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Monday, May 14, 2012

Weight of the Nation Serves Up More Fat-Shaming

Posted By on Mon, May 14, 2012 at 1:00 PM

  • photo by Mark Richards
  • Marilyn Wann

Today our nation relapses into what might be our worst case of fat fearmongering yet. The current source of our infection with pseudoscientific sensationalism is something called Weight of the Nation, a highly contagious conference/book/series/website onslaught backed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and delivered tonight and Tuesday (May 14-15) via ocular injection on HBO.

I attended the first, government-sponsored Weight of the Nation conference in 2009. I didn't pay or anything self-defeating like that. I just walked in (with a brave friend or two) and delivered plastic-wrapped fortune cookies to the fancy luncheon tables where major stakeholders were about to chew on the alleged "obesity" problem. If the professional food scolds took a cookie, they got messages like these:

  • The war on "obesity" is a war on PEOPLE!

  • The No. 1 threat to fat people? Your unexamined prejudice.
  • What's the word for science that serves bigotry? Hint: It starts with "you."
  • If you can't imagine fat people being healthy...that's YOUR pathology!
  • Tell people to lose weight if you want to endanger public health AND civil rights!
  • How many fat people must you starve, poison, slice up? Celebrate weight diversity now!

And the Orwellian:

  • Weight ≠ Health. Diversity ≠ Disease. Hate ≠ Help.

The wisdom of the fortune cookie didn't deter them from three more years of scheming, so now we've got, Weight of the Nation.

On the Weight of the Nation website, the CDC calls its new hatefest "an unprecedented public health campaign." Really? Let me list on my pudgy fingers a few of the more obvious public health campaigns attempting to herd us around this same mulberry bush:


• 1956: President Eisenhower establishes the President's Council on Youth Fitness in response to fears that Americans are getting "soft." The program celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2006, when people were still "soft."

• 1994: The National Institutes of Health establishes WIN, the Weight-control Information Network. Because being fat is caused by lack of information.

• 1994: U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop launches "Shape Up America!" Eighteen years later, his campaign's budget is in great shape.

• 2003: The CDC launches a $125 million anti-"obesity" ad campaign called "Verb, it's what you do." Because fat children, who are too stupid to understand nutrition labels, must surely obey the rules of grammar.

click to enlarge cdc_verb_poster.jpg

• 2010: Michelle Obama says, "Let's Move!" That's code for "solving the problem of obesity within a generation." Creepy! Also, given the track record of previous campaigns, she's smart to set a deadline long after anyone will hold her accountable.

This list doesn't include the plentiful state and local efforts to eradicate fat people. Clearly, for at least the past 60 years, fat people have not been welcome in America. Officially. The weight blame goes either to fat people personally, to the environment, or both. Either way, two-thirds of us (and at least a fifth of our children) aren't welcome here. Though unwelcome, we're sure useful as easy targets.

When the initial frenzy of Weight of the Nation has calmed down -- after everyone has enjoyed this round of hating fat people and there's been a healthy boost to budgets, profits, viewership, and ad revenue -- I predict we'll hit the same wall that every dieter encounters: the return to reality.

I suggest that reality is not so bad. To keep a grip, ask yourself:

  1. Would you question the motives behind any other national PR campaign designed "for your own good" by major media, corporations, and the government?
  2. If it were any topic other than weight (where you might feel vulnerable), would you be so quick to believe the numbers they cite to justify a "War on [Whatever]"? (Most egregious exaggerations: "Fat people cost 'us' billions!" "Everyone's going to be really fat!" "Our children won't live as long!")
  3. Would you rather trust your own judgment about what's good for you or get swept along by the latest fruitless panic?
  4. Do you want to connect with other people who are saying, "WTF" about Weight of the Nation?

Here are some:

Debate the Weight is a suite of data-supported arguments from the Association for Size Diversity and Health that controvert what they call "one of the most misleading and misguided public health campaigns -- ever."

Here's a video from that group that's way more fun than anything HBO will show. In it, one person confesses, "Health At Every Size liberates us from so much bullshit. It's the big secret that I feel very smug to know and I want to spread it all around and not have it be a secret at all, ever again."

Health At Every Size pioneer Deb Burgard offers a brilliant viewer's guide on how to take care of yourself during the current hate campaign. She writes, "Blaming fatness keeps us from addressing the root causes of our problems and is clearly unfair to fat people. Many powerful people understand this but find it expedient to frame a problem in terms of fat in order to bring attention to it. They don't think people will just attend to the real issue unless they whip up the fat panic. ... I say, have the courage to make your argument about the real issues and stop doing it on the backs of fat people."

Fall Ferguson lists the top 10 reasons to be concerned about the Weight of the Nation documentary on the Health at Every Size blog. Among other things, Ferguson writes, "Few things are as destructive to health and well-being as fear. I also question whether health professionals who use fear to influence people are behaving ethically."

Nutrition professor Linda Bacon compares Weight of the Nation to bear-baiting in ancient Rome's coliseum in today's HuffPo. She writes, "Proponents may think they mean well by deploring the size of roughly half our nation, but it's easier to rail about fat than examine the commercial and class motives that create the real health and wellness divides we live (and die) with."

Dr. Deah's Tasty Morsels blog critiques the media barrage. She writes, "If your position about obesity is based on concern for our health or presumed financial burden on society, I just ask you to read more than the one side of the story that you are being told over and over and over. Then, just as you would for an election, make your decision based on being informed."

Jezebel editor Lindy West says "being mean to fat people is pointless." And elaborates: "The assumption that you have a right to legislate another person's body 'for their own good,' or 'for the children,' or even 'because they're gross,' is its own kind of crazy -- but to inflate that assumption to apocalyptic proportions, railing against the nation-obliterating medical bills of nebulous future straw-fatties, is fucking bonkers."

Michele Simon, public health lawyer, gives great reasons why she is not attending or watching Weight of the Nation Including this one: "Scientific evidence shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, etc., and the last thing they need is more fearmongering brought to you by the federal government and cable television."

Slink magazine calls out weight-shaming as wholly unhelpful to health. Its rallying cry: "Because obesity, BMI, and all the other fad words you throw at plus-size women don't stick or mean anything, and the moment we manage to hold off ridiculing women and our bodies long enough and alter the way we talk about plus size, fat, and our bodies to talking about healthy diet and exercise, the better off we will be."

And isn't that supposed to be the point? Y'know ... wellbeing (and maybe even a bit of welcome) for all of us.

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Marilyn Wann


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