AC360° Associate Producer
America is a country obsessed with body weight. Paradoxically, we revere fit and lean figures, while also cherishing all-you-can eat buffets, fried fast food, and activities that require little to no movement whatsoever (I’m looking at you, video games).
If the extra pounds were simply unaesthetic, we could dismiss our attention to the scale as mere vanity. Yet, more than ever, we know that being overweight has real and dangerous health consequences, along with damaging effects to our economy.
According to the CDC, in 2008 every state (except Colorado) had a 20 percent or higher incidence of obesity. In the U. S., 17 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are obese; 17.6 percent for ages 12 to 19. The CDC says obese and overweight children are more likely to become obese as adults and risk suffering from heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, stroke, respiratory problems, liver and gallbladder disease, and osteoarthritis. There are also psychological problems associated with obesity. Additionally, the CDC points to a study released in July 2009 that estimates the medical costs of obesity as $147 billion per year.
The facts are clear: the number of people with weight-related health issues continues to grow, the costs are up and we now find ourselves in the biggest debate about the future of health care since the Clinton administration. Weight is a pervasive topic in our health-conscious – but junk food-loving – society. And controversy surrounding this subject abounds. Here are just a few examples:
• Dr. Regina Benjamin, nominee for Surgeon General: Obama's pick for America's top doc ignited a surprising weight debate, with both attackers and defenders discussing her size. Dr. Benjamin should be judged on her credentials, experience, and vision. Yet, critics claim she is incapable of ending the U.S. obesity epidemic because she doesn’t look the part. Being healthy doesn’t necessarily mean having a small waistline, so are the skeptics being unfair? When you take a fitness class do you expect the teacher to look like he or she stepped off the set of Baywatch? Does it bother you if the instructor doesn’t look nearly as good as you aim to be? And ultimately, does that principle apply to doctors, including the U.S. Surgeon General? The scrutiny over Dr. Benjamin’s weight and qualifications increased when it was revealed that she was paid to serve on a scientific advisory board for Burger King, a company that is consistently blamed for adding to America's growing waistline.
• Kelly Clarkson retouched: Popular American Idol winner, Kelly Clarkson, appears svelte and toned on the September cover of SELF magazine. Although the picture is beautiful, the complication is that it looks more like Clarkson circa 2006. The editor retouched the cover shot, taking inches off, and then added the text “Total Body Confidence” under the photo. Many SELF readers and Clarkson fans are outraged that a magazine promoting healthy behavior and attitudes about body image published an altered shot of a talented woman who seems to actually have a healthy attitude about her weight. Lucy Danziger, SELF editor-in-chief, explained her decision as a way to make Clarkson “look her personal best.” The singer was chosen for the cover to “inspire women,” and “be a role model,” but is there an underlying message that Clarkson seen at her actual weight could not encourage others? Or should the art of digitally slimming down cover models be accepted as par for the course? The editors at Glamour magazine are receiving enormous praise for including a picture of a plus size model on page 194 in their September issue. The dramatic shot shows her almost naked, unaltered, with belly bulge hanging out. For fashion magazines, it’s unusual for a model to display an imperfection, while also exuding confidence. Could that type of image be accepted on the cover, or is the reality that full figures don’t sell magazines?
• Big love: The reality dating show, “More to Love,” features zaftig women competing for the affections of a man who weighs more than 300 pounds. The idea is to “prove that love comes in all shapes and sizes.” The buzz is that there is too much focus on weight insecurity and too much time spent acknowledging the size of the participants on the show. Unlike reality TV, in real life people of differing sizes can and do fall in love with each other. So, is this a revolutionary step in the right direction for regular women? It is definitely positive to see a program that features attractive women who are bigger. However, size and shape can change throughout a person’s life, so how about pairing people by their personalities? Is this dating show breaking down barriers or perpetuating stereotypes?
• Comparing women to whales: PETA is at it again with another controversial campaign to deliver its message. Does the organization’s new billboard in Jacksonville, FL compare overweight women to whales? There is a cartoon lady with flab spilling over her bikini, and the text “Save the whales. Lose the blubber: Go vegetarian.” Some vegetarians will confess that skipping the meat still leaves one vulnerable to crave sugary desserts, salty snacks, and greasy fried foods. There are better ways to gain a beach body rather than removing healthy meat options that provide protein. And giving overweight people a directive to “lose the blubber,” could backfire in PETA’s recruitment department. There are even more reasons why PETA’s attempt to inspire vegetarianism and weight loss has resulted in many “huh?” reactions. Like the examples listed here. What do you think about the billboard, offensive or brilliant?
I would be remiss not to mention the controversy surrounding the South Carolina mother who was arrested earlier this summer and charged with criminal neglect because her 14-year-old weighs 555 pounds. The boy was placed in foster care, and many have labeled him a victim of child abuse. Could the same be said for teenagers who starve themselves to be thin - or is this a double-standard? The case also raises questions about the personal responsibility of all Americans. One suggestion to deal with the growing obesity problem is through financial incentives awarded by private companies to employees who don’t smoke and engage in a regular exercise routine. Last week, President Obama declared his support for corporate programs that offer rewards for healthy living, specifically citing Safeway. Would you put forth more effort to be thinner if your paycheck got a little fatter?
With all of the talk about health care reform, there is another important conversation that must take place. Can we have a candid discussion about fundamental American attitudes and behaviors toward exercise, diet, and preventive care? I will begin that dialogue right here and freely admit that multiple candy bars were consumed during the making of this post. I also vow to hit the gym tomorrow, eat salad for dinner, and look to Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Fit Nation for inspiration. What can you add to the discussion?