What is the ‘Appropriate’ Response to Obesity?

9 06 2010

Sometimes I feel like society is giving us mixed messages about how to respond to fatness.  Movies like “Shallow Hal,” which features Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, teach us that it’s mean and superficial to judge someone for being morbidly obese, and there is a growing “size acceptance” movement— the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA), the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), among others– that aims to teach children in schools not to discriminate against fat people.

At the same time, Hollywood and the media inundates us these images of the slim body “ideal,” we are peppered with criticisms of our “fast-food” nation for being a country of fat, sedentary people, and Michelle Obama has spearheaded a popular “Let’s Move” campaign aimed at eliminating childhood obesity.  There are shows about celebrity chefs headed all over the midwest to reform restaurant and cafeteria kitchens, and we sometimes find ourselves personally inconvenienced by an obese person that requires extra space on public transportation or otherwise.

I’ll admit that my gut reaction upon seeing an obese person (not just fat, or large, or big-boned- I mean morbidly, life-threateningly obese) is to be angry and disgusted.  I hate that they take up two seats on the bus or the plane and sometimes need help getting up or down the bus steps, I want to punch them in the face when I see them eating a super-sized fries on a park bench or taking the little tram car to their gate at the airport instead of walking, I don’t understand how they allowed themselves to get that way, and it really infuriates me when I see that their children are on the same path.

Is it ok for me to feel that way?  Does it make me superficial, or entitled, or intolerant?  Am I supposed to have more compassion for obese people? Is it really just “in the genes” sometimes, or is it always a lifestyle choice?

Part of the problem, for me, is that my experiences with these people are almost always negative.  I find that the obese people I interact with often have very negative, obnoxious and unapologetic attitudes, like, I’m not sorry you have to stand behind me for 15 minutes while the bus-driver lowers the handicapped ramp on this bus so that I can step on and be lifted into the bus even though I’m 35 and not actually handicapped.  You can kiss my ass while I eat this entire bucket of KFC chicken, lick my fingers and litter the trash out the window.

I know that there are contributing factors to obesity that some people cannot help.  I know that a McDonald’s Big Mac costs about the same as a stick of asparagus from Whole Foods, and that sometimes people sustain knee and back injuries that keep them sedentary for months on end.  And I know that many people have golden hearts and sharp senses of humor under all those layers of lipids.  But to what extent should we, as a society, be accepting of obesity, and to what extent should we show these people some tough love?

I’m interested to hear your thoughts, because I don’t know the answer to that question.

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23 responses

9 06 2010
graber

i havent eaten today, and now i want french fries. I remember seeing “Super Size Me” and thinking, yeah thats disgusting, but the next day all I could think about was delicious golden crispy french fries. I’m not trying to eat that crap 3 times a day for a month. However, there are some people who have literally no idea of how to even approach the subject of eating “right,” and thats a real problem too…

oh – be pissed. they also take up more oxygen from all that huffing and puffing…

9 06 2010
Sugar

As far as I know, morbid obesity is in most cases due to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. The media and fashion industries could definitely be more open to portraying women with natural bodies as opposed to the always stick-thin models.

Everyone has different body types and a lot of people will never be thin, even with constant exercise and healthful eating.

Obesity should never be portrayed as a condition that deserves acceptance by society. It’s unhealthy.

I think shows like The Biggest Loser and Losing It are a great step in the right direction for the media. Additionally, the fashion industry made a huge blunder coming out with the title “plus-sized model.” How about not attaching any sort of terminology to it and just starting to portray normal sized, yet beautiful people.

9 06 2010
BS

As a formerly obese person, i can tell you that their relationship to food is probably better understood as you would a drug addiction . I can also assure you the hate and disgust you feel towards them they feel towards themselves 10 fold. Most people view obese people with disgust, because it is a sign of a sickness. It garners the same instinctive reaction from people as it would someone who’s bleeding out of the face. To a certain extent, this reaction makes sense.

However, your view that this is a predominantly problem of personal and individual responsibility and that society is a ‘contributing’ factor is inverted.

Of course personal responsibility is a part of the equation, but when you look at how the food and health industry of this country is maintained, the only logic conclusion is that this is a massive public health issue (at least in America).

Living in a city, we don’t even see it in it’s most extreme cases. Rural and poor America have it much worse. If we look at the history of American waist size, over the last 50 years, it seems pretty obvious that this isn’t a matter of americans getting lazier, dumber, weaker. Take one small, minuscule, factor such as replacement of sugar with HFCS. It’s in our bread!

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100322121115.htm

Additionally, there was an author (name i can’t remember) that does a really good job describing the effect that salt, sugar, and fat have on the pleasure receptors of the brain. These things are not good for you in large quantities, but since they are found relatively rarely in nature, it hasn’t ever been an issue last 50-100 years.

Now, turn on the TV and every single food advertisement is for something that is for all intensive purposes really really bad for you, but does a really good job turning on your brain.

Remember the story of the little soviet girl that visits the american grocery story and is amazed about how many options and freedom Americans have? 90% of them are clever repackaging of corn and owned by the same 5 companies. The real food is hidden in there in the corners (for those that can afford them)

So if we’re advertising crack every second of every day and selling it on every street corner, why are we surprised that the nation is filled with crackheads?

There needs to be a serious public health discussion about this in addition to campaigns and education. I haven’t seen any of the shows discussed, but it seems like a good thing. much better than watching football stars taking dancing lessons and 10 hours of karaoke a week.

9 06 2010
cultofknowledge

I think it was David Kessler – The End of Overeating. Great book – makes you really rethink the sugar/fat industries. Kessler was the FDA head who took on Big Tobacco so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to growth-oriented corporations manipulating addictive elements in what they sell. Uninformed people really don’t have a chance.

9 06 2010
British

I agree with @Sugar. We should be trying to promote a healthy lifestyle within our society rather than investing time and effort into developing programs for accepting overweight individuals. It’s OKAY not to look like some of the stick-thin girls that walk the runway at fashion shows. But when you’re carrying enough weight to develop diabetes, heart disease and other health problems… it’s no longer a question of acceptance.

9 06 2010
Pita

This is a really interesting question.

I tend to think any dysfunction on this scale (whether it be obesity, anorexia, mass incarceration, etc) as a societal dysfunction. Sure, each individual has contributed to the state he or she is in, but whenever a problem is this large, I believe, there is a problem with the structure of the system(s).

That said, I don’t think blaming (people or systems) will help. And I certainly don’t think judging people helps. I think we need to be very careful with our tendency to objectify other human beings. If we see a person and think “fat” or “morbidly obese” it becomes really easy to create that narrative about why this person does not deserve the same respect, care, and dignity we all hope to be treated with.

I do not think we, as a society, should become tolerant of obesity. But I also think we have to be very care of how we treat those who are obese as we attempt to right the systematic failings that have contributed to there current state.

9 06 2010
districtramblings

I think that’s a great point Pita– distinguishing the problem of obesity from the obese person. I would never outwardly disrespect a person or treat a person badly because he/she is obese, but I do find myself reacting very negatively to them on an internal level, and I feel guilty about that.

9 06 2010
Greg

I hate when fat people sit next to me and on me at the same time.

9 06 2010
bros

BS says: However, your view that this is a predominantly problem of personal and individual responsibility and that society is a ‘contributing’ factor is inverted.

I agree with this. the psychological is the social. I agree that it is akin to an addiction but I also think there is a huge element of misinformation and lack of education that differentiates the obesity epidemic from alcoholism or drug addiction. This is by no means a purely medical issue, which is why I get very angry when people want to locate this in some purely physiological origin and say its because of genes or predilection etc. it is not something entirely physiological and I’m sick of the medical establishment locating it there when it is a social/systematic affliction because this is something that wont and shouldnt be solved with a pill or a medication.

I also disagree completely, as someone who spends a ton of time in the kitchen, that fast food is cheaper than eating healthily. What IS a problem is the access people have to healthy options, or food deserts as I think they are called-in underserved areas, lack of access to public transportation etc and people shopping at gas stations and nearby fast food places.

