The national hysteria over obesity has reached a crescendo this week, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts the conference, "Weight of the Nation" in Washington, DC. If you couldn’t make it, no worries, more fear-mongering is on the way in a four-part mini-series on HBO to air next week. The show of the same name is produced in coordination with several federal government agencies. The trailer alone almost brought me to tears, seeing all the awful stereotypes of fat people.
As I wrote in my book, focusing on obesity is problematic for many reasons. One, it ensures the focus stays on the individual, instead of the food industry. What do you think when you see a fat person? That it’s their fault, they just need to eat better and exercise more. Granted, my public health colleagues are trying to change this conversation to one of the “environment” (far too apolitical a word) but as long as we keep talking about obesity, the framing is all about individual behavior change.
Next, scientific evidence shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, etc, and the last thing they need is more hate brought to you by the federal government and cable television. All the images I have seen coming from news accounts of the conference are negative. Even while the headlines may attempt to reframe from blame and shame, the images do not. For example, this Reuters story headline reads “Obesity fight must shift from personal blame-U.S. panel” but the image is of a fat person. Journalists take note: you are adding to the problem of bias and shame by using these images. (Recently, I wrote an article for the UK Guardian about PepsiCo and they wanted to run it with an image of a fat person. I insisted they change it and thankfully they did.)
Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs! Indeed, the big announcement coming out of the CDC event yesterday was how the first lady’s Let’s Move program has its newest corporate partner in the frozen vegetable company, Birds Eye, which is launching a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat their veggies. Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye. Never mind all that junk food marketing to kids, which Let’s Move ignores. (If you missed it, this recent excellent Reuters investigation explains the food industry politics at play.)
The only thing bringing me any sanity this week is reading Julie Guthman’s excellent critique of the obesity wars, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. While Guthman’s style is too academic, she does a good job explaining why obesity is over-hyped and offers some interesting alternative theories to the tired calories in, calories out model. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that offers new and challenging insights on this issue. Additional resources I can recommend include: