Should we worry about the fat vote?

New York Times blogger and evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson suggests a link between obesity and politics.


Vincent Rossmeier
October 22, 2008 10:50PM (UTC)

In a new column on her New York Times blog the Wild Side, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson indulges in some bloated speculations. The column, titled "Weighing the Vote," begins with the question: "Could the obesity epidemic have a political impact? In particular, could obesity in a pregnant woman influence the eventual political outlook of her child?"

Now, if the link between obesity and political persuasion hasn't been foremost on your mind this election season, don't worry, there's a good reason for that. After running through a lengthy series of recent scientific discoveries that are fascinating, though ultimately irrelevant to her original inquiry, Judson concludes, "So far, so intriguing. But what does any of it have to do with obesity? ... Possibly nothing."

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Hmm. Granted, I lack the scientific expertise of Judson, but do you really need a Ph.D. to realize that formulating an essay on a completely hypothetical correlation is somewhat reckless? What would seem most important about Judson's idea, if it happened to be true, is how a mother's obesity affects a child's political ideology. But Judson doesn't even pose let alone attempt to answer that question. She concludes the piece by writing, "In the United States, the obesity epidemic began about 30 years ago. We are now at a point where one third of all pregnant women are obese. Their children will be voting in about 20 years' time. If an 'obese' environment in the womb has an impact on aspects of personality that affect political views, we may soon be seeing a big shift in the body politic." Notice her rhetorical trick there? She layers one uncertainty on top of another. Nowhere in the piece does she provide evidence that the way obese people vote is in any way distinct from the voting behavior of those who are less rotund. The U.S. may be getting fatter, but obese mothers have been around most likely since the beginning of time. It seems as if there'd be a wealth of subjects to choose from if this topic warranted study.

Judson remains hazy on many of the details involved in her assertion. She never attempts to define what constitutes obese. Is she using the body-mass index? What about mothers who were once obese but then lost weight -- will their kids still be affected? Might there not be other factors that contribute to your political beliefs other than obesity -- say, your socioeconomic class, level of education, religious beliefs and parents' political views, just to name a few?

Eventually, researchers may determine that the hormones of obese mothers are profoundly different from those of fit mothers and that the majority of children of obese mothers vote in remarkably similar manners. But based on the evidence Judson presents, we're so far from that point that we shouldn't even be discussing the issue. Admittedly, I've made my share of fat jokes, but I've never published a column in the New York Times that seems to needlessly single out obese people without any apparent purpose. I have to ask, what point, other than to suggest that fat people are so very different from the non-obese, is Judson trying to make? Hopefully next week her column will wade into the "intriguing" possibility that children born to lesbian mothers are going to radically alter the political landscape in the years to come.

See, I can ponder bold, unsupported claims, too. And I didn't even need to get a fancy degree or a New York Times column to do it.


Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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