This isnt everyone as there are obviously obesity problems in areas where people enjoy great access to healthy food and for one reason or another, dont chose it. this goes back to education. I used to do personal training and I was astounded at what people didnt know about food and calories and nutrients. Just like americans get no real financial education in our 12 years of school, health gets the short-shrift as well. there is no FOOD education aside from the stupid food pyramid that hasnt changed since like 1920. Americans have unhealthy relationships with food just like we do with oil and war. we tend to overdo everything and consume too much. our food tends to me modified and chemical and processed which is THE main difference between what we eat and what everyone else does. its not about fat or sugar or salt. it’s about chemicals that mimic hormones and are obesogens and are found in all the easy food. people need to use their damn kitchens more. that’s why they are there.

9 06 2010
districtramblings

I think BS’s point about society vs. the individual is true in terms of the general overweightness of America, but I don’t think any amount of advertising or lack of nutrition education could push someone to the point of extreme obesity if they were trying, at all, to not end up that way.

Sure, I carry an extra few pounds than I’d like and I think most people do. Some people carry an extra thirty or forty pounds, and this often comes back to a lack of education about how to eat and take care of your body. But I can’t imagine letting your body get to the point where you can barely walk 20 feet and then blaming it on ‘society.’

9 06 2010
BS

Trying to understand social phenomena is not about placing blame on this or that party. It is about understanding the issue so that we can appropriately address it as a society.

Just because you can’t imagine it happening to you doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant shortcomings in society that are either encouraging this or at best allowing it to happen.

I can’t imagine myself being unemployed with two kids and a house that is about to foreclosed but that doesn’t mean the person that it happened to just let themselves go….

9 06 2010
geof

Treat it like cancer. I don’t make fun of people with cancer, but I also think we should try to eradicate cancer since its bad for people and makes them die early and costs everyone money. You find *morbid* obesity disgusting for the same reason gangrene or a missing part of the head is gross. It’s clearly unhealthy.
The “growing” (DR, you punster) size-acceptance movement: Groups that advocate rights/sensitivity for fat people are deluded, if still kind-hearted. Be nice to people because they are people, not because you should be sensitive to some of their unique specialness. Fat is an even more ridiculous identifier than race, which I have bored everyone to tears with in other posts.

@bros. Great point about schools. We don’t teach much about how to successfully live in our society. Maybe financial and health literacy should be written into the standards. If necessary, we could drop a few lines about some insignificant bullshit about mineral types or what country fucked over whoever in the 12th century. If there is anything to the learning by doing idea, which there is, maybe lunch could be a part of the curriculum instead of outsourcing the job to the lowest bidding for-profit corporation who will serve 18 forms of corn and Grade D ground meat. Maybe small scale food prep by students and home room teacher? School gardens? School farms! Teach the organic, all-natural, medieval crop rotation method, a farming technique that actually IMPROVES the soil. Fucking Monsanto and Kraft Foods would have us believe we have to buy things from them to be healthy and prosperous. Assholes. All this profit generation is for a handful of stockholders and sociopaths who have risen to upper management and sell us lies about freedom and competition and made up wars on things that we produced, meanwhile we’re all getting fat cancer diabetes global warming oil in the gulf.
@Alex: you are a spaz, that’s why you aren’t fat. you couldn’t be sedentary if you tried.
@BS I like the addiction connection. I think that is right on.

9 06 2010
BS

Imagine when historians look back on this era. There is an ecological disaster of historic mind boggling proportions and the richest most powerful country in history has no infrastructure or ability to deal with it (because that would be socialism) so the president has to go on TV and do his best cowboy impression (“i’m going to kick their ass!”) all while his secretary of state is at the U.N. trying to build the case for another war (our 3rd).

