Friday, October 09, 2009

Obesity and the Rest of Us and a New Jersey Race for Governor

I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday about an attack ad (are there any other types ?) in the New Jersey Gubernatorial race. Find it here: Corzine Points a Spotlight at His Rival’s Waistline

BTW- why is an election for Governor (or Governour) referred to as a gubernatorial race ? Are the people running goobers ? Goober is a pretty derogatory term...

Where was I ?

In any event, a number of political analysts were weighing in on whether the advertisement is an example of fat bias that is over the line or whether it's a simple attack ad.

The question is perhaps more highly charged because Corzine and Christie are opposites- Corzine is a man who regularly shows up at 5K and 10K while Mr. Christie is, well, not.

Of course, obesity as oblique or direct criticism is as old as politics as we know it. Prior to the ready availability of cheap food, obesity was seen as a privilege of the rich, which is not to say that this was accurate, only that it was prevalent. The term 'fat cat' which actually applied to donors, not the politicians themselves, dates back to the 1920s. Fat Cats and equally fat pols have been paraded and trucked through endless series of political cartoons in the US and UK over the years. Even the memory of Churchill isn't enough to stop UK cartoonists from drawing on the image.

I'm not going to lend my weight to an analysis of whether the Corzine campaign is playing the heavy a bit too much with their advertisement. I don't live in New Jersey, and I'm not going to be pounded with the ad to the point where I'll feel as if I've taken a few stones to the skull.

But reading the article (which has actually been edited since I read it) and comments about it, reminded me once again about how divisive an issue obesity has become in a country that is unquestionably tilted towards it.

I saw the word 'freak' applied to Corzine and his level of fitness at in one point in the version of the article I read. I'll get back to that towards the end of this post.

Depeche Mode sings 'there's a fragile tension' and that's a great descriptive of how our society regards the issue of weight. Clearly, treating someone different because of their weight is not defensible.

If it's bias, that is. Rejecting a job applicant because of their waistline is certainly not appropriate. Consider air travel, however. Is asking a person who is too large for one seat, what Southwest Airlines calls a passenger of 'considerable size', bias against a person who is obese, or an attempt to not place other passengers in a situation where they have inadequate room to sit in the seat they have paid for.

Of course these are extreme ends of the issue.

As the girth of our society expands, the issue of weight has become much more sensitive and complex. The medical community is alarmed with our levels of obesity, and this seems perfectly rational given our spiraling health care costs, increased rates of Type 2 diabetes and an array of other health issues driven or exacerbated by the condition. And yet, as if the health effects of obesity are a political issue, there is a growing movement of people who claim that a cluster of obesity myths are part of an alarmist conspiracy, if you will, by doctors looking to cash in on a lucrative market, nutritional 'zealots' and fitness 'freaks.'

There has been a similar aesthetic backlash, with a growing, and pardon my use of the term, 'fat is beautiful' movement. I have trouble with this concept, given that many of the people in that movement are asking society to expand their definition of beautiful while simultaneously railing against 'thin is beautiful.' Personally, I find beauty to be a relatively narrow concept that most people don't fall inside- certainly including myself. I don't see beauty as a right people have, and I don't think there's anything wrong with not being beautiful. While I appreciate the nuances of self-esteem that are involved in perceiving oneself or being perceived as attractive, I think as a society we are better served by trying to simply determine how one generates sustainable self-worth.

For me, the whole issue is very hard to grapple with. I live a certain lifestyle that makes it easy for me to not have my weight be a major issue. I worry about putting on weight in the winter like a lot of people, but at my heaviest I'm not looking at a weight issue, except how five extra pounds affects my racing. I have friends that have medical conditions that make it difficult or impossible for them to manage their weight with the same ease (or at all).

Clearing judging someone as less mentally agile, less moral fit, or less capable of leadership because of their weight is wrong.

That's bias.

But ignoring obesity ? Pretending it's not an issue, viewing obesity as a 'lifestyle choice' doesn't service our society either. And so does allowing your voice to be discounted because you yourself do not have a weight issue, which is another tactic that's being employed these days. The 'obesity as a lifestyle choice' crowd is using the same tactics we see form people who reject global warming- that we as a society need to accept the way things are, that people who are trying to bring change are zealots, etc.

Somewhere between allowing a person's weight to affect our value judgements and pretending obesity isn't a medical issue that our society needs to address, somewhere between the business of obesity treatment on one end and the incredible economic pull of 'big food', there has to be a willingness to treat obesity not as a political issue where everyone heads for the extremes and makes dialogue impossible, but as a work in progress, important work.

I'll admit that when I hear people talk about 'weight bias' as the last acceptable prejudice, I just roll my eyes. I'm sure the GLBT community would like to dispute that. Weight bias certainly exists and definitely is wrong, but there's more to the discussion of weight and obesity in our society than bias. What drove it home to me was when one response to the article stated that weight bias wasn't the last socially acceptable prejudice because cigarette smokers are similarly discriminated against...

Wow ! I mean, wow !

So here's my take- the Corzine team can hide behind the fact that Christie is obese and throw their hands up and say 'Well, he's fat, and looks fat in the commercial- what's the big deal ?'

Cowardly. Low-minded. Indefensible.

In other words, a typical attack ad.

And treating unhealthy lifestyle choices as lifestyle choices and not working aggressively to combat them because we have been cowed and bullied as a society in becoming so paralyzed by our concern for people's feelings that we let them die rather than try to help them move in a healthier direction ?

That's indefensible as well.

It's not prejudice to suggest healthier eating and more exercise would benefit large segments of our society. It's not prejudice to suggest that obesity causes illness. It's not prejudice to suggest that people should eat less fast food, less sugar, or smaller portions.

And anything that people can voluntarily do to help reduce health care costs ?


Let's separate how we treat people who are overweight from how we view- and attempt to address- obesity. And along the way let's not allow ourselves to be cowed into thinking that reducing treatable obesity is somehow a prejudice.

In other words- value everyone. And try to help them live longer while we're at it.

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