The Weight Factor

The New York Times (1 December 2016) has reported that nearly have of Americans who are overweight do not realize that they are overweight. That is an extremely interesting claim. For the question that obviously presents itself is the following: How is it possible for a person not to realize that she or he is overweight? Of course, there is a non-trivial distinction between gaining a few pounds and being overweight. It is certainly possible to gain a pound or two and not realize it, since it would be extremely rare that gaining a mere 2 or even 5 pounds would result in attire that used to fit no longer fitting.

But how is it possible to be entirely overweight to the extent of 20 or 30 pounds or even more and not realize it? For anyone who has become overweight to that degree has had to make some quite significant changes in the attire that she or he wears. What is more, becoming overweight to that degree entails some quite significant changes in the physique of the body—changes that simply cannot be missed.

To use myself as a personal example, there can be no question about it: I have gained weight. Two decades ago, I weighed a mere 140 pounds; whereas nowadays I weight a “whopping” 20 pounds more. Yes, I now weigh 160 pounds. But only as a joke can I claim that I am fat. I say that because I do not even come close to having a tremendous largess at the waistline that almost resembles being pregnant. Likewise, I do not even come close to having what might be called a double-chin. The point here is that if I had tremendous largess at the waistline or a double chin, then surely it would be ever so clear that I have or am on the verge of having a weight problem. With rare exceptions, those are the signs that a person is having a weight problem. And it is simply not possible to miss either one of those signs.

Now, if we limit ourselves to life on earth, then it turns out that the concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph speaks to a feature that is characteristic of human beings and only human beings, namely the capacity for self-deception. As far as I can tell, what it is typically at the very heart of the weight problem in the United States is none other than self-deception. No one can gain 20 pounds and not notice it. The only interesting question is whether gaining 20 pounds constitutes a weight problem or not. And with very, very rare exception, the answer to that question is obvious. In the case of particularly skinny people who are 18 years of age or older, gaining 20 pounds typically does not constitute a weight problem at all, since gaining the weight does not give them a stomach that is hanging over the belt and so on. But if gaining 20 pounds does result in the stomach hanging over the belt, then there is immutable clarity with regard to what has happened, namely it is the case that one has gained too much weight.

The idea of being substantially overweight and not realizing it is all but conceptually impossible.
Using the language of Adam Smith, one of the things that mightily distinguishes human beings from other living creatures is none other than the reality that human beings have the capacity for self-command. That is, human beings have the capacity to do what is appropriate. And so it is even when human beings have feelings and sentiments to the contrary. For example, I may very well think that Susie La Riche is one hot chick. But if I respect the fact that she is married, then I will refrain from approaching her sexually notwithstanding the sexual sentiments that I have towards her from time to time. Indeed, I will do my best to bring it about that I no longer have such sentiments. And if things proceed as they should, Susie La Riche will never know of the sexual sentiments that in the past that I had towards her (at least she will not know about that from me).

In a like manner, an overweight person can redefine her or his eating preferences so as to bring it about that she or he loses weight, which in turn constitutes significantly enhancing the person’s physical health. Given the tremendous health benefits of not being overweight, what excuse can there be for not so redefining things? Nothing comes to my mind.

Finally, it is worth noting that the desire for food is not at all like (for example) an addiction. For instance, I absolutely love Haagen-Dazs ice-cream. Indeed, some brands of ice-cream strike me as so bad that I do not eat them. But there is simply no respect at all in which I have withdrawal systems if I do not consume Haagen-Dazs ice-cream. Hence, there is no respect in which Haagen-Dazs ice-cream is tantamount or analogous to a drug. This point applies to food generally. In no respect can food be countenanced as having the psychological effects of a drug. Thus, in the typical case of being overweight, there is the power to say “No” to overeating which far surpasses the power to say no to drugs. Thus, in the typical case, there is no excuse for being obese.

© 2017 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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One Response to The Weight Factor

  1. Adam Schechter says:


    I think your comments about personal observation with regard to weight have merit, and I would agree that–exceptions aside–most people have the ability to notice when they have gained a certain amount of weight (due to changes in bodily composition, energy levels, and so on). With that said, however, I’m not as convinced that you have said enough to demonstrate your claims that “an overweight person can redefine her or his eating preferences so as to bring it about that she or he loses weight…” and that “the desire for food is not at all like an addiction.”

    There are a plethora of privately and federally-funded medical studies dedicated to the topic of overeating, binge eating, and the like as psychological addictions (as there are for anorexia, bulimia, and others on the opposite end of the weight spectrum), so I think the claim that the lack of presence of “withdrawal symptoms” is enough to leave it out of the addiction classification doesn’t do justice to this subject matter.

    But let’s assume for the sake of argument that you are correct in your assessment about addiction, and instead focus on the other claim that an overweight person can redefine his eating preferences to bring about weight loss (and consequentially improve health). Unless the implication is that doing so would be incredibly hard for the average overweight person–which is not really indicated in the tone of your writing–my question to you would be, if it is so easy to do this, why don’t more people?

    Returning to your initial claims about the obviousness of being overweight, I would add a subsequent supposition that people who are aware of their weight condition generally don’t want to be where they are. That is, if you ask the average overweight person whether they are happy with their weight (and all that goes with it), the typical answer will be “of course not.” And I don’t think that is simply paying lip-service to something they assume they should say, but rather a genuine response based on a genuine feeling that they hold about themselves.

    So if overweight people (a) don’t want to be overweight, (b) realize that they are overweight, and (c) could stop being overweight with relative ease, why wouldn’t more people do it? As you’ve said, you love eating ice cream but it doesn’t get in the way of your capacity for staying fit, so what gives for everyone else? If the response will be something akin to weakness of will, that moves down the line towards words like “cravings,” which gets dangerously close to addiction-speak. So I don’t think that will do it. Any thoughts?

    Looking forward to hearing from you as always,

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