Issuing a Fatwar

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How fat do Americans have to get and how fast do they have to get that way before they are threatened with legal penalties for being immense?

I'm inclined to think that threats of physical force even the bland, familiar threats that constitute a body of law are terrible, dangerous, brutal things that should only be unleashed as a last resort, probably only in retaliation to prior physical attacks (murders, armed robbery, etc.). Everything else should be settled through dialogue, persuasion, and cultural pressure. Much of the world disagrees with me, though. There are obvious manifestations of this disagreement, such as the occasional fatwa, a religious death sentence, issued by Islamic fundamentalists...and then there are subtler manifestations, such as the fatwar being declared by some health activists.

There's nothing wrong with pointing out the myriad health problems caused by obesity, but some people would like to bring the force of law to bear on the issue, taxing unhealthy foods or forcing taxpayers to subsidize healthy ones. George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf and New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle have suggested that the lawsuit tactics used against tobacco might be useful against fatty foods, while activists in the U.S. and Britain have suggested that the public health expenditures caused by obesity may justify increased regulation of fattening foods. Yale psychology professor Kelly Brownell famously suggested a "fat tax" on disapproved foods. Tony Robbins, a community health professor at Tufts University, hopes that people will come to blame the manufacturers of fattening foods for the nation's obesity problem in much the way they came to blame the tobacco industry for lung cancer. "People need to be creative about this, but tobacco was no minor opponent, either," he said.

Creative responses to a health crisis indeed, to any kind of crisis would be nice, and to spur one's creativity, it's always a good idea to rule out the use of legal threats and violence. If slimming down is such a good idea, it ought to be possible to find ways to persuade people of that rationally. Indeed, good health practices probably have a better chance in the marketplace of ideas than they do in court. Pro-fat forces are perfectly capable of using the courts, after all. Witness the recent lawsuit by 240-pound Jennifer Portnick against Jazzercise, which denied her a job teaching its aerobic exercise routines on the grounds that she is not an appropriate exemplar of fitness. Sadly for Jazzercise, San Francisco's ever-vigilant Human Rights Commission banned discrimination based on weight in a May 2000 ordinance.

If both the pro-fat and anti-fat forces in our culture agreed to keep their hands off the tempting tool of government power, what tools of cultural persuasion might the anti-fat forces use instead?

Well, in these sensitive and morally non-judgmental times, one is reluctant to urge a campaign of mockery and derision against the obese, but there are countless polite ways we could put more pressure on the obese to slim down.

A peaceful, non-legalistic alternative to the fatwar might entail, for instance, dispelling the myth that the fashion industry has turned America into a nation of anorexics. Popular with feminists, this charge is undermined somewhat by the fact that American women are the fattest female population in all of human history. This is not to make light of the problem of anorexia, which has touched my own family, but it is a rare disorder compared to the problem of obesity (which brings heart disease and other problems), as the memories of any visitor to Disney World will attest.

We must discourage the politically-correct "fat acceptance" movement, manifested in things such as an ABC News story last year that glowingly depicted a troupe of obese ballerinas who have decided that the idea that ballerinas should be thin is just a one more cruel stereotype to be overcome.

We must discourage faddish, get-thin-quick diets and remind people instead of what I like to call the Second Law of Thermodynamics Diet: If you use up more energy (or even the same amount of energy) but take in less food, you have to lose weight. It would be physically impossible not to, protests about gland problems and changing metabolisms notwithstanding. If you don't eat it, it cannot become a part of your body. If you're still fat, eat less. Eventually, you will see results.

Frankly and openly talk about the joys of being thinner. It may anger the obese at first, but the real cruelty may lie in allowing them to go on believing that the joys of a box of Milk Duds are greater than the joy of being looked upon as a healthy, trim individual. As in any verbal conflict, it would be unwise to mock the obese in such a way that they are hardened in their position one would not want to take the "I'm thin and you're not" approach that risks creating a sense of fat pride and fat identity or that simply reinforces feelings of helplessness on the part of potentially-thin people. Rather, the tone used toward them should be one of invitation and even seduction: Join us and be healthier.

At the same time, don't be afraid to moralize a bit. Fat is no doubt a side effect, in part, of booming American wealth, and as such emblematic of the triumph of the free market. At the same time, it may be indicative of our slovenly lack of self-discipline in an era of loose morals. Fat is often an indicator of lack of self-control and it may be productive to label it so. If the fat acceptance movement insists that "fat is beautiful," those concerned for public health are within their rights to respond with the more-justifiable slogan "fat is deadly" and even with the judgment "fat is evil." Still, we must remember that fat people are not evil, merely engaged in self-destructive patterns (that also set a bad example for others). We must remember to hate the fat, not the fattie, as it were.

I know all this will sound harsh to some, but before you condemn me, think how much harsher it would be to tax and regulate people to combat fat, with the threat of jail time hanging over all of us when we refuse to comply with taxes, regulations, and the subsequent fines. Cultural persuasion much like exercise is sometimes an unpleasant, difficult business, and the authoritarian quick fix of a legal decree may seem easier (let the government worry about it, so I don't have to do the embarrassing hard work of confronting my overeating aunt). But in the end, a nation that wants to become less fat without becoming less free must find peaceful, voluntary ways of discouraging obesity.

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Responses:

April 2, 2002

We all set priorities. Pleasures like sex and food often come to mind more easily than long-term goals. Fat might affect the sex part: If sex-pot status is not a goal, but lots of pleasurable food is, it can be very easy for people to forget the health part.

There may be too much emphasis on weight here. Many admirable people should not be tarred with broad assumptions concerning their self-discipline. Overweight as a risk factor is in fact visible, so there are more constant social reminders than there are with high blood pressure or maybe even problem drinking.

The real problem here is health being a low priority. Considering my personal family history, though it is easy for me to remain thin, I would only be kidding myself if I daily ate meals that were 50% fat and let my blood pressure go. If a person treats health as a priority, instead of as something never thought about, he will combat overweight and other risk factors on his own.

T. Watson


April 7, 2002

Yo, Todd,

I agree that legislation and taxation are not appropriate measures to take in attempting to stem the obesity epidemic. However, the fact remains that obesity and other controllable health risks pose a major problem not only for the affected individual but for all of us. Our health care system is staggering under an enormous burden of catastrophic care for sufferers of conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and a variety of cancers, all of which are at least partly preventable and controllable through behavior and lifestyle choices.

The huge preponderance of health care dollars are spent in the last six months of life, and of course, it's the insurance premiums and other health care payments by healthy people that get sucked into this gaping sinkhole. Which means, in turn, that as the population ages (think lots and lots of aging baby boomers, sick and cranky as hell), the cost of health care continues to spiral out of control. This is a national crisis, and one of its key drivers is the failure of Americans to take prevention seriously. Something needs to be done, or the system will collapse and everyone will have lousy or no health care at all.

So, if legislation is too extreme of a solution, how about at least apportioning the cost a little more equitably? Insurance companies do this now, to a degree: your life insurance premiums are higher if you smoke because you're a greater death risk than a non-smoker. Let's take that logic further and say that your health care costs should be proportionate to your reasonably successful efforts to stay healthy. Establish appropriate metrics for diet, nutrition, exercise, and other basic lifestyle factors, all of which are very much within the individual's control, and not at all complicated or arcane. Educate people on how to work toward these goals, and then make them pay more for their health care if they fail to do so.

The fact is, rational arguments just don't change ingrained behavior all that well, but it's amazing how fast people respond when you hit them in the wallet. There would be so many benefits: at the very least, the cost for the folly of some is not borne equally by all. At best, more people really do stay healthier longer, live better lives, and relieve some of the intolerable burden of catastrophic care that threatens our health care system. What could be bad about that?