9 06 2010
Alex

Having lived in southern Virginia, DC, Paris, and Zurich, I have observed many different perspectives to this issue. First of all, I don’t want to throw away the genetic component to this issue completely but go to Europe. Same genetic material (for white people), fewer fat people. That’s kind of an argument ender right there. Europeans tend to believe the stereotype that “all Americans are fat”, which I (rightly) feel obliged to dispute. However, entertaining the genetic argument that is so fashionable in the US will just make you look like you’re stupid, which is coincidentally stereotype number 2.

I admit that I have never been fat. The closest I came was the result of about 5000 hours sitting in a cubicle and about that many beers over the course of 2 and a half years. Even then, I only had a cute little buddha belly that barely deserved to be called a beer gut. Sadly it only took 4 weeks living in Paris to do away it my sweet baby. During that time I ate at Mcdonalds more than I ever did in the US (for internet reasons) and drank many beers. The differences were that the ingredients in the food I ate were less processed and I had to walk everywhere, including climbing stairs.

I usually try to frame discussion about the American obesity trend in terms of the convenience culture. It is part of the American dream to own a car, but a consequence of that dream is that you are rarely encouraged to walk farther than the last place you parked. For me what was amazing about the movie Super Size Me was not the food at Mcdonalds (side note: I already ate 2 double cheeseburgers today) but the fact about the average number of steps an American takes per day. That is what the movie should have actually been about. He talks about how many Mcdonalds there are in Manhattan but neglects to explain the phenomenon of skinny people in New York. If you do want to blame Mcdonalds then blame them for the drive-thru. But that only saves you 100 steps or so. I think that people should count how many steps they take every day when they are looking for somebody to blame.

9 06 2010
Wing - it

I love what Greg said – “I hate it when fat people sit next to me and on me at the same time”. I used to travel a great deal by air and dreaded it when I saw an obese person coming down the aisle and praying he/she would not be seated next to me. To sit for hours on the plane with someones body taking up part of your space and the fat arms using your arm rest etc. etc. That said, I live in a ;part of the country where it is hot, muggy, nasty, often rainy, and there is not a whole foods within miles, in another state to be exact. We have a huge population of uneducated, illerate, country people who have not a clue what to eat and they take the easy road when they get to the nearest store. A long loaf of Bunny bread – who wants brown bread ?? Soft drinks, etc. etc. And the children are growing up with the same ignorant habits. They just dont get it. And i think I HOP should be run out of business. And all these all you can eat restaurantes. I dont know the answer but if you live in the country it is easier to understnd the plight of the obese.

9 06 2010
Wing - it

I meant illiterate not illerate. I can read but have a hard time spelling

10 06 2010
cm

I loved hearing from BS regarding your observations as a formerly obese person- but what about the the role that personal responsibility and discipline played in your recovery? I have to imagine that it took a huge amount of determination on your part to actually get serious about losing the weight- it comes down to a decision you made for yourself, despite society and all its ills.

That’s what it boils down to for me- ultimately what goes into your body, how you exercise and live generally is a personal choice, one that may be made more difficult by a fat-acceptance, sedentary culture. But the choice is still yours. Which is why I respect the hell out of the fat guy sweating his ass of on the treadmill, or a person like BS, who went with this choice, even though it was hard.

10 06 2010
bros

I agree with you only halfway. I do think that maintaining obesity is something that takes a lot of maintenance. you have to really try to get obese. the minute you stop eating like that, you lose weight, even if you dont exercise. My point is that you are right, people aren’t victims of hamburgers attacking them-they choose every day to eat them and whatever else in probably large quantities and large amounts of processed food (the devil).

However, this point about discipline: indians arent disciplined. the french arent disciplined eaters. japanese arent disciplined. its not every day these populations of people with hardly any rate of obesity are sitting around WISHING they could eat cheese puffs and doritos but make a conscious choice to eat sushi or curry or bread and cheese. the difference is food culture. America has bad food culture, period. it is a culture of not using your kitchen, its starts with mother and child, it continues at school, and in the neighborhood and everywhere. eating healthy is a social thing, its a cultural thing. everyone else besides americans get inculcated into a smarter food culture and the element of discipline and ‘choice’ disappears as a non-issue. it doesnt occur to the italian to buy frozen bag of pasta with shrimp when making it themselves is cheaper, taken maybe 10 more minutes than the microwave, and saves 500 mg of salt and 30 preservatives.

it’s great that you are disciplined, but wouldnt it be better if we never even had to make that choice?

