Weigh-cism in America

Hysteria over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s alleged lap band surgery has coupled with coverage of Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries’ interview in which he admitted, “I don’t want larger people shopping in the store,” into what I’d like to call America’s latest round of bigotry: Weigh-cism. Not that fat shaming in America is anything new, but this recent round calls attention to a unique brand of judgment that, like blaming and shaming the poor, finds acceptance in that the problem is understood to be preventable and rectifiable, and as such, a legitimate form of prejudice.

Just as the poor could simply decide to get a high paying job through hard work and chutzpah, the overweight need simply to avoid saturated fats and bad carbs. Lay off the fast food, brother, and the slings and arrows stop. Just get yourself some organic kale and run it through your Nutribullet.  What’s that you say? You can afford neither organic produce nor antibiotic and hormone free organic free-range chicken? Well, it’s your own fault for taking those two minimum wage jobs after getting your MBA from Harvard. Who does that?

The HBO Documentary “The Weight of the Nation” looks at the connection between poverty and obesity. The rising level of obesity in this nation coincides in a synchronized level with the rising gaps in economic disparity. Ironically, obesity is a big money maker: medications for diseases linked with obesity like heart disease, diabetes and sleep apnea are cash cows for the pharmaceutical industry.

The link between obesity and poverty is inarguable. The causes, however, are what can be in dispute. There is a lack of availability for heathy food options in poorer areas. Farmer’s markets and produce stands find their homes in affluent areas; in our poorest areas, cheap and fatty foods dominate in the prominence of fast food restaurants and hot dog trucks. It comes down to the resources available to different pockets of the population.

Anthony Iton, Senior Vice President of Healthy Communities, The California Endowment, suggests that in analyzing the death certificates for patterns in the causes of death, “your zip code matters more than your genetic code.” In fact, the nine poorest states in the US rank within the ten highest in obesity.  In short, we can’t address the problem of the rise in our overweight children and the fact that in some segments of the population, the upcoming generation will have a shorter life expectancy than the current generation for nearly the first time in nearly 200 years, without taking a serious look at the economy.

Yet, there is a roadblock when it comes to addressing this issue in any realistic fashion in part because of the collective attitude Americans have about personal responsibility. In these tight economic times, the programs for the poor are often the first things to go. Case in point, sequester cuts made to the FAA were quickly reversed when the impact was seen in flight delays and long waits. The unseen wounds made by the sequester cuts that will take time to manifest in ways we can measure are those made to the poorest among us, the social safety nets like funding for Head Start, public housing subsidies, unemployment insurance, veterans services, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.

The way to alleviate any guilt for such blatant preference for economic support for those who need it the least is to either ignore it, or in a more sinister and manipulative way, to blame those in need. To take away the victimhood of the victim is not only good politics, but effective marketing. We can see it everywhere from the rants of right-wing talk show media to the status updates of listeners who pretend to outrage at welfare recipients who game the system, while in the same breath defend corporate corruption as smart capitalism. If it’s their own damn fault, I don’t have to feel bad about ignoring the solution. And I certainly don’t have to accept taking responsibility to contributing to the problem.

In this way, it’s encouraging to see Chris Christie take affirmative action on his weight issue. While the left makes derisive commentary on his figure and the right speculates about whether or not this will increase his chances for a Presidential nomination, I wonder if someone with the power of political office who understands and has experience with this problem can help bring attention to it. Whether the attention leads to jokes and the collective dismissive sweep of the hands or realistic discussion of solutions remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’ll be boycotting Abercrombie and Fitch.

(Not that I could fit into those jeans anyway.)

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

4 thoughts on “Weigh-cism in America”

  1. I’ve never forgotten an article I read in the Village Voice 20 years ago, before Harlem was gentrified, that said that the community had no major supermarket, meaning that its residents had to buy everything from the mom-and-pop shops. That meant they were paying higher prices for food than the residents of the prosperous neighborhoods in New York. I’m sure this situation is still true in many poor areas. It clarified for me the link between poverty and obesity.

    I’ve always been uncomfortable about the jokes about Christie’s weight, and I’m annoyed by the assumption that his surgery was dictated by his desire to be President. I thought Jon Stewart had a good take on it last week.

  2. Jokes about Christie’s weight are cheap and mean. Worse than that, they’re unfunny. The documentary I refer to in the piece discusses what the Village Voice had reported – in most low-income urban areas (it shows the Bronx) there are no supermarkets. The only choices are fast food and corner stores that sell chips and candy and crap. A burger off the dollar menu can be a hot meal for someone for 99 cents, where fresh vegetables aren’t available or affordable. So poverty and obesity go hand-in-hand. I don’t care if Christie is losing weight to run for President. At least the debates will be interesting.

  3. Great article, and it throws light where it needs to go, on the all-pervasive, insidious profit motive. When something doesn’t make sense, look for the financial interest. In this case it is obscured by the visual distraction and the ease with which so many can be enticed into meanness. Yet we’ve known for a long time there are not healthy choices in poor neighborhoods, and while the easy excuse (“the neighborhood isn’t safe”)is tossed out to the Greek chorus, the truth is it benefits the biggest moneymakers, who are obese in a truly obscene way – financially. As for Chris Christie, he becomes collateral damage in this contest to see who can be the meanest and stupidest. (He’s not poor). Being a medical person I do feel concern when I see people who are truly obese, but I also can almost always guess their zip code. This fish rots from the head down.

  4. I agree completely with the link between economic status and poor nutrition – I discuss it with my kids all the time. I happen to think high-fat, high-carb diets can have adverse effects on more than long-term weight related problems. A late-in-life allergy diagnosis made me realize the very real impact that the wrong foods can have on your energy levels, moods and ability to think clearly. Unfortunately, I have little hope that we, as a society, will put any energy into finding solutions – for all the reasons you pointed out.

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