Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Big Fat Fallacies: Appeal to the People

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Appeal to the People/Appeal to Popularity (argumentum ad populum)

This is yet another logical fallacy that manipulates emotion in order to distract from an unsupported argument.  Instead of fear or pity, this fallacy touches on our very deep human desire to be liked or popular.  It is one of the most easily recognized fallacies and is in widespread use in advertising.  It can be broken down into a few types.


The Bandwagon appeal is the good old fashioned "everybody's doing it" argument.  You have probably encountered this all your life in various guises.  In FA specifically, it is really hard to be the only person in the office not dieting (especially in January).  Office-wide "Biggest Loser" contests are particularly toxic.  

Appeal to Vanity/Snobbery

Sometimes there will be subtle distinctions made between these, but they boil down to "only the cool kids are doing it."  We see this in clothing designers decisions to only make small sized clothes, or in the rich and famous held up as examples of ideal body types.  In a world where being thin is impossible for most people, it becomes a status symbol.  

Appeal to Belief 

This is the "everybody thinks so" variation on the bandwagon argument.  In FA, we know that the percentage of people who understand that dieting is usually unsuccessful and often harmful to your health are few (if growing).  So the fact that diet advocates can assemble a huge collection of poorly researched studies and articles from popular websites is a frequent weapon used against us.  

Dissecting the Fallacy 

Humans are social creatures, and the cultural pressure to conform to "the pack" is strong.  After all, if these fallacies were ineffective, advertisers wouldn't use them!  It is important, with all emotional appeals, to separate the emotional content from the factual.  Is the fact that everyone in the office is trying to lose weight any kind of evidence that they'll be successful (or that you will)?  Is the fact that a naturally thin actress can fit into a vinyl catsuit evidence that you should be able to as well?  

Remember that many beliefs about health and beauty were extremely popular at one time or another. Compare the Gibson Girl to the Flapper, for instance.  Consider that people thought (and some unfortunately still think) that mental illness was a failing of character and should be punished via incarceration and torture.  Or that one could cure most illnesses by bloodletting.  

The takeaway is that the popularity of an idea has never been a good gauge of it's merits.  If all your friends jumped off a bridge...

Deciding What to Do

This is a difficult one to fight, because it relies on you having self-confidence and strong internal boundaries.  Chances are, the world made a pretty dedicated effort to strip you of both these tools throughout most of your life (especially if you were a fat child).  

First up is a thorough examination of relevance.  Is wearing this brand of jean really what makes someone popular, or is that mistaking the symbol of the thing for the thing itself?  Perhaps those jeans are only a symbol of a high socioeconomic status, and as a culture we mistake a high socioeconomic status for other attributes, like confidence and likeability.  Can you be confident and likeable without the jeans? 

Next, it is important to decide how important it is to you to conform to the expectations of others. This is part of internal boundary setting.  Everyone responds in some way to the people in their environment, but you can decide just how much you're willing to compromise.  Will you not get a face tattoo in order to maintain a certain accepted look in the office?  Will you dress a certain way to avoid the sideways looks from friends?  Will you resist the pressure to be "one of the girls/guys" by group dieting?  

How far you are willing to go is a very personal decision, and should take some serious consideration.  But once you have drawn the line in your mind, it is much easier to recognize what crosses it and resist peer pressure.  (Yes, even adults experience peer pressure). 

Any search for popularity is really the search for love and acceptance.  We often find that a few close relationships are much more satisfying in the long run than widespread popularity.  We have plenty of evidence that it is possible to have love and friendship in any size or shaped body.  If you find yourself falling prey to weight-based ad populum pressure on a regular basis, it may be time to examine why you feel you are missing something, and perhaps find ways to get it without harm.  If you haven't already, reading The Fantasy of Being Thin may address some of these issues.  After reading it, I went out and gave myself permission to be happy.  Once I did, I found out that what I really wanted wasn't contingent on meeting other peoples' expectations.