10 06 2010
BS

CM– Thanks. Personal responsibility and discipline had a lot to do with me losing weight. It was 100% of it. But two points:

1. I come from an upper class, educated background and I was young at the time. So i came to the realization early and was privileged enough to be able to do it. I imagine that an obese 30 year old with 2 kids, 1.5 jobs, and no health insurance is going to have a really hard time going the same route.

2. As I mentioned to my previous comment to district ramblings, your or my personal experience is not the same as proper and sound analysis of of a societal ill. Yes, if you had a friend that was obese, you should encourage him to take personal responsibility and try to change his lifestyle. That DOES NOT make personal responsibility a cure for the social health issue. If tomorrow, we woke up as a society and decided we needed to fix our food and health system and get people down to reasonable weights, personal responsibility and encouragement and discipline would be a PART of a an overall overhaul of food laws, access to food education, nutritional guidelines, exercise programs, etc. It is not a REPLACEMENT for a comprehensive plan.

[Begin tangential rant]

This concept of individual and personal responsibility is extremely deformed in this country and has become a replacement for serious analysis and thought into societies problems. Part of this is ingrained in American culture due to the fact that the countries wealth and positioning the last 100 years have made it so that it has given extreme opportunity to millions and millions of people. So yes, working hard for middle and working classes gave you more opportunity here than anywhere else in the world. But the culture is distorted where they think America’s success was entirely due to this mantra of individuality.

Now when we try and address anything we dont’ get anywhere.

30 million uninsured? Pull your self together and get healthcare.

Born into the ghetto and innercity school system? Should we address the societal issues causing this? No, i have a buddy who was born really poor and he made it out, why can’t you?

I was at dinner a few nights ago with fellow upper middle classman discussing the sad and tragic decline of detroit and the lack of compassion and concern was disgusting. Here I am, an iranian american, arguing that the auto workers that helped build the first great industrial city in America, built the millions of cars that spurred economic growth of the WORLD, who worked decades and decades building things and stuff so that jackasses like me can sit in an airconditioned office and make power point presentations for 10 X what they’re making an hour, should not be thrown out onto the street without pensions that they worked half a century to build. They looked at me and told me that they should just suck it up, find some new skills, and figure it out.

And they call me anti-american.

10 06 2010
BS

That was a ridiculous rant. I’ll end it with

10 06 2010
geof

BS, you nailed it. The individuality mantra is the lodestar of an un-named (i think?), but widely accepted moral system that threads itself through portions of American culture. This morality says Do it for yourself, by yourself, and you are good. Receive aid, or ask for help, and you are bad. I suspect this thread follows an even more interesting path across the political spectrum than I can guess at, certainly tracing contradictions in people’s beliefs along the way like corporate welfare vs. welfare, fear of “socialized” medicine but acceptance of Veteran’s Benefits and Medicare. And, to your point #1, the individual is profoundly influenced by and dependent upon environment, whether our society recognizes it or not. Actually, the emphasis on individuality reinforces the right of those at the top to be there, because they “earned it”. It’s just a reinterpretation of the divine right of kings.

10 06 2010
swirlz

take them for a final scoot, around back. And forced sterilization, along with the mom with 12 kids who complains that $3K/mo in government aid is not enough to feed her brood. I mean, seriously. They should be punched in the face when they sit in their scooters, next to their young ones on mini-scooters, happily grazing on fries.

This is a NATIONAL embarrassment, the likes of which we don’t see in most of the rest of the WORLD.

Screw the fat gene theory–we know or should know better (I’m willing to consider a broken thyroid exception; my dog reveals that one might have merit).

25 10 2012
Renee

You are a rotten individual, obese people need sympathy and support not cruelty. News flash, jerk-off, fat people are people too and you are no better or more worthy simply because you weigh or eat less.

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