Mary Burke, senior economist at the
Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Frank Heiland, assistant professor
of economics at Florida State University, studied trends in body weight
for 12 years. They found a previously overlooked factor that had a
strong influence on how much an individual weighed: the average heft of
the group of people with which the individual associated.
If your friends are in trim condition,
you will feel out of place and possibly embarrassed when you start to
gain significant weight. On the other hand, if your peers are rotund,
you will likely see your extra pounds as nothing extraordinary.
The researchers believe we are
experiencing a social contagion of obesity. As more people in a group
become overweight, the acceptance of this state spreads from person to
person, almost similar to a virus. Then, if just about everyone is
overweight, all can view their weight as normal, even if it is
dangerously high. This example of a social multiplier effect also
occurs in scores of other areas of human behavior.
Burke and Heiland have studied what they
refer to as the “weight dissatisfaction number”: the gap between one’s
actual weight and desired weight. The authors found that the
dissatisfaction number has declined over the 12-year study period.
Despite the rapid rise in obesity, most people have lowered their goals
regarding desired weight.
While many are getting plumper, runway
fashion models and celebrities are getting slimmer. The authors address
this issue: “Some people have objected to our claim that social norms
governing acceptable body weight are on the rise, on the grounds that
the idealization of thinness in popular culture appears as pronounced,
if not more so, than ever. While we do not dispute this last fact, we
believe there is strong evidence that a gap exists between the cultural
imagery and the weights that most people consider acceptable for
themselves and others.”
Most folks rationalize that if everyone
else is heavy, then it is perfectly all right for them to be heavy as
well, leading to a widespread surrendering to the inevitability of
ever-growing waistlines. The snowball gets bigger and bigger as it
rolls down the hill.