Obesity Epidemic


As I have mentioned before, I am on the FlyLady email list and generally either enjoy the messages or at least find them inoffensive. But FlyLady’s “meal guru” Leanne Ely is getting more and more hateful lately. Here’s a “Food for Thought” message she sent earlier this month.

Buddy Hackett once said, ‘My mother’s menu consisted of two choices. Take it or leave it.’

That’s what my mother’s menu consisted of, too. We had the choice of eating the dinner she prepared or leaving the table hungry. If we didn’t like what she prepared, we weren’t allowed to make ourselves a PB & J. If we snuck a banana or anything else for that matter, we were in big trouble. Why? Was my mother abusive and mean? Was my family dysfunctional because the children weren’t allowed to call the shots on what was for dinner? Am I in therapy now because I was made to eat my vegetables?

Nope. My family had issues like any other family, but it was pretty ‘normal’. I’ve noticed however, that what was fashionable in the childrearing of yesterday is now considered barbaric and obsolete. Today, we are told, that if we ‘make’ our children eat what’s in front of them will develop eating disorders. Not giving children ‘choices’ will harm their self esteem, so say the ‘professionals’.

The very words ‘eating disorder’ sends us into a tailspin. Consequently, after years of permissive parenting at the dinner table, we suddenly realize our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives. In our perfectionism (and boy, parenting is the place where we wear our maternal stripes with pride!) we have been more concerned about our children’s psyches than teaching them an important life skill–eating nutritiously. Because we want to be better parents than our own parents, we want our children to have ‘perfect’ childhoods with no conflict whatsoever. We buy all of that, don’t we? And, to use a food analogy, the proof is the pudding–just take a look at the kids.

Childhood obesity is at epidemic proportions. According to the International Obesity Task Force, there are about 22 million children in the world, UNDER 5 that are overweight or obese! In another study, the Canadian Medical Association reported that obesity among young boys ages 7 to 13 years old, TRIPLED between 1981 and 1996 […]

Blah blah blah, so on and so forth. First of all, I really don’t appreciate the scare quotes around a large percentage of the words in this essay. Any person who would so blithely trivialize eating disorders (which, let’s remember, actually kill people, unlike obesity in and of itself)  is not someone I really care to know.

Second of all, I have an eating disorder (yikes, typing that out is scarier than I thought it would be, though I’ve said it before). And I am obese. I am not going to “blame” my parents for this, because I think it’s way more complicated than that, but let’s just say my mom followed every shred of conventional wisdom regarding how to raise kids not to be fat. We were served healthy meals with fruits and vegetables, pop as only an occasional special treat, and no junk food in the house. Surprise, I am fat anyway and have been fat ever since I was old enough to be cognizant of that fact.

Certainly, on the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with my parents’ philosophy. I’m all for vegetables and limiting pop. But I think the fact that I knew all along that it was a paralyzing fear of me getting fat (and NOT just for “health”–see, I can do scare quotes too–reasons… my mom was the fat kid in school, and seemed to consider it a fate worse than death in many ways) that was driving these choices certainly contributed to some of my current fucked-up relationship with food.

Let’s not even get into how “giving kids choices” equates to “suddenly [realizing] our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives.” Can you tell me what, exactly, is wrong with that purloined banana? Or even a PB&J (since I’m assuming Ely’s home is stocked with 100% whole-grain bread, natural peanut butter, and local home-canned low-sugar jam)? I’d say this is all about control, and the assumption that if we “let ourselves go,” we will all weigh 400 pounds. Who’s to say your child won’t (like many of us) actually LIKE some or many vegetables? Certainly some kids will remain immune to the obesity panic that infuses this approach, and certainly some parents will be able to hide it well enough that the kids aren’t affected. I commend those parents as I do any parent who puts aside his or her own issues in the service of raising mentally and physically healthy kids. But if your actual practice of feeding your kids is anything like the snotty tone of this piece, I don’t think you are doing them as much of a favor as you think.

I don’t have kids, so I know my opinion is worth basically the paper it’s printed on. But I know from listening to my friends who are parents that helping kids eat is a situation that it is impossible to be 100% prescriptive about. Some kids eat only meat and cheese, others almost nothing at all, some are junk food fiends, and some will cheerfully eat whatever you put in front of them. These interactions can be really stressful for parents–my sister-in-law describes how traumatic it was for both her and her young son when she would finally have to force him to eat after days of refusing to consume anything, and you can still see him get anxious and push his plate away without eating a bite when he is in an unfamiliar situation or stressed out, so this was clearly not a fleeting or trivial aversion. Suffice it to say, I certainly think it is safe to say that kids’ eating issues (and the “childhood obesity epidemic”) cannot be solved with a glib blanket recommendation to force your children to choke down whatever you put on their plates, under threat of punishment.

Shame on Leanne Ely, both for being smug and comfortable enough to assume that she has all the answers for those stupid parents of fat kids, and for trivializing diseases that tear families apart, ruin lives, and even kill.

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One of my Facebook friends posted this article containing “19 New Reasons to Keep Fat Off.” I swear it is like an FA manifesto. 90% of these “new” reasons (not so new to those of us who are fat and deal with this crap on a regular basis) are about how fat people get inadequate medical care due to ignorance or bias on the part of physicians, or how assholes in society treat fat people badly in general. It seems to me like any logical person would see this list as a wake-up call to start examining some of our more poisonous and destructive attitudes toward fat people. Also, if I had done some of the studies they cite that look into these biases and negligence, I would not be well pleased that they were included in a pro-weight-loss article. Miss the point much?

Also, do you love as much as I do the total scientific and statistical FAIL in the #1 reason on the list, which refers to a published study to support its claim that EVERY SINGLE ADULT in the U.S. will be overweight or obese in 40 years? There will be NOT ONE exception. LOL.

“Enjoy.”

I heard a report on NPR this morning, about a University of Buffalo study on consumer buying habits when food prices are manipulated to make “healthy food” (i.e. fruits and vegetables) more affordable. I have several comments. Don’t even get me started on how the report (it is kind of a mish-mash) starts with an example of how “In a London-based study, dieters got paid when they dropped pounds.” ‘Cause everybody needs to “drop pounds,” and everybody can do it without adopting unhealthy crash-dieting tactics, right? Anyway.

Now researchers are interested in understanding how food price manipulations may influence what ends up in mothers’ grocery carts.

Interesting. Are mothers the only people who buy food? I mean, naturally they are the ones to blame for killing their families with “junk food.” Everyone knows that.

‘Then we looked at the purchasing patterns of these mothers,’ explains Len Epstein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Buffalo who was involved in the study. He says the mothers’ choices were somewhat predictable. When the costs went down, ‘they did buy more of the healthy foods.’

But since the healthful items now cost a lot less, the moms had money leftover. Esptein says they used it to buy more junk food.

‘When you put it all together, their shopping baskets didn’t have improved nutrition,’ says Epstein — they had the same amounts of fats and carbohydrates.

“Didn’t have improved nutrition”? Fat and carbohydrates ARE NUTRIENTS. As Kate pointed out long ago (but most people have yet to get the memo): adding cheese sauce to your broccoli does not negate the nutritional value of the broccoli. In fact–although this is beside the point that in my opinion grownups should be allowed to make their own food choices–some nutrients are fat-soluble, and limiting fat does not seem to be a priori a good thing. I thought we were all on board with that these days?

I get that in this case they are talking about people buying processed snacks, but simply totting up the macronutrients in the cart and concluding that a cart containing a variety of whole foods and some processed, fatty and/or sugary foods is just as “bad” as a cart containing all processed foods (or, to put it another way, that limiting carbohydrates and fat as much as possible is something to strive for) seems ridiculous to me. (Leaving aside that my shopping cart might contain all produce one day and all, I don’t know, baking ingredients, light bulbs, and cleaning products another.) Also, I can’t find the study, but I would be really interested in knowing exactly what the composition of those shopping carts was. Were they really outside the bounds of a reasonable carbohydrate/protein/fat ratio?

The researchers, in any case, conclude that a “sin tax” is therefore the way to go. Great. That should really help poor people get the calories they need to function and survive. WHY do these people always assume that the ideal that we should all be striving for is to live on, like, vegetables and air?

The report then jumps for some reason (under the heading “Effecting Change in the Real World”–and I’m not suggesting people stop trying to find creative ways to give kids access to healthy food, but let’s recall that we learned in Rethinking Thin that even the largest, most comprehensive school nutrition intervention programs aimed at reducing obesity, which is likely the subtext of all this since again, fruits and vegetables are emphasized whereas higher-calorie whole foods are not) to an anecdote about a school which bars any snacks other than fruit during the school day. I have no problem with fruit, obviously, but I think the more telling part of this is a statement by the teacher interviewed for the report that “Once they get it every day, they’ll eat like three bananas.” Maybe these growing kids are just hungry and fruit doesn’t always cut it? How about some dried fruit, nuts, cheese, yogurt, trail mix, or something?

It also doesn’t help that every time I see a program like this gleefully enforced by an adult (as it is by this teacher, who brags that she “has tried for years to enforce a healthful snack rule in her classroom”–yeah, let’s try to control how families spend their own food budget without offering assistance), I can’t help but think that he or she has probably been dieting his/her whole life, like most people who live in modern society, and is likely projecting those mores onto kids. Making fruit available: good. Making a moral issue out of it: bad. Assuming “more vegetables and less of everything else is always better” or “fewer calories is always better”: also bad.

Robin Givhan, in an NPR interview this morning about the ongoing controversy over very thin models and the rise (such as it is) of plus-size models, basically said that the fashion industry needs to strike a balance between very thin models and the promotion of obesity. Um, I don’t really think we’re there yet considering plus-size models are still a rare novelty, and are almost all normal-weight by BMI anyway. She helped us feel the pain of magazine editors who have to use teeny models in order to fit the sample sizes but would TOTALLY be using more average models if they could! 😛 I know I definitely weep for these noble but downtrodden editors. As you can imagine, I was feeling just great and completely calm by the end of this segment. I especially love the part where she comments:

On the other hand, there’s the unhealthy nature of obesity and the politically correct aspect of saying, ‘You should be happy with who you are,’ she said.

Note that on the air, she said all of these words, not just the ones in quotes. I love when people invoke political correctness. And since when is it “politically correct” to let obese people (who, and I feel like I will probably repeat this about 80 more times in this post, are NOT ACTUALLY REPRESENTED in mainstream high fashion anyway) off the hook for being themselves anyway?

She was being interviewed because she wrote a fairly condescending article on this subject. Here are some of my thoughts.

1) In my opinion, the article is kind of badly written. No point that is made seems to follow logically from the previous point.

2)

It would be a welcome relief if the majority of those designers who put their wares on the runway in the coming months took a stand and refused to use models whose ribs are plainly visible and whose countenance cries ‘ill-health.’ What is the point of creeping out consumers, after all?

Screw you, lady, you have no idea if those models are healthy, nor is it any of your business, and how exactly does ridiculing any group of women for their bodies help? Or, since I’m a paranoid type, are you just trying to dishonestly present what you think might be the ungracious viewpoint of jealous fatties?

3)

How big is big enough? And when does plus size, in a profoundly overweight population, become just as distressingly unhealthy an image as emaciation?

I am PRETTY SURE we are NOT CLOSE to having to worry about this with regard to runway models.

4)

The star of the issue is arguably the model Crystal Renn, who captures the same air of detached, unattainable glamour as any size 0, perhaps even more so because Renn is classically pretty rather than startlingly odd.

Renn is indeed “classically pretty,” and therefore not exactly a representation of “average”… but which models are supposed to be “startlingly odd”? All other plus-size models or all standard-size models? What the heck are you talking about? (Amusingly, though I like it–reminds me of fairies and spring–Renn’s look is indeed a little on the “odd” side in the photo that accompanies the article.)

5)

Just how big does a model have to be before folks are satisfied that she represents some ever-shifting vision of what a ‘real’ woman looks like? Must she be precisely 5-feet-4 and a size 14, which is the fashion industry’s accepted stats for the average woman? And if she is, will that transform the fantasy photographs in fashion magazines into the equivalent of catalogues? After all, a large part of our fascination with Hollywood is because it’s populated with absurdly stunning men and women…

Yawn. Nobody has ever argued that every model should be exactly “average.” And if the goal is promoting general good health in the population (which of course it is not, which is why all of these arguments seem pointless if you think about them for half a second), body type should not be something to “aspire” to. (Note, I realize physique competitors aspire to a certain body shape, and that is fine, but although they are probably indeed very healthy, fine-tuning their bodies to meet stringent shape and size requirements does not by and large make them more so.)

Health, on the other hand, may be something to aspire to if you want to. But the idea that the noble fashion industry carries the torch for promoting good health is just… I have no idea what to say to this ridiculous self-righteous notion. Also note the “aspirational” argument that constantly gets trotted out (to be fair, it is not exactly her fault because EVERYONE who is on the defensive about thin models says this and doesn’t seem to consider that it is kind of disturbing. “Yes, we admit that some models are starving themselves to achieve this look, and that’s bad! But the look itself is harmless because women know it’s supposed to be ASPIRATIONAL, not real!” Without regard to the implication of why a look they know average women would have to starve themselves to achieve should be “aspired” to).

6)

And the lesson to designers is that all sorts of women can make their clothes look good. Attitude often counts more than body size. Although, there are certainly times when no matter how good you think you look, reality tells another story. See: Mariah Carey at the Golden Globes.

Don’t get above yourself, ladies! You might think you look good but that just means you need to be taken down a peg until you hate yourself again. See the next point: I guess part of an “inclusive” definition of beauty is tearing down other women. Good to know nothing ever really changes.

7)

Somewhere between emaciation and obesity lies good health. And somewhere between those extremes there is also a definition of beauty that is inclusive, sound and honest.

Yes, it is clear that you love all women and just want to be inclusive. Or that you spend very little time considering me as an obese person (I imagine that very few of our inconveniently large butts cross Givhan’s line of sight in the average work day), but think of me as more of a public health crisis than a human being, if I did happen to cross your mind. It’s so hard to tell.

Look, “good health” may encompass both “emaciation” and “obesity”–you don’t know by looking. Also, I cannot stress enough that “obesity” is basically never seen on ANY runway at this point in time, and on the one or two occasions when it has been, it has been a novelty where the entire point of the show is the model’s obesity. It’s not like we’re seeing those “unhealthy” size 24s (or even 16s) step out on the average runway without comment on a regular basis. Givhan is getting freaked out about something that will probably never happen in my lifetime, and acting as if it is happening now.

The take-home I am hearing is that it freaks her out that the UNHEALTHY FATTIES (again, like anyone in the fashion industry gives a rip about health anyway… if the ideal were 300 lbs. they would be force-feeding people to get it) might be taking over the runway, which would obviously be a CATASTROPHE. Don’t worry, though, Robin… I think you are safe for the time being.

I am a big fan of FlyLady because she has helped me get my life in order. For nearly 12 years of marriage (to say nothing of my single years), my husband and I have had goals that include washing and putting away dishes every day, cleaning house once a week, and going to bed early enough to get 7 or 8 hours of sleep. We’re still working on the sleep part (and let’s be honest, probably will be for the rest of our sleep deprivation-shortened lives), but FlyLady has enabled me to, for really the first time in my life, meet the dishes goal (and certain other goals) on a consistent basis. This may not sound like a big deal to those of you who are, as she puts it, “born organized,” but it is a huge deal for me after beating myself up over this issue for years.

So anyway, I get her emails and am generally a big believer in the system. She is kind of cheesy and occasionally throws a bit of a petulant fit when people disagree with her, but who’s perfect? Certainly not me. That’s why I like her.

One of the offshoots of her philosophy that I don’t so much enjoy is the concept of “body clutter.” She tries to loosely apply her strategies for decluttering to weight loss, and predictably, it doesn’t seem to quite work out. For one thing, she herself is still fat, which is certainly fine by me and none of my business, but it’s interesting since I have no doubt she has tried to lose weight using her own system.

Note that I haven’t read the book and the description sounds like weight loss is de-emphasized, so I’m sure this is not the worst diet ever invented or anything… I just feel like the whole “fix your emotional problems and get skinny” thing has kind of been done to death, and surprise, we are not all skinny. Anyway, the email list is not terribly diet-y but there is an overall attitude (to be fair, this hardly originated with FlyLady) that getting your weight “under control” is part of getting your life under control.

There is also an emphasis on cooking at home to save money and improve your health–and there’s nothing wrong with that unless it becomes a moral imperative. The tips and recipes provided are probably helpful to a lot of readers. Unfortunately, in a recent email from FlyLady’s food expert, Leanne Ely, it did become a moral imperative, in a way that really pushed my buttons. Ely put together a “top ten list” along the lines of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (unfortunately I can’t link to it because it was posted to FlyLady’s email list and login-required message board, not to Ely’s blog), and number 10 read as follows:

10)To afford to eat food worthy of consuming, eat only quality, real food and eat less of it.

Who does she think she is? “Eat only quality, real food and eat less of it.” So basically, in the real world, if you are poor, this means you’ll be taking the same food budget and using it to buy more expensive food (usually read: fruits and vegetables), necessarily in smaller quantities than you were buying before of other foods. This could result in a huge loss of available food energy. Possibly enough of a loss that you will no longer be able to afford enough calories to live on. It is not necessarily the overall concept of changing the choices you make that bothers me–perhaps if you are lucky enough to not be all that poor, you can make some substitutions and still be able to afford adequate nourishment. (After all, leaving aside non-trivial issues of the time it takes to prepare such things and whether you can find them in your local store, say, dried beans or canned vegetables–which she also nixes in one of her other “rules” due to sodium, but screw that–can actually be affordable compared to prepared foods. In fact that makes the “rule” kind of bewildering because it seems to imply that “high quality” food is always going to be more expensive. Kind of leads you to wonder what she means by “high quality,” but anyway.) No, as screwed up as some of the other assumptions implicit in this rule are, it is the apparent belief that less is always better when it comes to food intake that is causing me to experience a  simultaneous sort of white-hot rage and terrible hopelessness.

I think this reaction is mostly because deep down I know how common this view of fat people is–that somehow, because we have larger bodies, we can subsist on air and a few broccoli florets and that will actually be good for us, whereas a thin person gets a pass to consume, you know, an actual reasonable quantity and variety of food, as needed to live and thrive. (I wish I could find it now, but I remember someone in the fatosphere being told by a doctor to buy a head of broccoli and make it last all week as the entirety of her dinners.) Ely seems to make it even worse by extending this “less is better” belief to all people, probably because “everybody knows” that Americans are pretty much all too fat, right? This “rule” implies–intentionally or not–that it is a universal moral good for all people to constantly strive to eat less and less and less.

Anyway. Wrong. Fat people need adequate quantities of nourishing food–note: 1000 calories is not usually an adequate quantity, and you need protein and fat too–in exactly the same way that thin people do. To think otherwise is to deny that fat people are… well… actually people; and, in this case, to dismiss the difficulties of poor people and those who can’t afford “high quality” food as something they could overcome if they just tried a little harder. There is way too much of this crap out there as it is.

Thumbs down, Leanne. Keep the cooking tips coming, but lose the self-satisfied judgment next time.

(Incidentally, in rule #6, she also states “They are the enemy” with reference to regular and diet sodas. Dramatic much?? I tire of the scapegoating of soda. Sure, it’s bad for you. I am just finding it harder and harder to care.)

My local public radio station posted this photo essay to accompany a current reporting series on the “obesity crisis” in Michigan (Personally, I think we have other crises that are more important right now, but why not scapegoat fat people to make ourselves feel better in the meantime?). The series is called “What We Eat” (make of that what you will) and starts airing this afternoon, so you will probably be able to check the web site after that for segments that have aired, if you are interested.

Michigan Radio posted a Facebook update about the photo essay today, so if you have any additional feedback after viewing the photos, feel free to add it to their comments. (Right now it is the top update on their page, but you may have to scroll down as I can’t figure out how to link to the update directly.) I did my best, but I tend to rant and rave rather than stay on message. I also commented in this earlier thread, and I have to say there are a lot of comments there that I liked (even the one person who is all “every fat person I have known has made terrible choices, IT’S SCIENCE” is not 100% unreasonable). I really wish I had mentioned Kate’s name in that thread in case they take it into their heads to actually do an FA interview. Maybe I will go do that now, even though it is probably too late.

So anyway, I thought we could use the photo essay to play a fun little game called “spot the fat hate/fat stereotypes.” I have a lot of ideas about this, but I will post just one–see how in the first photo, the overflowing trash can is front and center, perpetuating the idea that fat people are destroying the environment with our greed and wastefulness? What other anti-fat ideas do you see embodied in these photos?