The Wait of the Nation

24 May

So everyone has been talking about the childhood obesity epidemic, particularly since the four part HBO documentary series The Weight of the Nation aired.  Having recently completed my dissertation on the framing of the childhood obesity epidemic on television, I wanted to take a break but after watching Part Three, “Children in Crisis,” I feel the need to respond.  In many ways the one-hour program provide precisely the type of argument and evidence lacking in typical mainstream narratives.  Focusing attention on the difficulties parents have to contend with such as the barrage of food marketing on multiple media platforms and availability of a variety of food products developed specifically for youth consumers is good.  However, in each family segment there was an “obesity clinic” at the center of the solution narrative. 

I am not arguing that families may not need particular support regarding health and nutrition choices in their homes, but I do question the motives of the healthcare industry, the second largest industry in the nation, conflating weight/size with health consistently.  Can we have a much needed discussion about diabetes without making obesity the umbrella crisis?  Can we recognize that the BMI categories are flawed knowing they are consistently used out of the context of family medical and personal medical histories?  Can we also acknowledge that a diversity of body sizes and shapes is biologically normal and that there are significant numbers of healthy “obese” and “overweight” people as well as unhealthy “normal weight” people?  Can we address fatphobia, discrimination, and bullying as  contributors to poor emotional health?

I am “waiting” for the nation to have a frank discussion about food production, labor, leisure, and human rights, but somehow the narrative is fixated on shaming parents into taking their children to the doctor and/or weight-loss programs to “fix” their bodies.  I was waiting for at least one explanation for why Tea, the eight-year old black girl, was bigger than her classmates and seemed to be developing early.  I was waiting for a discussion about hormones in milk, eggs, and meat.  I was waiting for some acknowledgement of genetically modified foods (food science).  But no, the solutions were framed narrowly within single-issue policy-making for stronger regulations on marketing or food or for fitness programs.  In the meantime, the solution is to visit obesity clinics and research centers, and don’t forget your health insurance card or your credit card because unless you have cold hard cash these “card” industries stand to gain a lot in this weight crisis. 

Nevermind the fact that many youth regardless of their size are eating similar diets of high fructose corn syrup, yellow lake 5 or 6, red lake 40, and salt.  I for one am tired of doing workshops with kids where they cannot identify common fruits and vegetables, the components of a basic meal, or read the ingredients in the foods and beverages they eat daily.  But I am clear that this level of illiteracy does not happen on a national level by mistake.  The under-education and underdevelopment of this nation has been strategically deployed through marketing which functions as our primary public pedagogy.  We used to have cooks in school kitchens, now we have underpaid servers/contingent labor forces, typically women.  We had cooking classes in school and now we have extremely well paid advertising executives and recent college grad interns using all their creativity to market crap to my kid to pay their student loan debts. 

If I am going to be called to fight this battle, I want to be clear that I am fighting to win peace for the nation.   Peace means parenting that is not in competition with multinational unaccountable unregulated industries.  It means addressing widespread food and environmental illiteracy for people “at every size and every weight,” we have had enough food product (brand) literacy to last a millennium. 

Peace means affordable afterschool programming so that youth can be actively engaged in their communities with adult supervision at currently underutilized parks and recreation facilities.  Peace means job security for mothers (of color)/parents broadly and explicit recognition that leisure time (evenings, weekends, vacations) is a human right.  I’m still waiting for my nation to roll out the peace and corporate accountability strategy for improving my community’s health.  For me this is the “wait” this nation can no longer afford.

22 Responses to “The Wait of the Nation”

  1. jalylah May 24, 2012 at 1:20 PM #

    First, Congrats Doc! I look forward to when your dissertation is available in book form and thanks facilitating this very important conversation about diet, weight and wellness.

    I have a very different response to the doc as a 15+ vegetarian and health nut.

