Thursday, November 12, 2009
Strikes and gutters
I was so excited to see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week. It's a really nice introduction to fat studies -- naturally, since the authors are editors of a Fat Studies Reader that came out last week (look for a review here -- my copy is due to arrive today!). It's so nice for once to read a sympathetic piece on fat studies that isn't "balanced" by a quote from some doctor saying "Yeah, but just because studies have repeatedly failed to show that being fat is a big health hazard, and 95% of people can't permanenly lose large amounts of weight anyway, it would be dangerous for fat people to think that they are OK." In fact, the article is totally free of such crap, with the teeny exception of the caption on the (awesome) photo of the Padded Lillies, which includes the term "overweight." It's not an unsympathetic caption, but it was clearly not written by the authors of the article, who I am pretty sure would not use the term "overweight". It's not quite as irritating a term as "obese", but for me it always brings to mind the question "over WHAT weight?" (aside: just now in googling the phrase "over what weight?" to see if I could figure out its origin, or at least remember the first place I saw it, I came across a very interesting feminist blog called Professor, What If...?. I've only read a few posts so far, but it seems worth checking out, especially this post.) I think many people consider the term to be more polite than "fat", but "overweight" clearly carries with it some normative weight that everyone should be, which I find icky. But that's a minor nitpick; you should really go read the article because it's great and I love that it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. It seems to me that we'll need more of that in order for fat studies to really come into its own.
On the negative side, today's CNN.com features this lousy excuse for an article. Read it for yourselves (or don't); I just wanted to highlight a few of the most idiotic things about it here.
First there's this funny line: "[American Heart Association spokesman Russell] Pate and other childhood obesity experts say more American youths are becoming obese because so many are addicted to television, video games, testing and fast food." I find the thought of kids being addicted to testing pretty hilarious. I personally will confess that I like taking tests, especially the bubble kind, and I liked them when I was a kid too. But I'm pretty sure I was kind of a weird kid that way. Anyway, let's give the editors the benefit of the doubt and assume the author meant "texting"; I'm still going to call bullshit on it. This strikes me as just a list of stereotypes about what fat kids do with their time. Where's the evidence that fat kids engage in more of those activities listed than other kids do?
On a more serious note, there's the whole "ticking time bomb" concept that appears in the headline and is repeated in the article. What a terrible metaphor, especially when you're talking about kids. Hey parents, if you don't make your fat child lose weight right away, he/she will EXPLODE!!! This is exactly the kind of substance-free, sensationalized rhetoric that characterizes the entire "war on obesity" and should lead any thinking person to be skeptical about the whole enterprise.
And then there is the very telling description of Russell Pate's research methodology: "Pate, who has testified about childhood obesity before Congress, says he can tell how American kids have changed by looking at old yearbooks. 'You see fewer overweight kids,' Pate says. 'There were some kids that were overweight in the older yearbooks, but the typical kid was leaner.'" Wow, I can't wait to see the results of that super-objective study where a thin guy flips through yearbooks and concludes that there are more fat kids than there used to be, based on 1" square photos of the kids' faces (which are, by the way, kids' faces -- i.e., commonly kind of chubby regardless of the child's overall physique). Maybe I'll do my own study where I flip through some modern yearbooks and conclude "Hey, everybody looks OK to me!"
There are plenty of other things to pick on in the article, but I'll just point out one last little ironic thing, which is that the photo that goes with the article is of a chubby person (I guess it's supposed to be a kid, but it's hard to tell) in a swimming pool. So if the whole point of the article is that kids don't exercise anymore, isn't that kind of a stupid photo to run with it? Well, maybe the person who selected the photo was being subversive. If so, kudos to them for getting one thing right: it's entirely possible for a fat kid (or adult) to exercise and still be fat. When I was a kid I did a sport every season: swim team, soccer team, basketball team, softball team, plus horseback riding lessons, and later marching band. And I was still fat. Gym class in middle school and high school were almost humiliating enough to take all the joy out of exercising for me (like the time sophomore year when the gym teacher's daughter, who was in my class, got put in charge of weighing everyone and she told her friends how much I weighed... incidentally, although my body composition is a lot different, I weigh the same now as I did then; how many self-righteous fat-bashers can say that for themselves?). Somehow on my own I discovered the fun of running when I was in college, and I have continued with running and/or other kinds of exercise pretty consistently since then. But it was absolutely not due to gym class -- so the idea suggested in this article that phys ed classes are the solution to the "childhood obesity problem" is, in my opinion, way off base. I'm pretty sure the people quoted in the article who promote this idea were not fat kids, or they'd know that phys ed as it is traditionally taught in American schools is no way to get fat kids excited about fun and healthy ways of moving their bodies; quite the contrary.
Oh well. I guess I gotta remember that at least there are people out there like Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum and Marilyn Wann.