Sense and Nonsense: The Right to be Obese


March 1, 2002

The title of this essay could be “The Duty to Be Thin,” or “The Dignity of Fatness,” but these titles lack pizzazz. The present title adds a codicil to that long list of “rights” that have recently been invented to enable the government to perfect our happiness by denying us what we like. These reflections are occasioned by a report from the surgeon general announcing a national plan to combat obesity, which, it turns out, is one of mankind’s biggest killers.

Evidently, 300,000 people are killed each year by this scourge, defined in the new report—largely for insurance purposes, so someone else can foot the bill—as a “disease” (Washington Post, December 14, 2001). Guess what kills more than fat? No, not terrorists, not auto accidents, but tobacco, which wipes out a cool 430,000 a year. The two of them together, flabbiness and tobacco, wipe out almost three-quarters of a million folks a year.

As I often tell my classes, I have four intellectual heroes, three of whom—St. Thomas Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, and G.K. Chesterton—were quite obese, to use the surgeon general’s term. As for my fourth hero, Aristotle, I have no statistics on his rotundity. This lacuna constitutes a rare gap in Greek scientific knowledge. So I’m deathly afraid that this new edict will wipe out a good part of the intellectual heritage of mankind once word gets out that these once-esteemed gentlemen weighed as much as an average offensive lineman for the Redskins or the Rams (none of whom, to be sure, is “obese”).

The surgeon general is going after the schools first. They’re the most vulnerable to propaganda and pressure. He’s even going after school vending machines that emit, for a price, fattening things like cookies, cakes, and drinks. Your favorite restaurants are next. Already, I surmise, McDonald’s may be preparing a filling for sandwiches that looks and no doubt tastes like grass—the “Thinburger.” And, much to our astonishment, the new report informs us that the poor are the heftiest. They’re not starving to death as we thought but dropping like flies from eating too much.

The key to this study, from my angle, however, comes from the following magic words: “The Report drew praise for shifting the subject of overweight and obesity from a personal problem to a social challenge.” This is right out of Rousseau. Where this “praise” came from isn’t specified, though a lady by the name of Margo Wootan, a spokeswoman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells us that “what’s unique is to have the government saying that we need to address nutrition and physical activity as a social issue, much like we did tobacco.” Them’s fightin’ words where I come from. But what on earth is unique about the government finding some new reason to tell us what to do? Bin Laden’s attack made all airline security staff government employees for our own good, but this is nothing compared with making all waiters and waitresses—the report says that we spend 40 percent of our food dollars in restaurants—oversee what we eat.

We don’t need the government telling us that we must be thin and inaugurating programs to enforce this policy. We’re told, with evident disappointment, that the surgeon general’s office doesn’t have any cash to give out to enforce its rulings here. This is small relief, however, as this same outfit is busy encouraging us to enforce its obesity rules. Surely some obese congressman or party will soon make it a law.

You may be wondering whether I am obese… Apparently, if your BMI (body mass index) is 30 or more, you have a bad case of this new “disease.” After performing the simple calculation on myself, I came out with a BMI of -11. While my math appears to be pretty slippery, it looks like I’m definitely not obese. Nevertheless, my right to be so is under attack by an all-caring government, bent, whether we like it or not, on making us all if not good—at least not fat.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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