Jesse A. Soodalter


April 22, 2002

How about doing neither moral pressure nor taxation/legislation, letting people go about their lives the way they choose, not the way others choose for them? Holy cow, we all die in the end, from disease brought on by old age, not from old age alone. Ultimately, we all have to spend money for healthcare of some sort.

People who claim using the cost argument, among others that people need to be molded should get a life of their own to worry about.

Audrey Silk
Brooklyn, NY


May 13, 2002

It's undeniable that there is an obesity problem in North America, and also that the problem is caused by deplorable lifestyle habits. Our society would be better off if everyone ate as well as they were able and got a reasonable amount of exercise.

The fat acceptance movement, however, is not about encouraging gluttony and sloth; it's about not hating yourself for being fat. It includes a strong focus on improving your lifestyle with a view towards being healthy, not necessarily being thin. A small amount of research into the movement will make this clear. It's not necessarily about glorifying fat but about shifting the focus away from how horrible you are for being fat, towards living a happy, normal life, including healthy eating and exercise habits.

People like Jennifer Portnick, the woman who wanted to teach Jazzercise, provide fatties with a role model. As a fat person, if the only people you have ever seen doing exercise are thin, you may find it inconceivable that fat people can and do exercise. If you only ever see fat people on television riding mall escalators and eating ice cream, you might think that's all there is for you. Seeing someone like Portnick or those fat ballet dancers may be just the kick in the pants you need to get out there and move your own lumpy body, and that's good.

Don't let the occasional popular media piece on the fat acceptance movement fool you; the joys of being thin are constantly at the forefront of our minds. Thin people get laid, thin people get jobs, thin people find love, thin people are the happiest people. Watch TV for a few hours some evening and try to tell me that the joys of being thin aren't being trumpeted to the rafters; the Friends girls get thinner, and happier, every season.

Your First Law of Thermodynamic Diet overlooks the fact that some folks' metabolism allows them to consume as few as 1000 calories a day without losing weight. At that intake, you're simply not getting the nutrients you need to survive; even if you do cut back that far, eventually you will have to go back to eating the 2000 calories or so a day that a healthy person needs, and at that point, you'll get fat again fatter even as your metabolism overcompensates. What then? Start the cycle all over?

No doubt about it, being thinner (and fitter) is better than being fatter, and everyone should strive to have the best lifestyle (and figure) they can, but making fat people miserable is not the way to achieve that goal (especially considering the number of people who eat when they're miserable!). Rather, the emphasis should be on eating healthy and getting enough exercise. And if you eat healthy and get enough exercise and you're still fat (it happens!), there's nothing to be gained by loathing yourself for it.

Amy Brown
Toronto


May 16, 2002

I sense that you are extremely fatphobic and you need to get your facts straight before you blab your mouth on taxing fatty foods. Why should everyone conform to what you think is "healthy" or "ideal"? It's people like you and your "ideals" that turned me towards bulimia in the first place, and I was 98 lbs. then and 5'3".

Firstly, not all fat people eat fatty foods, or overeat. Secondly, it's dieting that made fat people fat. First you starve someone and you destroy their metabolism. Then, when they eat again, they gain weight. The importance of being overweight is grossly exaggerated, society's way of saying, "Hey, look, fatty, if you don't conform and lose weight, you're gonna end up with all these problems." Do you know how terrible it is to go outside for me? I'm fourteen and I've long stopped bingeing and purging and I weigh 112 lbs., but I still get picked on for being chubby!

It's not the fat majority who have a problem, it's you. You're the one with the problem, you and your fatphobic attitude. You and your nonsensical prejudice against what YOU feel is unacceptable and inappropriate. I compare your attitudes and values to those of the eighteenth-century racists who felt that because black people were different, they had to be picked on and changed. It's blind, narrow-minded attitudes like that that make thin women and girls afraid to eat. It's attitudes like yours that make me compelled to eat more fats just to spite you, and believe me, I would love to see you get pissed off.

L. Chong