictly determined by genes, hormones or whatever - maybe they couldn’t do otherwise.

On the other hand, anti-Fattists (and, paradoxically, some pro-Fattists) will want to tell you its FREE WILL. Less common, but no doubt there are some whose lifestyle, if not their identity,
is bound up in a soft carapace of their own choosing.

For most, though, I reckon its really Free Will. It’s the, Yeah its hard, there are challenges, it requires effort, I could fail, kind of free will.

Well, sure it’s hard. If it were easy, you wouldn’t be tubby. But if it were impossible, smokers would never quit, and fat people would never get fitter and thinner. Yet they do.

So, my findings on the three grades of free will are this – there is the Junkie grade, the Fat Person grade, and the Motor Dealer grade - each with a commensurate level of personal responsibility and blame: low; moderate; and high.

Sadly, however, personal responsibility does not necessarily accord with social acceptance or opprobrium. There may be good reasons to be tougher on some people, even if they can’t help it. Because of the social consequences (and their underclass overtones), we see fit to punish junkies, yet reward motor dealers, even though both are vile but only the latter are responsible for their actions.

And, on the whole, society neither rewards nor punishes, but merely tolerates, fat people, despite the fact that they could take up less space and use fewer resources.

It is through these examples that we see how society is not only unfair, but also capricious, and does not take free will as seriously as we might hope and suppose.

My solution is modest: a formal system of penalties and benefits. As much as I’m attracted the idea, this is not just about a fat-person tax. I think we should use risk profiling as they do in the insurance industry, and impose a social impact charge.

This should be enforced only when there is a negative consequence on others – either individuals or society generally – of a person’s fatness. Like with airline seating or the challenge of negotiating bus aisles. Oh, and the biggies - health costs and fuel imposts.

How could this work? How would we measure people? Sometimes the problem is kilos, sometimes its just size. We need a fair and transparent arrangement, here. We need a system. Enter the bureaucracy: but not fat cats - this time we need the lean police.

The article in The American I referred to earlier has the right idea. BMI helps, because it takes into account both mass and volume. But we need a way of regularly monitoring BMI – and we’ll need to be wary of bulky BMI cheats who, like unclean cyclists swapping urine samples, may try and substitute some scrawny person’s figure for their own.

We could also reward outputs. There could be a range of tax rebates and product discounts, based on the amount of physical energy you’ve expended.

To put this into effect, we could be required to submit a quarterly PAS – Physical Activity Statement – signed off by our registered personal trainer, through which we could earn tax credits or receive discount vouchers for health foods, gym membership and cycling gear.

Plus, we could punish some inputs, like super-taxing junk food products, banning their advertising, and requiring really ugly depictions of obese people on their packaging. It might seem crude and unfair to the free-marketeers at The American, but it’s worked a treat with cigarette smoking.

You know, the more I think about this, the better I like it. This system is going to be really complex. Luckily, I work as a some-time consultant to the government sector, and this could keep my clients, like public health bureaucrats, in business for the rest of my career.

Maybe they’ll need a consultant to work up the project brief - just don’t let the likes of NAAFA know.


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