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Why Michele Simon is Not Attending or Watching "Weight of the Nation"

Why Michele Simon is Not Attending or Watching "Weight of the Nation"

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We have a guest post today, cross-posted with permission from Michele Simon's excellent Appetite for Profit blog.

By Michele Simon

The national hysteria over obesity has reached a crescendo last week, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosted the conference, "Weight of the Nation" in Washington, DC. If you could't make it, no worries, more fear-mongering is on the way in a four-part mini-series on HBO to air this week. The show of the same name is produced in coordination with several federal government agencies. The trailer alone almost brought me to tears, seeing all the awful stereotypes of fat people.

As I wrote in my book, focusing on obesity is problematic for many reasons. One, it ensures the focus stays on the individual, instead of the food industry. What do you think when you see a fat person? That it's their fault, they just need to eat better and exercise more. Granted, my public health colleagues are trying to change this conversation to one of the "environment" (far too apolitical a word) but as long as we keep talking about obesity, the framing is all about individual behavior change.

Next, scientific evidence shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, etc, and the last thing they need is more hate brought to you by the federal government and cable television. All the images I have seen coming from news accounts of the conference are negative. Even while the headlines may attempt to reframe from blame and shame, the images do not. For example, this Reuters story headline reads "Obesity fight must shift from personal blame-U.S. panel" but the image is of a fat person. Journalists take note: you are adding to the problem of bias and shame by using these images. (Recently, I wrote an article for the UK Guardian about PepsiCo and they wanted to run it with an image of a fat person. I insisted they change it and thankfully they did.)

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs! Indeed, the big announcement coming out of the CDC event yesterday was how the first lady's Let's Move program has its newest corporate partner in the frozen vegetable company, Birds Eye, which is launching a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat their veggies. Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye. Never mind all that junk food marketing to kids, which Let's Move ignores. (If you missed it, this recent excellent Reuters investigation explains the food industry politics at play.)

The only thing bringing me any sanity this week is reading Julie Guthman's excellent critique of the obesity wars, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. While Guthman's style is too academic, she does a good job explaining why obesity is over-hyped and offers some interesting alternative theories to the tired calories in, calories out model. It's the first book I've read in a long time that offers new and challenging insights on this issue.

Additional resources I can recommend include:

A critical thinkers guide to the HBO series

Deconstructing HBO's Weight of the Nation

Linda Bacon's book, Health at Every Size

Health at Every Size Community

This post is reprinted with permission from Michele Simon's blog, Appetite for Profit

Related Posts:

School Food Politics: What's Missing From the Pizza-as-Vegetable Reporting

Q&A with Michele Simon: Helping consumers see past junk food "nutriwashing"

Q&A with Michele Simon: Behind the Battle Lines of Local Food Wars

Covering Food Deserts


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I agree we should talk about the food industry. We should also talk about the lack of physical activity too among too many Americans. When we discuss obesity in mass we have a better chance of scaling up a national conversation on policy and practices for healthier living. I'm glad for the discussion.

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Actually, the point of the documentary was to point out that collective action is needed on all levels, as pointed out by the review in The New York Times, among others - quite the opposite of pointing fingers at overweight individuals. As for fear-mongering, are you saying it's not a crisis? That obesity carries no ill health effects? It's too bad you didn't watch the show.


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