According to the many camera shots shown on the news, this country faces a pandemic of contagious, headless fat people. However, obesity is a media-proliferated disease, like SARS, bird flu and mad cow disease – more likely to cause hysteria than mass graves.

Media-generated hysterics are nothing new. Even though the news is often wrong in its prediction of pandemics, the public still eats up obesity stories on the evening news. These days, you can’t turn on a television without seeing another news report about how Americans are getting fatter, how atrocious that’s supposed to be and how this negatively affects absolutely everyone – even those who are fit and thin.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that has gained a lot of attention claims obesity is socially contagious. That’s right; the obese are now being blamed for making other people fat. Even more, China no longer allows fat Westerners to adopt its children, and overweight people are being blamed for leaving bigger carbon footprints and worsening global warming. What bothers me most, however, is that this war on obesity doesn’t demonize viruses, terrorists or drug cartels but rather an entire segment of everyday people.

These people should be pissed. Just about every local news story on the obesity epidemic (and they run every day) includes footage of overweight bystanders going about their daily lives, with the camera zoomed in on their stomachs. The cameraman conveniently leaves their heads out of the frame. They don’t even know they’re being filmed. The blogosphere calls this the “headless fattie” camera shot, and I bet now you’ll recognize it everywhere.

By this logic, it should also be acceptable for “Girls Gone Wild” to produce videos of headless, ample-chested college girls without their permission. All the important body parts are on film, right? Now, imagine those images flaunted every day during primetime. Rightly angered feminists would have a lawsuit drawn up within days.

For some reason, though, it’s mandated that similar images of fat people be shown on a daily basis. With such a populous demographic certain to be offended by these images, where’s the class action lawsuit or the public outcry? Where are the investigative journalists to expose the truth? I suppose there’s little incentive for news organizations that profit from fear mongering to print a story about the immorality of their own practices.

In the end, however, it’s becoming clearer that once again the hysteria may be for naught. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association substantiating that 25 extra pounds may actually be good for your health. This directly contradicts a heavily publicized and subsequently discredited 2004 study (also from the CDC) that claimed that obesity was set to outpace smoking as one of the major causes of death in America.

In the 2004 study, the CDC neglected to differentiate between morbid obesity – which afflicts only a tiny segment of the population – and being simply overweight, which is far more common. The number of deaths attributed to obesity has since been revised from 400,000 to 26,000 per year, almost an eightfold decrease.

While the morbidly obese experience a dearth of health problems that create some very scary statistics and great negative news, it turns out being mildly obese or overweight may actually be good for the immune system. Unfortunately, these massive revisions will never garner as much media attention or fervor as the studies that generated this crusade. So the hysteria and the stigmatization live on – and the media loves it.

Gavin Stern can be reached at gavstern@umich.edu.

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