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Weight Matters: Another Capitalist Health Crisis

Weight Matters: Another Capitalist Health Crisis
Jack Straw

In reaction to media ads showing ever-thinner models, many opponents of the status-quo have taken to saying that being overweight is good, an assertion of refusal of media propaganda which aims to sell diets, gyms, and self-hate, and which feeds on people's vanity and exaggerated concerns about looks, particularly aging baby boomers. This I believe represents yet another false alternative to the values offered by the mass media.

An article in the Spring 2001 issue of Slingshot, "Reclaiming My Body", made excellent points about the difference between the images being sold us via mass media advertising and health. And its basic recommendations, a healthy diet and exercise, are very sound. But then came an assertion that "weight is not a true indicator of good health, that as long as you're exercising regularly and you have good blood pressure, good cholesterol levels and good blood sugar levels, you're in pretty darn good shape." Excuse me, but that's like saying that a person falling off a tall building shows few ill effects at the 20th floor on the way down, aside from a rapid pulse. A similar claim can be made to the effect that dioxin isn't bad for you as long as you seem healthy.

Many, many studies have shown a strong link between excess weight and health problems, including one in April 2001 done by the World Health Organization,which pins problems even on excess weight which does not amount to obesity. Two major studies can be found in the New England Journal of Medicine, one from 1/1/98 (whose conclusion that excess weight may not be a problem past the age of 75 was amazingly used by some to assert the study found no link between health and weight) and a follow-up to it, 10/7/99, which concluded the link is even stronger than first thought, and does not weaken after 75.

This is not a cosmetic matter, a question of "looksism". The article focuses on appearances, ie media images, rather than the underlying material situation, just as the movement as a whole focuses on the symptoms of capitalism, rather than capitalist social relations themselves. Anorexia and bulemia are bad problems for quite a few people (especially women), and even deadly for a few. And many women (and men) are often needlessly pressured to question their attractiveness simply because they don't happen to fit the image of the media star of the moment (one could wish that the fame of most of these stars would only last fifteen minutes). But these problems are dwarfed by a growing excessive weight epidemic.

More people than ever, 61% of Americans at last count, are overweight (based not on height/weight charts, as the  Slingshot piece author Tracy Lee contends, but on body mass index), more than ever are obese. And the problem is worst among children, up to 25% of whom are now obese, a doubling over the last two decades. Adult (sic) onset diabetes and even heart attack incidents are growing like crazy among kids (as young as 4!), who are subject to more and more ads for junk food, even at school. Over 280,000 die in the US every year due to weight-related problems. (San Francisco Chronicle, p 1, 10/27/99)

An explanation lies in "life" within capitalist society. We are stressed out with long work hours, long commutes, less and less time to exercise or in fact do anything, and usually drive to work,shopping, and/or "leisure". Our time is spent online, watching TV, talking on a cell phone, or consuming mass media, or all of these simultaneously. Our "nutrition" thus increasingly consists of junk/fast food with its fat, sugars and salt. We are all impacted as well by an environment that is increasingly polluted and stressed out, which no doubt disrupts our body rhythms. (Toxic chemicals have been connected to disruptions of animal reproductive systems.) Any wonder we are getting obese? To top it off, all this is used by the purveyors of snake oil diets and other scams to sell us their commodities with renewed urgency, and the ads portray models who are unrealistically thin. It's so out of whack that even Marilyn Monroe has been labled "fat" by movie star Elizabeth Hurley. The weight epidemic provides fertile soil for this image industry.

Some people have even gone as far as to contend that since proportionally more poor people and folks in the African-American and Latino communities, especially women, are overweight or obese, criticism of excess weight amount to "classism" and racism. But even a simple examination of the facts would disclose that the poor, of which a larger portion are African-American and Latino than is the general population, have diets which are particularly dependent on the shit food produced by capital, and are subject to high levels of stress and pollution. I should make it clear that this analysis has nothing to do with notions that people who are overweight lack moral fiber; the problem is social in nature. Demands for "fat acceptance" are ultimately demands to accept the poor public health conditions of capitalism.

I don't know Tracy Lee's "fat vegetarian bike messenger" friend, for whom she claims good health in contrast to anorexic models. But i do know people who are/were nominally vegetarians, whose diet included lots of processed cheese, large quantities of beer, and commercially-grown (ie pesticide and fertilizer rich) vegetables. Such a "vegetarian" diet is not a recipe to good health. In fact, one of the people i know like that was a close relative who died of a heart attack at a relatively young age. Even organically-grown food is not good for you if eaten to excess; too much organic butter or organic chocolate will mess up your body chemistry just like any excessive amount of non-organic butter or chocolate.

And Lee's advice to eat when you feel hungry is not necessarily a good idea. As mentioned before, our body rhythms get disrupted by all the toxic shit around us, and our stressful social environment. We should think twice if we are really hungry, or simply nervous/hyper, since we are not living in a state of natural balance.

(August 13, 2001)

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