Stuff that I think about. Mostly books.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Obesity Crisis Media Hypery

Via my good friend Katie - who is a rarity amongst health writers, in that she actually employs critical thinking skills on a regular basis - comes this article from Reuters about an impressive study on weight gain and age. Researchers followed the exercise and eating habits of 34,000 American women over the course of 15 years. When I say "impressive," I mean in terms of the sample size and length of the study, because the results were decidedly unimpressive: The average woman can expect to gain 5.7 pounds over 15 years.

I don't know about you, but the fact that I will be slightly heavier when I'm 38 than I am now is far less concerning to me than the fact that this apparently qualifies as news. I'm no scientist, but isn't it pretty much common sense that metabolism decreases with age, which leads to weight gain? Or maybe it's that people, especially women, tend to take on more responsibilities as they age (children, housework, increased career responsibility, finances), which translates into less time for exercise and dieting? Well, whatever the reason, I and, I would hope, most reasonable thinking people are decidedly "meh" about these findings.

But of course, this is the media, where any excuse to rant about teh fatties is a good one. So let's count all the ways in which this article corresponds exactly to Obesity Crisis Media Hypery, shall we?

Obesity Crisis Media Hypery Method #1: Combine relatively unremarkable data with ridiculously hyperbolic reporting.

As I've already mentioned, the fact that 40-year-olds tend to weigh more than 25-year-olds is neither breaking nor news. But according to Reuters, a 5.7-pound weight gain is incentive to war. No, I'm not exaggerating:

Winning that war will require individuals to make changes in their daily routines -- like walking or biking to work -- but it may also take a shift in policy to make it easier for people in fit exercise into their lives, researchers said. (emphasis mine)

You heard it here first, folks. Those six pounds are the enemy; your (necessarily female) body is the battleground. Which makes you a soldier, and a patriot. You're not just trying to stay skinny enough for your skinny jeans; you're serving your country. (The fact that the United States is currently at war - an actual war, in which people are getting killed - is apparently lost on Reuters.)

Obesity Crisis Media Hypery Method #2: Accompany article with unflattering photo of morbidly obese woman or women, with face(s) obscured in some way.

It is apparently the law that any article that mentions weight in any way must be accompanied by a Headless Fatty photo. To Reuters' credit, they seem to have removed the photo that originally headed the article, but rest assured that they stayed well within the parameters of that unbreakable law. The photo was of two very large women in bathing suits at the pool, their backs turned.

Not only is the Headless Fatty photo dehumanizing and offensive - click the link for more on that - but it's also total bullshit. The ubiquitous Headless Fatty, first of all, is a human being, who in all likelihood did not ask or intend to represent a public health crisis, and who, without her consent, now finds herself the subject of disgust and ridicule in international news. That's the important thing. But also? Most overweight and obese people do not look like the Headless Fatty. The Headless Fatty is much, much fatter than the vast majority of overweight and obese Americans, which makes the use of her photo to accompany these types of news stories completely inaccurate and misleading. It's like if you wrote an article about how it's been raining a little more this year than it did last year, and then you illustrated it with a picture of a hurricane. (I struggled for a while with that analogy, and I'm still not happy with it, because it seems to imply that hurricanes and morbidly obese people have similarly devastating effects. If you have a better suggestion, feel free to leave it below.)

Obesity Crisis Media Hypery Method #3: Dole out completely unrealistic "advice" that will solve this public health crisis.

Still worried about being slightly fatter in 15 years than you are now? Don't worry; there's a solution. Just spend seven hours a week exercising.

Ok, on its face, I guess that doesn't seem like that much. An hour a day? Ok. But let's break this down. Compared to a lot of people, I am really not that busy. I work, but only about 44 hours a week; I go to school, but only part-time; I don't have kids; and my social calendar is relatively sparse on account of my being a prematurely elderly lady who doesn't like to go to bed past 11. But even I would have trouble meeting this goal. Why? Partly it's because I'm as lazy as a housecat, but mostly, it's because I have other shit I like to do.

Here's what the researchers suggest:

"I think the easiest thing is actually commuting," she said, suggesting people walk or bike to work, and if they drive, to park farther away from the office.
It takes an astonishing amount of privilege to say this kind of thing with a straight face. First of all, ok, there's the assumption that everyone everywhere works in an office. Second, walking to work is really not an option if you work long hours and live far away, because, see, it gets dark out. And while women are told that we have to walk around all the time because otherwise we'll be fat, we're also told that walking around all the time will get us raped and we should never do it. See how that's confusing? And I would imagine that, for people who don't live in biker-friendly cities, "biking to work" is actually not the easiest thing because it could get you killed. Way quicker and probably more painfully than the deathfats.

But sure. Commuting to your plushy 9-to-5 office job is the easiest thing. Obvs. Can't do it? Too bad. BOOTSTRAPS!
If seven hours a week are just too hard to fit in, Lee said people might want to consider vigorous exercise such as jogging, which can cut the weekly time requirement in half.
Consider this, Lee: To jog, you either need a gym membership, which most people can't afford, or you need access to safe pathways, which most people don't live close to. You also need running shoes and appropriate clothes, and you need to not have joint problems. But ok. Thanks, tips! Apparently exercise is good for you, and this I never knew.


Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and adding about $150 billion a year to U.S. healthcare costs.

[citation needed]

Full disclosure: If I fulfill my genetic destiny and gain 5.7 pounds by the time I'm 38, I will have officially crossed the threshold from cushy, privileged, unremarkable "normal" into the public health crisis zone that is "overweight." The fact that a gain of six pounds will suddenly mean I'm costing everybody billions of dollars in health care costs is total unmitigated bullshit. I'm too tired and angry to get into exactly why right now, but check out this post and the rest of the excellent Obesity Paradox series.

Listen up, guys: bodies change as they age. The hard facts of living mean that you will sag in some places and wrinkle in others. Your hair might get grey, your back might get sore whenever it's humid. And yes, you might gain a little bit of weight. But frankly, by the time I'm 38, I'll be way too busy editing the next Joseph Boyden novel and planning my wedding to Sam Worthington (on whom I will, of course, be cheating with Joseph Boyden) to give even one tiny rat's ass about the fact that when I was 23, I weighed six pounds less. It just isn't worth going to war.

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