Why were people so surprised when the New England Journal of Medicine reported that obesity is a contagion you catch from your friends? The line from Don Quixote, "Tell me thy company, and I'll tell thee what thou art," suggests that friends have long been what your mother called a "bad influence."
Or rather, a bad influenza. And it isn't just the "fat flu" you can catch from friends. Good friends enable all manner of bad habits, even when they're doing nothing at all. Around friends, we slip back into regional accents we've spent years trying to exorcise--redneck recidivism--or embroider our speech with the kind of epic profanity more common to 19th century lobstermen. (That's the bad habit I revert to around my friends, all of whom swear like Friars Club roastmasters.)
Some friends cause hypertension, some cause inebriation and some, it is now confirmed, cause obesity. Or the opposite. The study concludes that skinny people, likewise, tend to make their friends skinny. In high school, you could have chosen a friend with a six-pack of abs. Instead, you chose a friend with a six-pack of Coors. And that, as Frost wrote, has made all the difference.
Fat became fate. We've seen it with our own eyes. Larry Bird made everyone around him better; Elvis made everyone around him fatter, to judge by photographs of the Memphis Mafia--entourage members expanding and contracting like a bellows in time with their boss.
The co-author of the study, Dr. Nicholas Christakis of the Harvard Medical School, claims the obesity contagion is not merely a matter of like-minded people befriending one another. "It's not that obese or nonobese people simply find other similar people to hang out with."
But common sense tells us that oftentimes people do choose friends with kindred vices, a phenomenon best expressed in the jocular T-shirt sentiment A FRIEND WITH WEED IS A FRIEND INDEED. The same can be said for a friend with junk food. If Ringo Starr could get high with a little help from his friends, he could surely get pie with a little help from his friends.
After all, food and drink are the ampersands that unite so many of us: it's how Ben found Jerry, how Mike met Ike, why Baskin embraced Robbins.
Consider where so many of us see our friends: at the movies, a washtub of popcorn on one armrest, a bladderbuster of Coke on the other. At a ball game, orange "cheez" dripping from our chins, like a jack-o'-lantern bleeding from a bar fight. And, of course, in those very bars, which is why the phrase "Wanna grab a beer?" in any language really means, "Would you like to socialize?"
Friends, food and drink are so ingrained as an unholy trinity that the ad slogan for the Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery chain is "Good Friends, Great Food, Great Beer"--all three of which, we now know, make you fat. Apparently in that order.
The study claims that friends supersede spouses as carriers of the fat flu, but wedding vows can still be a vector. Researchers say our risk of obesity increases 37% if our spouses are overweight (vs. 57% for overweight friends and 40% for overweight siblings).
My marriage has been an exception. From the first day, my wife has been fattening me like a biblical calf. I gained 25 lbs. in our first two years of holy, roly-poly matrimony. I expanded more or less instantly, an air bag deployed in an accident. But my wife has remained obstinately thin, and that is refreshing. It means that society hasn't yet completely segregated along waistlines, fat people over here, skinny people over there--though we may be headed in that direction.
Remember the playground rhyme, "Fatty and Skinny went to bed/Fatty rolled over and Skinny was dead"? Fatty and Skinny, if the scholarly evidence is to be believed, might not share a bed in the future, when every couple is one or the other. You're either Posh & Becks or Tom & Roseanne, and never the twain shall meet.
Happily, that isn't yet the case. For while the study can explain some friendships--the cast of The Facts of Life, for instance, or the together-through-thin-and-thinner bond of Paris & Nicole--it doesn't account for so many of history's finest partnerships: Laurel & Hardy, Skipper & Gilligan, Abbott & Costello, Siskel & Ebert, and those most enduring of all buddies, Ernie & Bert.