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.)