After the post on fatness and homophobia I decided to query the GSS on the extent to which people think that fatness has a strong biological element, similar to homosexuality. There’s a variable, GENENVO1. It asks:
Character, personality, and many types of behavior are influenced both by the genes people inherit from their parents and by what they learn and experience as they grow up. For each of the following descriptions, we would like you to indicate what percent of the person’s behavior you believe is influenced by the genes they inherit, and what percent is influenced by their learning and experience and other aspects of their environment. The boxes on handcard D1 are arranged so that the first box on the LEFT (which is numbered 1) represents 100% genetic influence (and 0% environment). The next box (numbered 2) represents 95% genes (and 5% environment), and so on. The RIGHTMOST box (numbered 21) represents 100% environmental influence (and no genetic influence). After each description, please type the number of the box that comes closest to your answer. Please use the numbered scale on handcard D1 to indicate, FOR EACH OF THE BEHAVIORS DESCRIBED, what percent of the person’s behavior you think is influenced by the genes they inherit, and what percent is influenced by their learning and experience. After each question, type the number of the box that comes closest to your answer. Remember, the higher the number, the more you think the behavior is influenced by learning and experience; the lower the number, the more you think it is influenced by genes. Carol is a substantially overweight White woman. She has lost weight in the past but always gains it back again.
Yes, the question itself is somewhat scientifically incoherent. Heritability doesn’t really work this way, but in the colloquial sense it is not an unreasonable question to ask, as it gauges real sentiment. Because the response are in five point increments, I combined the intervals 0 to 25% and 75 to 100%, and left the middle as a separate category. I crossed that with a host of demographics, and also re-ran the analysis for non-Hispanic whites only.
Before I report the results I’ll stipulate a few things (this might preempt me having to ban people who sincerely leave long, but unpleasant, comments). I accept that weight is substantially heritable, but I do not believe that the levels of obesity that we see in the United State are inevitable. But, I do also believe that there is a “moral panic” of sorts about obesity in the United States. Much of the attack on obesity which is grounded in real concerns about health also does rely upon the genuine loathing and disgust toward fat people which is widespread in American society. Additionally, there is a class dimension here, insofar as in the United States being grossly obese is more emblematic of the lower orders. All that being said, I think it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of obese people would be happier, and live more fulfilled lives, if they weren’t obese. Though this doesn’t entail that I agree with criminalizing obesity, it does mean that I think that the “fat acceptance movement” is misguided. Rather than acceptance of fat, people need to be more generally civilized toward a level of inter-personal kindness which would diminish a whole host of cruelties. We don’t need to “liberate” fat people. We just need to “not be dicks.”
I was browsing the front page of The Atlantic and I noticed that it featured a “headless fattie.” This is the standard illustration of obese people in the American media which omits their heads, and tends to focus on their mid-section. You can read about them here. As obesity becomes normal in the United States it is interesting to see how the media is trying to grapple with the topic, and how it illustrates obese people. I found the tensions at the heart of the recent Village Voice piece, Guys Who Like Fat Chicks, fascinating.
If you’ve been to Manhattan you’ll note a distinct paucity of fat folk, let alone ‘fat chicks,’ so the whole piece tends to veer between explicit identity politics consciousness raising and implicit ‘freak show.’ On the one hand many New Yorkers are proud of the fact that because they walk everywhere there’s a norm of a relatively slim physique which would not be typical in much of the American “Heartland.” And yet the fat acceptance movement pretty clearly hooks into the natural sympathy of many in cosmopolitan Lefty circles for identity politics aimed to uplift the marginalized. They leverage the same general structure of argument applied to racial and later sexual minorities, attempting to de-pathologize a body type which is currently the focus of great public health concern.
Here’s the paper which triggered the piece in The Atlantic, Identification of an imprinted master trans regulator at the KLF14 locus related to multiple metabolic phenotypes: