The Nation's Pulse

Fat and Fatuous

Must Big Brother get bigger for Americans to get smaller?

By 11.17.10

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America is riddled with disease, and your child is probably infected. You may already know this. After all, much like leprosy and acne, obesity can be detected from a few yards away, and the opportunities to observe it are everywhere.

In the United States, potbellies and thunder thighs are the look that never goes out of fashion. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 17 percent of children and adolescents are now obese. As for adults, 30 percent were obese in 2000, as compared to 13 percent in 1960. Despite its growing prevalence, obesity is a trend without a friend. People lose their patience with love handles the more of them they find.

If you forget about the glut of oversized guts, the government will remind you. September was America's first-ever Childhood Obesity Awareness Month -- the same month, as it happens, that kids go back to school and resume their bullying and teasing of each other. Increasingly, though, it is adults doing the finger-pointing.

It starts with the first family. In February, Michelle Obama announced an initiative called "Let's Move!" -- a scheme for "solving" childhood obesity "within a generation" and for giving the first lady something to do with her time. On the same day, President Obama created the first-ever White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which no one noticed and therefore everyone endorsed. As always, trivial pursuits by the government escape ridicule by escaping attention.

The first lady put this to the test on September 25, when she went on Nickelodeon and told viewers to "to shut down your computers, put down your cell phones and turn off your TVs." Nickelodeon and its three sister networks (Nicktoons, Nick Jr., TeenNick) not only permitted her request but also advanced it, by going off the air for the next three hours (noon-3:00 p.m.). This was all part of the "Worldwide Day of Play," which involves boring kids to the point of making them go outside, run around, and burn calories.

Why should kids do this? Because being young and fat is terrible, say a bunch of people whose main physical activity is running around and annoying everybody else.

Take MeMe Roth, a mother of two and the president of National Action Against Obesity, who accused the Girl Scouts of "using girls as a front to push millions of cookies onto an already bloated population." Her complaints about school food were so exhausting that a P.T.A. member sent her an email saying, "Please, consider moving." Ms. Roth, who has described herself as being "mad, like crazy," believes that obesity is "the most pressing health crisis of our time."

Few in the Obama administration or the Obama family would disagree. After launching "Let's Move!" Mrs. Obama said, "We have to decide as a nation that physical activity and nutrition and all that stuff is just as important as test scores and good grades, textbooks and everything else we make the trade-off for." If we don't, she warned, we "can kill our kids" (interesting words from a woman whose husband promised to end the politics of fear).

But there is always hope with the Obamas in charge. "With everyone working together," Mrs. Obama said, "it [childhood obesity] can be solved." That's comforting, or at least it's supposed to be. Children can be slenderized, we are told, but only with everyone working together -- a hint, perhaps, that taxpaying adults will be financing the weight loss of people who were just born.

And why not? "Our kids didn't do this to themselves," as the first lady pointed out, thereby raising the question of who did. Naturally, "society" must have.

Obesity is being rebranded accordingly. A few years ago, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began to push the idea of a "nature-deficit disorder" as a cause of childhood obesity. Nature-deficit disorder is nothing new. It used to be called "being inside too much." Its new name is part of a larger trend, which is the formalization of everything obesity-related into official-sounding jargon.

Anti-fat activists often describe obesity as an "epidemic." Given that an epidemic is an infectious disease, it is hard to see how double chins qualify. MeMe Roth and others say obesity is "socially contagious," which explains less than it obscures. You can't "catch" obesity the same way you catch the flu. Also unlike the flu, you will not recover from obesity simply by lying in bed for a few days.

There is no doubt that obesity is socially rampant and little doubt it will disappear soon. If current trends continue, according to a 2008 study in the journal Obesity, 86 percent of American adults will be overweight by 2028, and 51 percent will be obese, making fat people a public majority and public enemy No. 1 at the same time. Even grimmer was a report in September by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which predicted that three in four Americans will be overweight or obese in 10 years.

Preventing this outcome, many people contend, requires collective measures. Two obesity gurus, Tom Farley and Deborah Cohen, put it simply: "If fat people and their doctors can't cure obesity, as a nation we ought to prevent it."

As troubling as widespread obesity is, widespread obesity prevention sounds much worse. Even at the state level, such efforts irritate more people than they trim. In May, a 10-year-old girl at a Texas elementary school was given a week of detention for the offense of possessing a Jolly Rancher. School officials explained that they were merely following a state guideline banning "minimal nutrition" foods.

When things like "nature-deficit disorder" are the problem, environmental changes are offered as the solution. Dr. Maria Brown, a Baltimore pediatrician who thinks the great outdoors are just great, said, "If this is going to succeed, we've got to advocate for more green spaces." And so eating your greens and the Green Party's platform are now one and the same.

Most of the anti-obesity schemes floating around have one aspect in common: Their ultimate goal is to redesign American society, not American individuals.

Some of the specific proposals sound banal enough: subsidizing fruits and vegetables, forcing restaurants to display calorie counts on menus, and more strenuous regulation of food in schools. Others are more far-reaching: banning advertisements of junk food to kids, taxing junk food, regulating the location of stores that sell junk food, and requiring sidewalks and bike paths in every single neighborhood.

For many social dieticians, unhealthy eating and passive living are only part of what bothers them. They also have a problem with consumption in general. NYU nutritionist Marion Nestle, in trying to identify the causes of obesity, found them deeply entrenched: an "overly abundant food supply," "low food prices," "a highly competitive market," and "abundant food choices" -- things enjoyed by people who like saving money and not starving.

"Rather than making us steadily happier, our increasing affluence and consumerism seem to have trapped us," writes J. Eric Oliver in his book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic. "[A]s the obesity epidemic shows, maximizing our choices does not necessarily maximize our freedom or power."

But letting the government restrict our choices does?

If the weight of every body becomes everybody's concern, the regulatory antidotes will spread at obesity-like speed, creating yet another epidemic, but one that can be easily averted. All we have to do is do nothing. Is that too much to ask?

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About the Author

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism.