April 13, 2010

The Un-supersizing of a Political Journalist

burgerSome fries with that? Once you've been super-sized, it's hard to go backPolitical reporter Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic has a new must-read piece on the obesity epidemic. Ambinder comes at the issue from the perspective of a former obese person, though he himself notes that his "cure" of bariatic surgery is risky, expensive, and one that can't be considered a blanket solution for the general population.

He also raises the chilling but very real possibility that the current generation of the medically obese (i.e. those with a body-mass index reading of over 30) may never succeed in returning to a more normal weight. Scientists have learned how tenaciously the body guards its resources, even when body weight far exceeds what's needed for survival.

But Ambinder is not without hope. In fact, he also wrote an accompanying blog post summarizing his priority list for tackling the problem. And two of his elements refreshingly face the often overlooked issues of class and stigma head on:

  • Recognize that what separates skinny people from fat people is luck, and not willpower. Either your genes or your unchosen social environment, will provide a shield against the pressures of the default obesogenic environment. If you're part of a chronically stressed population, have little or no access to quality public infrastructure, find yourself growing up in a dysfunctional family, and have limited social mobility, the chances that you'll be able to summon some magical reserve of willpower is slim to none. If you're white, upper middle class, tend to be hopeful about improving your lot in life, and have the time and resources to diet and exercise, you might be able to find a weight loss regimen that works for you. Either way, don't give yourself credit, and don't blame other people who aren't as lucky.
  • Deal with stigma on its own terms: so long as there are fat people, there will be fat stigma. Fat stigma is a dangerous health problem in an of itself. Since we collectively perpetuate it, we ought to collectively be more aware of how harmful it is, and channel that energy into stigmatizing those specific institutions and entities that actually make us fat and profit from doing so.

This issue of luck is crucial. The food industry and others who hate regulation want the debate to revolve around personal responsibility. But if just doing the "right thing" isn't enough, i.e. if obesity could happen to anyone, then it’s harder to argue against universal policies to address it.


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