15 May 2010

Michelle Obama, Fat People, Heath Policy, and Me

I am not a big reader of our campus newspaper, but one day last February, a copy was hanging around or lunch room on campus and I read while I ate. I found this article. Overweight woman equates obesity to genetically determined eye color, or attached earlobes. It pissed me off. I remember being incensed. I thought that I should write a rebuttal. But then I thought to myself, "do I really need to attack a woman who is obviously struggling with issues of self-acceptance and self-esteem?" The answer was no. But I haven't forgotten this editorial and I haven't forgotten those things that bothered me about her article.

She argues that her size is a genetically determined given. She is angry that our society doesn't accept her genetically determined size. And to a certain extent her metabolism may be genetically determined, but at less than 5' and more than 200 lbs., this lady's weight problem is beyond the realm of something that could be blamed on a sluggish thyroid gland or a metabolism "resistant" to give up stored calories and fat. Despite her persistent claims that she is "healthy", that she doesn't eat more than the average person, that she exercises, that she is the victim of an unfair, unjust and discriminating society, that weight-loss programs don't work (and in fact are bad for you), and that fat people are actually protected from some health problems, this is about something else. This article IS about a failure to accept personal responsibility for lifestyle choices.

The crux of her complaint is that "fat" is the new racism. The panty-twist-inducing thing about her editorial was not her accurate description of the discrimination felt by large people, which I think is real. My complaint is that she attempts to derail legitimate, powerful efforts to address a growing health issue in this country. This author vilifies the First Lady personally for her much needed campaign against childhood obesity. She strikes out at a university program designed to help college students learn how to eat healthy and integrate exercise into their lifestyles. This article is about deflection. Denial. Anger. Unhappiness. This article is about a woman angry about a culture that doesn't celebrate her body shape. This is about the unfairness, and possibly even the cruelty of not fitting in.

And where do I get off making grand pronouncements about a woman I dont' know? A woman whose health history is a complete mystery to me? A woman whose life experiences I can't possibly understand? I make these statements because I'm standing in the sinking ship with her.

I am fat. Pleasingly plump. Rotund. Harboring a baroque physique. I have gained and lost significant amounts of weight at various times in my life. I can tell you with complete honesty that I ate my way into bigger sizes, exercised my way into smaller sizes, failed to change my lifestyle long-term. Lather, rinse, repeat every 5-8 years or so.

And what have I learned from this? I have learned that the human body is a remarkably efficient machine. It adapts nearly instantly to whatever demands we place on it. It will adapt muscles and tissues and metabolism to accommodate an extra 60 pounds, but should I decide to start exercising, my body also responds nearly instantaneously to build new muscle and lung capacity. My body is not my enemy. My body is a my best ammunition for a healthy lifestyle. It thrives on good care. It squeaks by when I abuse it. But in the end, I am responsible for my size and no one else. Is my body significantly different than the author of this article? Possibly, but I doubt it. Unless she is under a doctor's care for some specific disease of which obesity is a symptom, I maintain that she is fat (like me) because she made lifestyle choices that keep her that way.

I love food. I love rich foods that aren't good for me. I love large portion sizes. I love seconds, thirds, and leftovers. Sure, I know how to eat better. Sure, I realize that it can't be healthy to eat everyday like it's Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas all wrapped up in one. I know that I should incorporate regular exercise into my lifestyle. I wouldn't go without food, so why do I choose to go without exercise? College in general and graduate school in particular are anathema to a healthy lifestyle. I am poor. I am time constrained. I am under stress. I have limited free time and instead of choosing to work out, I generally choose to relax, hang out, eat sugary foods, sleep, or any number of other activities that fail to burn calories.

I am big. Maybe I'm not big enough to have people look at me funny when I order dessert. Or maybe I just don't order dessert enough. Or maybe I don't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks of my menu selections. Or maybe I'm unobservant. Or maybe I don't let those people govern the way I live my life. If someone disapproves of my fashion sense, menu selections, drinking habits, carbon footprint, politics, or stance on the war in Afghanistan, I don't let it ruin my day. If some guy isn't interested in me because I'm a bit plump, I don't consider it a personal failure on my part. I don't call him a size-ist pig. I think that my looks or my personality just don't make his nether regions tingle. I'm not his cup of tea. No biggie. He might not have liked me if I looked like Christie Brinkley. And I most certainly don't take it personally when the First Lady of the United States calls the childhood obesity problem in our country the health care crisis it is and devotes her time to trying to do something about it.

I am currently trying to shed some pounds. I'd lost 22 lbs when I learned I had a cracked tibia and was put on exercise restriction for a month while it healed. I got a dog (because nothing will keep you more active than a dog under 2 full of puppy energy). I was still able to walk and we were taking daily 3-mile walks before he became very ill and we had to give up the walks as he recovers. I let my eating habits slide a bit and have struggled to keep them on track as the semester ended and I had a lot of last-minute assignments and responsibilities. Thankfully, I haven't regained any weight, but I certainly haven't lost any more. The dog is getting better, and I am nearing the end of my exercise restriction period. I am still motivated to lose weight. I guess the point here is that I don't think Michelle Obama is out to shame me. I don't think the First Lady thinks that people who look like me should be "eradicated". I don't think our society should accept that an entire generation of fat children is our destiny.

Other diseases don't get off scott free, despite this author's assertion. Case in point: lung cancer and emphysema. You smoke, you get cancer, you get a healthy dose of finger wagging. Heart disease. You eat fried eggs and bacon for breakfast everyday for decades, you have a heart attack, you get a wake-up call from the folks at Bally's Fitness. Doesn't matter if you are fat or thin. Lifestyle choices that tax our health care system deserve to be highlighted and discouraged. I smoked for 17 years. I never once felt that people who asked me not to smoke around them were assholes. I think they were expressing a legitimate desire to remain smoke free. I never asked the world to accommodate my decreased lung capacity by building elevators into three story buildings. I think that elevators should be reserved for the disabled. If you feel shame as a result of your lifestyle choices, don't ask the rest of the world to feel personal responsibility for that.

I think we have a responsibility to understand why this change in childhood obesity happened in less than a generation. I think we have a responsibility to fight back. I think we have a responsibility to move our cultural ideas about food to be more in line with our biological needs. I think we have a responsibility to fight back against things like carcinogens in our foods, hidden calories, and irresponsible advertising to children. If high fructose corn sugar (which I firmly believe is a government-produced problem by way of subsidies for Big Ag) is causing childhood obesity or adult-onset diabetes, I think we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, re-think our assumptions, and change our lifestyles, demand answers, fight back and demand more of our government. But more than anything else, we have a responsibility to STOP BUYING THE PRODUCTS CAUSING THE PROBLEM. I think Jamie Oliver is spot on. We start in the schools. We start with kids. We start and we move our culture where we want it to go. Smokers no longer have the right to subject the rest of us to their bad habits. Nor should schools be loading children up with fried chicken nuggets, sweet breads, and sugar-laden milk.

I disagree with a lot of people on a lot of things. But when someone says I have to accept a nation of fat asses because doing anything less makes me a discriminatory asshole, I cry foul. If someone attempts to wrap themselves in a shroud of victimhood for bad choices they are making and to point the finger at me instead of themselves, I do not accept that. I think that more than a diet, this author needs a good therapist. I don't think we should mock anyone for anything. Unless of course you are a hard-core Republican and then I think you should be mocked at every turn.

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