The structural forces behind obesity
"Obesity is an almost inevitable consequence of living with our cultural norms, our history of agricultural production and subsidies, our long-standing socioeconomic inequalities, and the impact of technology on our behavior and bodies," writes Marc Ambinder in a terrific Atlantic piece on the obesity epidemic. "Against this formidable dynamic, America has erected two lines of defense: name-calling, and hectoring about diet and exercise."
As Ambinder argues, those two lines of defense are the product of our unquestioned sense that obesity is what happens when willpower fails. But that doesn't describe what’s actually driving the rise in obesity.
The people most vulnerable to obesity, however, do not have access to healthy food, to role models, to solid health-care and community infrastructures, to accurate information, to effective treatments, and even to the time necessary to change their relationship with food. And if that is true for fat adults, it is even more true for fat children, many of whose choices are made for them. Their vulnerability to obesity is much more the result of societal inequalities than of any character flaw. Indeed, for all the attention paid to fat’s economic costs, the epidemic’s toll on children is a stark reminder of its moral dimension. Without some form of intervention, researchers worry, large numbers of black and Hispanic children in the United States will grow up overweight or obese and lead shorter, less fulfilling lives. Is that a legacy we want to live with?
Obesity is much more structural than it is personal. That's why it's so depressingly predictable. It afflicts certain communities, with certain socioeconomic characteristics, and it has only really emerged across a certain time period. Those communities contain a lot of different individuals, but their environments and their time and money stresses and their transportation and grocery options and their street safety and exercise opportunities are broadly similar. How we live has changed much more quickly than who we are, and no effort to turn back the tide on obesity will succeed without an accurate understanding of what's made us obese.
Photo credit: Screen capture from “The Biggest Loser”
April 13, 2010; 5:26 PM ET
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