Friday, April 13, 2007

Economics of Fat

On Tuesday Helen Palmer did a fascinating story on Marketplace about the economics of fat. Marketplace has a great way of looking at a story in the news from a fresh perspective, and this was no different - Ms. Palmer reported on all the different costs that are caused by or associated with carrying extra weight. Some were obvious, and some were surprising, but to me, these fell into three categories - things that are patently unfair, things that seem very reasonable, and then the squishy in-between.

Patently unfair:

  • Each point on the BMI scale boosts or slashes your net worth by $1,300. This is similar to the finding that every inch of height gets people an extra $1000 or so in salary per year but it's easier to say that the causality might go the other way - people who make less money subsist on cheaper, processed food and put on weight. Either way, it seems totally arbitrary and unfair.
Reasonable or unavoidable:

  • You wear things out more quickly: furniture, beds, car seats, tires (!)
  • Bigger sizes in specialist stores cost more. I remember once when I was younger my grandmother wanted to buy me a dress and we were both surprised that price in the store was higher than what was displayed in the window. The saleswoman explained that my dress cost more because it was a larger size than the display and therefore used more fabric. I thought at the time that made sense, but since of course I've realized that labor is much more expensive than fabric which is why most sizes cost the same amount. However, if you're super petite, or super tall, or in some other way not "average" you have to shop in a specialty store and because fewer people will shop there, you'll understandably pay more .

Squishy in-between

  • Not being given opportunities at work to speak in front of customers because you aren't the image that a company wants to project. This is a tough one - obviously you can be overweight yet be very eloquent, friendly, professional, or whatever else the company wants to project. However, I had an experience where one of our partners changed their onsite representative from an average-weight man to a woman who was so heavy that it took her twice as long to walk to meetings, and who would often fall asleep during them. Unfortunately but understandably, we were less inclined to let that company have an opportunity to give feedback. So if you can do your job well, you should be allowed to do it and given all opportunities to do so; however an overweight representative can affect how others see your company.
  • More expensive health insurance. Statistically obese people are more likely to have more medical problems - that's why some companies are starting to pay for weight reduction programs with the idea that it will cost them less in the long run. However, obviously some overweight people can be very healthy. Insurance is a statistical game though, so it makes sense that heavy people pay more - but I definitely feel conflicted about it.

Overall being fat in America sucks, unless you're in the diet industry. But looking at the economics of it, it seems like some things are quite a bit suckier than others.

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