Not Realizing that One is Overweight

The Washington Post reports that nearly half of the overweight people in the United States do not realize that they are overweight (1 December 2016).  Needless to say, a quite fascinating question is the following: How is it possible for a person not realize that she or he is overweight?   Of course, being overweight admits of degrees.  It is surely one thing to be 40 to 70 lbs. overweight and quite another to be only 10 to 15 lbs. overweight.

I am prepared to allow that a person can be 15 lbs. overweight and not realize it.  But I do not see how it is at all possible for a person to be, for instance, 40 pounds overweight and not realize it.  For that is a substantial measure of being overweight.

Perhaps what the Washington Post means is that when people are sufficiently overweight, then they engage in a considerable amount of self-deception.  Self-deception, of course, is a way of hiding the truth from one’s self.  But how is it possible for persons not to realize that they are unquestionably overweight.  After all, if a person is considerably overweight, then there are countless many reminders that such is the case.  For instance, I can walk up 6-flights of stairs without any difficulty whatsoever.  A substantially overweight person cannot do that.  Or it happens often enough that I can turn sideways and squeeze into a room.  But again: A person who is substantially overweight cannot do that.

Perhaps the Washington Post means that when a person is tremendously overweight, by, for example, 40 pounds, then it is frequently the case that a significant measure of self-deception kicks in and the 40-pound overweight person wallows in self-deception.  But for the reasons mentioned in the preceding paragraph, I do not see how the self-deception is possible on the part of overweight persons.  For instance, I do not see how such individuals can hide from themselves that they cannot squeeze into a room like a thin person can do.  Or if a vehicle of public transportation is crowded and there is a relatively small space for someone to sit down, it seems to me that it has to be as obvious as the night follows the day that the seating space is simply too small for someone who is really large.

Of course, being overweight admits of degrees; and it is quite understandable that a person who is merely a few pounds overweight may not at all realize it.  Indeed, others may not realize it.  And surely things would be quite different if by-and-large overweight persons were only a few pounds overweight.  Alas, it is manifestly clear that there are lots of overweight people who are clearly more than a few pounds overweight.  And there is simply no way that they do not realize it.

Alas, a most poignant reality is that human beings have the capacity for self-deception.  However, by definition a person is self-deceived about something only if there is a level at which the individual actually knows the truth.  Without a doubt, people can be self-deceived about their weight in precisely the manner mentioned in the preceding sentence.  A person can know that she or he is overweight and yet have a very clever way of diminishing the uptake of that reality.  For instance, a person may have an extremely attractive dressing style.  Hence, the person attracts the attention of others notwithstanding the fact that it can be clearly seen that she or her is obese.

On the one hand, I would be truly stunned if, indeed, people do not realize that they are obese.  On the other hand, though, it is clear that there are clever ways for persons to deflect the reality that they are obese.  And it is possible that a person can be so successful in that regard that, at the practical level, the person’s obesity essentially takes a backseat.  The person realizes that she or he is obese.  But socially the person’s obesity is quite inconsequential.

© 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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