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March 11, 2004

the politics of obesity

On Monday, I was with 45 high school kids, talking about the causes of obesity. Then the Centers for Disease Control announced that excessive body weight will soon be the leading cause of death in the US; and the House of Representatives passed legislation to shield fast-food restaurants from being sued for causing obesity. (This is the so-called "Cheeseburger Bill.")

I have never made a serious study of nutrition, the politics of food, or body-image and gender. But I can report that the minority adolescents in our project mostly think of obesity in psychological terms. They ask: Do we have enough will-power? Do we know enough about nutrition? Do we have appropriate body-image? What are the effects of the entertainment media on our health?

Meanwhile, some research shows that our geographical environment affects our body weight. Connected sidewalks help by encouraging exercise; convenient grocery stores increase the odds that people will cook vegetables; and so on. In our project, we are drawing kids' attention to these factors instead of the strictly psychological ones. Originally, this was simply because we wanted to teach geography--and you can't make maps of body-image or TV ads. However, I'm starting to think that we are making a radical move. Our project will locate the cause of weight gain outside of kids' heads and bodies, in the local community--and it will suggest that adolescents can understand and change where they live. In other words, this approach could be very empowering.

I have the same ambivalent view of the "Cheeseburger Bill" as Calpundit. He says:

On the one hand, I don't think much of using civil damage suits aimed at a specific industry as a way of changing social policy. Down that road lies madness.

But at the same time, I also don't think much of Congress exempting specific industries from the civil justice system. That can lead to some madness of its own.

Those in favor of the "Cheeseburger Bill" say that we should be personally responsible for our behavior; eating too much is our own fault, and suing McDonald's is a cop-out. I disagree in part: a rapid increase in the obesity rate is a social problem with political solutions. However, I agree that lawsuits aren't the right response. There are much more constructive, positive, participatory responses to obesity. For example, a community can work to make its streets safe and walkable, to identify and publicize existing assets, and to provide new food and exercise options.

In the areas around Hyattsville, MD, there are no full basketball courts. This is a political issue (the authorities don't want young Black men hanging around, so they don't build courts); and it may affect adolescents' body weight. It shows the limits of conservative arguments. You can't exercise if there are no sidewalks, no basketball courts, and no grassy spaces. If the only place that lets you hang out at 10 pm is McDonalds, then you're going to eat a lot of fries. Still, that doesn't mean that lawyers will ever solve the problem by suing McDonalds on behalf of the American people. Communities have the power to take their fate into their own hands.

This is a rambling post, badly in need of reorganization; but let me add a quick summary. There are not just two ways of thinking about obesity: either individuals are responsible for what they eat, or huge corporations are responsible (and deserve to be sued). Instead, we can take responsibility as communities. This third choice is more productive and realistic than either of the others.

March 11, 2004 3:40 PM | category: a high school civics class | Comments


I agree. I might support the bill, but I'd rather they not make it specific to an industry. I'd rather the law say somethig like 'negligence shall never be interpreted as simply selling a product which a buyer should should reasonably expect to possess negative aspects. You dumbass jury.'

March 11, 2004 10:03 PM | Comments (2) | posted by steve

Very interesting post. I am very interested to see what you discover. In regards to obesity and the community, I get concerned when it proposed that schools grade down children who are obese. I also think that a community which pays positive attention to "pretty people" and "athletes" and more negative attention to those who are overweight is very discouraging. I experienced this bias in my high school. I do not believe this attitude will help those who are overweight in any regard.

March 23, 2004 2:46 AM | Comments (2) | posted by Jake

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