Weighty Matters

Posted: Sep 24, 2007 12:01 AM
Weighty Matters

Not long ago, I read about a study conducted by Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School and James H. Fowler of UC San Diego which suggested that obesity often spreads through a social network, a pattern of contagion usually associated with such diseases as influenza and AIDS.

Instead of transmitting germs, though, these folks infected each other with their perceptions of weight. For example, a man attending a family reunion notices that his brother has gained weight since last Christmas and concludes that it’s okay to be heavy.

Christakis and Fowler claim that their methodology could be used to devise ways to break the social connections that not only feed obesity, but smoking and even drug addiction. I’m not clear on how that would work unless people simply stopped hanging around with their friends and relatives. But I suppose that, for some people, becoming a hermit, so long as it’s a skinny hermit, is worth the sacrifice.

Research also found that body weight varies by social class and even religious denomination. Apparently, Baptists are inclined to be chubby. Perhaps, though, instead of giving up their friends, they could simply take up dancing.

I have to admit that when I first read about the study, my initial response was skepticism. I just assumed that thin people wound up associating with other thin people because they’d meet up at the gym or while jogging or in the vegetable section at the supermarket, while heavy people were far more likely to encounter one another during frequent trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

But the more I thought about it, I began to see how it made sense that such conditions could actually be spread like a virus, from one person to another.

For instance, consider the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. All told, we’re talking about 535 people from all the different parts of the country. Some are men, some are women. They represent several different races and religions. Some are in their 30s, others in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Then there’s West Virginia’s Robert Byrd; nobody really knows how old the former Klan member is because you’d have to cut him in half and count the rings to find out.

And yet, as different as they start out, from their close association, they soon begin resembling one another. Of course, in their case, even if their bodies don’t always become fat, their heads inevitably do. Then there are those exceptional cases, such as Ted Kennedy, where the head and the body seem to be in an endless obesity competition, and it’s anybody’s guess which part of his anatomy will ultimately prevail.

When a recent poll disclosed that the approval rate of Congress was only about half as high as President Bush’s 29%, many people were shocked. I was one of those people. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine why the number was as high as it was.

So far as I’m concerned, contempt of Congress shouldn’t be a crime, it should be an obligation.