Tubby guys in skinny jeans. Flabby gals in midriff tops. Beach-ball-sized buns rolled into super-taut tights. You've seen it. How else do you explain it? These people do not realize that they are fat.
"The first step in dealing with a weight problem is knowing that you have one," said Dr. Margarita Teran-Garcia, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois.
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Studies show more than a third of people can't accurately report their own weight, she said, and a large number of people who are overweight or even obese seem blind to it.
Expanding waistlines and the delusions that go with them are a growing trend wherever there is highly processed food and television to advertise it -- even in developing countries, Teran-Garcia said.
She has just published a survey of more than 3,500 college students in Mexico in which more than one-third of participants couldn't accurately report their own weight.
Men proved more delusional than women. Of the men, 33.6% were either overweight or obese, but only 16.9% described themselves that way. Of the women, 27.8% were in those categories, but only 21.2% admitted it.
"Heavier applicants were less likely to report their weight correctly," said Flavia Cristina Drumond Andrade, a U of I researcher involved in the study, which was conducted in collaboration with Universidad Autonoma de San Luis Potos, a public university in Mexico.
This global trend, of course, has not been bad for me. When I was younger, people routinely called me fat. But even though my weight range has not changed significantly over the years, these comments seem to have eased with the expanding girth of everyone around me.
"When everyone else is bigger, it becomes normal," Teran-Garcia said.
Sometimes when I run into friends I haven't seen in years, they say, "Gosh, Al, you look great. Did you lose weight?" And I have to bite my tongue so as not to say, "No, you just got fatter."
It took me years to understand this much about human nature: Fat people do not know they are fat; ugly people do not know they are ugly; and stupid do not know they are stupid. Why? Because there is almost always someone fatter, uglier and more stupid -- and when the whole world gets this way, it becomes normal.
If people can be this delusional about the extra 50 pounds they lug around the earth, beneath a skimpy tank top because they imagine that it looks good, what else are they delusional about?
Do drunks think they are sober? Do liars believe they speak truth? Do crooks really believe they are upstanding citizen? Do scoundrels actually think they are contributing to human progress when all they are doing is self-dealing? (Please don't answer aloud. This is merely rhetorical.)
Before the Internet bubble popped in 2001, I met accountants who actually believed they were properly accounting. Before the housing market crashed in 2008, I met real estate professionals who thought that, historically, housing prices always went up and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The stock market, meantime, has always thrived on delusions. And the field of economics -- well, too many economists work for industries that have an interest in things always expanding.
Our economic recovery may be a big, fat delusion as well since it has come amid an exploding national debt, a shell game of bailouts and stimulus plans at home and abroad, 0% interest for banks, and a Federal Reserve that has been willing to step up as the buyer of last resort for debt securities.
Only when something pops out of nowhere -- like a last week's surprising downturn in the jobs report -- do some people finally stop to wonder: Gee, when will I find work? And when will the price of my home go back to what I paid?
This has all been as unsightly as a fat man in a Speedo. Perhaps it is better not to look. Perhaps it is easier to call it a new normal.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com)