As I See It: Weighty Matters
January 14, 2008 Victor Rozek
The package arrived the day before Christmas. It came all the way from the East coast courtesy of my in-laws. As soon as my wife saw it, she got a sly look on her face and urged me to open it because, she said, it was “time sensitive.” But my father-in-law is to packaging what Madonna is to restraint, so opening one of his packages requires a great deal of patience and resolve. Having a modest cache of explosives wouldn’t hurt either. So I gathered a chisel, a hammer, a sharp knife, and a sturdy pair of pruning shears and set about penetrating the sedimentary layers of packaging.
After a few hours of exertion, I finally managed to pierce the dozen layers of steel-reinforced tape, cut through the pancake-thick wrapping paper, tear off the tinfoil, and excavate a half-yard of packing peanuts. There, encased in two plastic tubs, sat a dozen plump, brown, greasy, and altogether ambrosial poncki.
Weak with hunger and exhaustion, I stuffed one in my mouth. Well worth the struggle.
Poncki are baseball-sized Polish gut bombs; yeasty, deep fried doughnuts with powdered sugar sprinkled on top and a generous dollop of rose-petal jam hidden within. They’re about as close to heaven as you can get without dying, and about as close to an emergency room as you can get without actually having a coronary. My father-in-law, apparently still clutching the belief that no one was good enough for his little girl, was trying to remedy my cholesterol deficiency.
After my third ponchek (singular of poncki), I could have hibernated for the winter. My stomach bulged, my pants felt uncomfortably tight, and my butt was spreading faster than rumors of cheap gas. But I took some consolation in knowing that I was not alone. Most Americans will have one thing in common when they return to work in January: We will weigh more than we did before the holiday season began.
Weight in the workplace has become a weighty matter. About 65 percent of the population is now thought to be overweight, and about one third of those are identified as obese. The formula for determining obesity, however, is subjective, convoluted, and best understood by Europeans with math degrees. People are medically obese if their weight in kilograms is more than 30 times bigger than their height in meters squared. The results of all this math produces something called the body mass index, or BMI. OK, but whoever thought that up had way too much free time.
Extrapolating obesity figures for the IT industry is tricky, but there are two aspects of IT that lend themselves to weight gain. First, it is a wholly sedentary occupation, reliant as it is on brains and fingers. For the bona fide nerd, the body is only useful in so far as it passes messages between the dome and the digits. Second, IT is a “snacky” profession. Programmers with healthy eating habits are about as rare as cuddly crocodiles. Coffee, pizza, and corn-based doo-dads with colors that don’t exist in nature are standard fare for the serious keyboard jockey. My poncki would be considered health food in an IT department. The problem, according to the business community, is that the money overweight workers save by shunning proper nutrition, companies make up for in medical costs and productivity loses.
It is estimated that obesity costs employers $4 billion a year. According to Sarah Graham, writing for Scientific American, the additional medical costs per overweight worker “ranged from $162 for slightly obese men to an extra $1,524 for men with a BMI greater than 40. For overweight women, these costs ranged from $474 to $1,302. When the team factored in the cost of lost work days for obese employees, they calculated that the per capita cost of obesity amounts to between $460 and $2,485 annually.” Given the level of obesity, a firm with 1,000 employees could expect to absorb additional costs of about $285,000 a year.
But while the costs are roughly the same for both sexes, when it comes to discrimination in the workplace, women get the short end of the bread stick. A Yale University study of 2,000 overweight women found that over half reported incidents of discrimination. Some were excluded from hiring consideration, or denied promotional opportunities; others experienced taunts from managers and co-workers. Women also take the biggest financial hits, earning up to 6 percent less than “average-sized” women. For people who have been wronged, the avenues for recourse are few. Only one state, Michigan, has a law banning discrimination based on weight.
That’s one set of statistics; but for every claim that obesity is epidemic and bad for business, there is a counter claim. Paul Campos, a law professor and journalist, studied the issue extensively and published his findings in The Obesity Myth. He concludes that most of what we believe about obesity is based on trash science or no science at all, and that predictions of grim economic and health consequences have been “spectacularly inaccurate.”
Campos believes that society’s obsessive fear of fat is the real health hazard, and that obesity is essentially a class issue. Weight loss, he notes, is a $50 billion a year industry, so misinformation is good for business, while “curing” obesity would cause a real economic disaster. Campos shows that many of the “studies” sponsored by the industry use data-trimming techniques to produce dramatic but misleading statistics.
Nonetheless, corporate hysteria about “epidemic” obesity is fueled by runaway healthcare costs. The more pressure healthcare exerts on the bottom line, the more companies pressure their employees to maintain healthy lifestyles. You’d think that the mostly overweight guys who comprise corporate boards of directors would be giddy to learn that overweight people actually live longer than thinner folks. But beliefs die harder than habits, and companies are finding creative–and coercive–ways to force employees to get skinny.
If you were an IT professional in Kansas, working at Sprint’s 200-acre headquarters, you would have to walk as much as a half-mile between buildings. Parking garages are located so far away that if you forgot something in your car, you might have to use up some vacation time to retrieve it. And when you finally arrived at your building, you’d find elevators that are designed to be annoyingly slow, prodding the impatient to climb the stairs. All of which, I suppose, explains why you can’t ever get a Sprint employee on the phone–like wildebeests, they’re always migrating.
Union Pacific’s management got so worked-up about its 48,000 overweight employees that the company decided to help their people bypass the hard work of exercise and diet by offering them drugs. Nothing quite says “we care about your health” like prescription weight-loss drugs, so the company sponsored a study to determine how best to turn their boxcar-shaped employees into rails–which is just great because there aren’t nearly enough drugged people running trains.
But surely the most bizarre salvo in the weight wars was the claim that obesity is contagious. The notion was actually published in the respected New England Journal of Medicine this past July. Supposedly serious people contended that obesity could be caught by associating with fat people–sort of like catching hair loss from bald people, or hot flashes from menopausal women. The media swallowed the story, if you pardon the expression, and spread it faster than spam. Alas, the Journal‘s editorial staff eventually sobered up and retracted the claim, which only proves that although obesity is not contagious, ignorance most certainly is.
If the literature reveals anything, it is that causation is difficult to prove, which makes solutions difficult to find. Is weight gain caused by caloric intake, or the type of calories consumed, or metabolism, or a sedentary life style, or genetics, or lack of discipline, or TV advertising, or poverty, or convenience, or–as in my case–unbidden temptation delivered to my door by the Postal Service. Or maybe, as Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, observed, “when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it.”
IT professionals like to think that technology can help solve most problems and, indeed, it may even help those struggling with weight. I was watching 60 Minutes the other night and an MIT graduate was commenting on how ubiquitous technology has become. Our appliances, he said, will eventually talk to one another. One day in the near future when you open your fridge and reach for the ice cream, your fridge will say: “No! I’ve been talking to your scale and that is definitely not on your diet.”
For me, being chastised by a computer chip is preferable to being chastised by my wife (who had the temerity to suggest that eating eleven poncki was perhaps excessive), and wholly preferable to being rebuked by my boss or enduring the cruelties of strangers. Less visible that the weight people carry on their bodies is the back-breaking weight of society’s judgments. The real struggle is not between fat and skinny, but between accepting yourself or changing for someone else’s comfort.
Poet e.e. cummings put it this way: “To be nobody but yourself, in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else; means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
I took a deep breath, mustered up my courage, and said to my wife, “Hand me that last ponchek, Honey.”