    I think the documentary series is self-consciously transparent about health care costs informing its project (that segment on the construction company in the gulf and their pilot project is the most obvious example). And BMI, you rightly note, has its flaws. Still, we are in bad shape, black people in particular, and it has been too easy to shirk our own responsibility to each other and ourselves by concerning too much of our attention to the real problems of metrics and fat shaming. We need to exercise, reduce our sugar and salt intake, decrease our processed food intake and increase our live food intake. Do we want to be well? Do we understand what wellness means? How can we develop strategies for attaining and maintaining wellness when our bodies are continually assailed?

    I know colored people are assaulted on all fronts and this feels like another one, and we medicate with too much and wholly bad food, and have developed food traditions as a product of the conditions of our sustained systemic oppression, but the reality when I walk my Harlem neighborhood and local grocery stories is that people are very, very sick. And we as a community, IMO, should focus the bulk of our attention on arming them with information and resources to eat better and exercise and to the extent that the film provides that, I was quite pleased. And many of your points are in line with the concerns of the series.

    I write this as a black girl raised by two black health conscious former athletes and outdoor enthusiasts who ate pretty much exclusively organic AND I still developed at an age that people might call early (I don’t subscribe to that language though. I developed when my body decided too and that ain’t early), but “early development” was not that lovely black girl’s problem. Her clearly loving family ate poorly and moved little and they owned up to their under-education about health. The societal reasons for that, you are correct, are not surfaced.

    My family is plagued by hypertension and diabetes like many black families and I love black people too much to tolerate this unwellness. I hate to see any life cut short by poor eating habits and I’m particularly distressed by our stubborn adherence to them whatever the source. With the time and energy that we have, how do we want to spend it? Getting well seems to me the best allocation of that energy.

  2. Eliza Jane Darling May 24, 2012 at 1:35 PM #

    Thanks for this post, sheridf. At first glance it seems a great inconvenience for capitalism that thin bodies are increasingly constructed as healthy and desirable at a time when calorie-rich commodities are ever more lucrative and wage labour ever more sedentary, but that contradiction opens up precisely the space you’re talking about: the profitable clinical “solution” to an engineered crisis.

    In some places the political economic structures are laid quite bare. A good example is Britain, where the Coalition government has recently enlisted the assistance of McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars, and Diageo to advise public health policy on die-related disease, and where we will in a few short months see the golden arches splashed all over the Olympics in East London.

    On a more hopeful note, I used to keep a sign on my office door with two sets of graphics — logos and leaves, the former labelled “Name these brands” and the latter labelled “Name these trees.” One day after teaching my last environmental anthropology class of the year I returned to find a sticky attached to it, with all the trees correctly labelled and an anonymous note saying “I’ve been wanting to do that all term.” Rather made my day.

  3. Sunny May 24, 2012 at 2:27 PM #

    Education is the key. It is needed so badly it cannot be quantified. This is all systemic. Conspiratorial if you like. Steep the people in ignorance – produce and sell “foOd” – kill the bodies and minds of people – sell them equipment and quick cures – steep the people in ignorance – produces and sell “healthy FoOd” that is still prepackaged and radiated – steep the people in ignorance – send the people to the doctor for chronic illnesses – sell the people drugs for chronic illnesses with side effects – steep the people in ignorance – sell the people drugs for the side effects of their drugs. The vitamin industry, the food industry, the weightloss industry (makers of equipment and gyms and gadgets), the healthcare industry, the pharmaceutical industry all profit from our chlldren’s (and our own) ignorance.

  4. Feminist Living May 24, 2012 at 2:34 PM #

    Obesity is unhealthy. While a person may not be suffering from high cholesterol or diabetes, obesity does lead to an increased risk of disease, including cancer. These diseases are biologically caused by factors that are both directly and indirectly related. But the truth has always been and will always be that the body requires balance. A disproportionate amount of fat cells increases the risk of cancerous tissue, difficulties while giving birth, and inflammation.

    Having been overweight and educated myself, I spent a lot of time analyzing my body image from a feminist perspective. When it was all said and done, loosing weight helped me feel physically better. If loosing weight naturally feels so beneficial, how can obesity be calibrated as normal? Desire is socially constructed, yes. But pairing of obesity with diabetes is not incorrect and it’s time people stopped making excuses for living an unhealthy lifestyle.

    I agree, the BMI is often used out of context. But math is math. As individuals, we have to be more educated about what these numbers mean and how we can change them if need be.

    The social construction around weight loss in children is parallel to the construction around public schools in high-need areas. We can blame the system, but for those few parents that decide to set standards inthe home regardless of hours worked, force us to evaluate our perspective.

    I have lived in a food desert (Washington Heights, NY) for a year now and yes, it’s hard to find and afford healthy food. Hormone-free food was virtually impossible. But I can not make excuses when hormones are nt the cause of my weight gain, overconsumption is.

    Yes, hormones have led to earlier child development, particularly in girls. But there are plenty of overweight organic food-eaters and in shape hormonal food eaters. What is consistent throughout is that overconsumption is the real culprit.

    Until we have hard evidence that modified foods are a bigger cause of disease that obesity, things won’t change. And even then, policy will take years before the public is even informed.

    Even high fructose corn syrup can be diluted to a more suitable consumption per bottle. My step mom dilutes my sister’s juice all of the time, both natural and chemically enhanced.

    We can’t take away personal and parental responsibility just because the market is flooded with garbage; so is the music industry, but many feminist women opt out successfully. Obesity clinics work for some. I’ve seen it.

    The healthcare industry is not be trusted, you’re right. But we have to ask ourselves if the intention of the healthcare system was ever to be trusted in the first place. I don’t recall there ever being a PSA on the dangers of exercise and making different choices when preparing your food. Leisure time does not predict how likely someone is to exercise, and we may in fact find the exact opposite surveying individuals with ample time versus none. Too many of my colleagues make nonexistent time to exercise and cook healthy meals. It’s about your values as an individual and your level of discipline to maintain them. Some people have this same rigor about church Sunday morning. I don’t.

    The conversation certainly needs to be more inclusive. But we can’t lie, obesity is often where unnecessary health problems begin.

    While we

    • damidwif May 24, 2012 at 3:37 PM #

      @feminist living. damn girl, that was great. im tired of the excuses.

    • crunktastic May 24, 2012 at 5:05 PM #

      But clearly, the national narrative is ALL about personal responsibility and never about structure. And that terribly whack article from Alice Randall that came out in the NYT about “Why Black Women Are Fat” further suggests that many, many sisters think about the situation in the way you do. In other words, Black women are some of the quickest folks to take individual responsibility for the predicaments in which we find ourselves.

      The structural analysis and critique is actually the new addition to the dialogue, and it rarely makes it into the national discussion. At the point that you acknowledge that Black women are not culturally prone to blaming power structures for our problem, which means that we DO take personal responsibility, and yet we see that there is still a problem, perhaps that is the moment where we need to begin to think seriously about how structures work against us.

      This is an old debate, but what bothers me is the notion that the scholars who rightly point to structures are somehow absolving or diminishing the importance of personal agency. I have a weight problem. And I read this piece, and then went for my regularly scheduled walk in the park with my homegirls. I can acknowledge the myriad truths of this piece, and still decide that I need to get up and move, and then make a healthy meal for myself. These are not either/or conversations, but both/and conversations. And the problem is that the broader national dialogue is heavily weighted towards the individual solutions you propose here. And the long term effect of that will be that individual analyses will help individuals but it won’t cure the larger social phenomenon of obesity, anymore than for instance, touting drug addiction programs cured the crack epidemic.

      • Eliza Jane Darling May 24, 2012 at 5:58 PM #

        I think these debates also take on a specific meaning when it comes to children and youth, who are still developing the critical faculties to figure out how the personal is shaped by the structural and vice versa. It was actually the second video that sheridf posted that blew my mind – especially the toddler who absolutely insisted that the Sponge Bob mac’n’cheese tasted better than any other kind, not because she’d ever tried it, but because it was *Sponge Bob* brand. She’s forming (at the ripe old age of 3) associations with food that have nothing to do with food at all: its taste or smell or texture, how it’s prepared and where it comes from, how you eat it or when or with whom, what you feel like once you’ve eaten it, how it’s different from other foods when you poop out the remnants. I’m all for parental (and general kinship) responsibility but it seems like parents are fighting a proprietary tug-of-war with corporations. As one children’s marketer said in the documentary: “Kids love advertising. It’s a gift; it’s something they want. There is something to be said, by the way, about being there first, about branding children and owning them in that way.” What an interesting choice of words. As any anthropod will attest, there’s no such thing as a free gift, and the price here seems to be ownership of the self.

        The saddest bit, though, was the part about play. With storytelling media (telly, film, even books) now being created as an appendage to the merchandise, children are being robbed of their ability to imagine anything for themselves; they’re just manipulators of pricey props. No necessity, no invention: even play is a spectator sport. Ironically, speaking of children’s film, it reminds me of “The Nothing” in The Neverending Story – fascism as humanity’s inability to dream.

    • Barbara Saunders May 24, 2012 at 8:29 PM #

      Hmmm…I’m with the author. I disagree that “obesity is often where unnecessary health problems begin.” I’m not defending obesity. But obesity is a RESULT of poor eating, poor exercise, lack of sleep and excessive stress. Stipulate to the fact that it becomes an independent contributor to disease, and you’re still left with the original health-harming behaviors each causing harm to the now overweight person.

      Practically, focusing on obesity per se lumps together the root causes of bad health results. It also creates the kind of construct Foucault warned about: “Eat these foods not these” is clear and actionable; get this kind an amount of activity is clear and actionable. “Lose weight” orders people to chase a RESULT rather than directing them to adopt specific behaviors.

    • Wench May 25, 2012 at 11:11 AM #

      “Obesity is unhealthy”. My question is, what about the studies that have found that obesity protects against certain chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes?

      Or studies that have found that people who are in the “overweight” and “obese” categories of the BMI are more likely to live longer than people in the other categories?

      Or the fact that the studies linking obesity to diabetes, heart disease, and other poor health outcomes are showing correlation, not causation?

      Or the fact that the BMI is a ratio of height to weight, designed as a population-level statistic not intended to describe individual health, and that I could get a similar statistic if I took the ratio of my car’s length to it’s weight? Sure, I’d get the ratio of weight to length, but it wouldn’t tell me a blessed thing about whether the car works or not, or how well it works! And how screwed up is it to use a statistic about health that doesn’t change if you’re dead?

      I agree, we’ve got a health problem in the United States. I agree, people need better lives, and to be able to get healthy, regular physical activity, and eat a diet that works for them (and let’s be real, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are actually detrimental to a non-zero portion of the population, like people with some forms of colitis). But there isn’t evidence that “eating too much” or “lack of discipline” causes obesity (on the contrary, there’s evidence that your weight is controlled much more by genetics than anything else). And there isn’t evidence that dieting or obesity clinics work – 95% or more of people engaging in these interventions gain their weight back within five years, if not more weight than they lost originally, and if not sooner.

      So even if obesity is the problem – and from the studies I’m reading, it’s not – what is the solution, since losing weight doesn’t actually work?

  5. soulfulindustry May 24, 2012 at 6:29 PM #

    Reblogged this on The Harmonious Foodie and commented:
    Food for thought..

  6. Megan Clement-Couzner May 25, 2012 at 12:05 AM #

    Well said. This is really articulate, maybe the best thing I’ve read in popular/ comment format on why the emphasis on parenting and medical responses to obesity are really fucked up. Thanks.

  7. counterftnoire May 25, 2012 at 8:23 AM #

    Reblogged this on Nerd Noire Undercover.

  8. silentlyheardonce May 25, 2012 at 8:26 AM #

    All issues are relevant to obesity in our children food being the main factor. Most working parents rely on fast food to feed their children trying to keep up with fast pace hectic lives. Add in that the food we buy and prepared is maybe 75% artificial, preservative and hormone injected. This is a guesstimate. So imagine what McDonald’s, Pizza Tut and Kentucky have in heir foods. Add that to TV, video games and lack of exercise and that’s the problem. Hormones aren’t only in food it’s in the deodorants, toothpaste and lotions we use. Some time ago I read about a boy about 12 was developing breast and it was discovered that it was the lotion he was using. So if it’s suggested we monitor our children’s diet, the I think the FDA should be held accountable too. But they won’t be cited because the world is over populated and hormones are needed to provide mass production. They at that pink filler to the meats for the same reason. Very rarely did we or rather I see grossly obese children when I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. We walked every where and we played outside until the street lights came on. It was a simpler time and more home cooked meals were made. Fast food was a treat once and a while. Where as today home cooked food is a treat. This was a very good article.

  9. MikeV May 25, 2012 at 9:58 PM #

    “We used to have cooks in school kitchens, now we have underpaid servers/contingent labor forces, typically women. We had cooking classes in school and now we have extremely well paid advertising executives and recent college grad interns using all their creativity to market crap to my kid to pay their student loan debts. ”

    Just so much this! That’s really all I wanted to say. I always get super excited when people tie up all this kyriarchal shit really concisely.

    I guess I’ll add that while I agree to an extent with FeministLiving, it is really hard (impossible) to tease out which health problems are due solely to personal behaviors and which are due to the radically altered composition of our food and its interactions with our body/genetic composition. While it may be the case that parents should try their best to give their kids a healthy diet, it seems to make the most sense to start from the bottom up: by making the readily available food healthy.

  10. Jondrea Smith May 26, 2012 at 1:24 PM #

    I know many people who have bought into the whole notion of size as a character flaw will see the article as making excuses, or exhibiting an unwillingness to face facts. However I think that without articles such as this one that that take a look at the whole picture rather than a particular detail, we don’t have all the facts. Yes obesity is the visible evidence of a tainted food supply and a bad attitude about food, but the reality remains that the obese are just the canaries in the mines. Our food supply has become increasingly tainted, increasingly unhealthy, and increasingly more about profit than about nutrition. The reality is that health and nutrition are declining in general in this country. We eat from an increasingly industrial food supply, with more preservatives and synthetics than the law should allow, but that’s apparently less important than growing waistlines. I’m not absolving large people of personal responsibility, but if we are subsidizing a food industry and government, then shouldn’t that food industry and government be accountable to the nutrition over profit? We shouldn’t have to go ‘off the grid’ just get food that contributes to rather than erodes our health.

  11. Patricia Thompson May 28, 2012 at 10:27 AM #

    So ‘busy’ parents get a pass for buying chips instead of a bag of apples?

  12. Rikki Karmacide June 8, 2012 at 3:37 PM #

    “Sponge Bob macaroni tastes best?” I think I will make up fake brands when I have kids.
    STEP 1: Little Chioma grabs box of “Adventure Time Puffmeal.”
    STEP 2: Take photo of box art. Quietly put filthy box back on the shelf.
    STEP 3: Call artist friend or use GIMP/Photoshop to make your own box art.
    STEP 4: Chioma receives premiere shipment of “Super Secret Adventure Time Oatspeed!”

    The problems arise when Chioma goes to her friend’s house and decides SSAT Oatgasm just isn’t HFCSweet enough. Or vice-versa when her friend comes over: “Y’all don’t have good food. Y’all have boring videogames with no guns. I hate drinking water.” And then word gets out…

    Of course, if the whole neighborhood was in on the scam, it just might work. Then General Mills tries to sue ya. *sigh*


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