Why America is fat?


Practically the minute President Obama announced Regina M. Benjamin, a zaftig doctor who also has an M.B.A. and is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," as a nominee for the post of Surgeon General, the criticism started.

The attacks were vicious—Michael Karolchyk, owner of a Denver "anti-gym," told Fox News' Neil Cavuto, "Obesity is the No. 1 issue facing our country in terms of the health and wellness, and she has shown not that she was born this way, not that she woke up one day and was obese. She has shown through being lazy, and making poor food choices, that she's obese."

"This is totally disgusting to have some one so big to be advocating health," wrote one YouTube commenter.

The anger about Benjamin wasn't the only example of vitriol hurled at the overweight. Cintra Wilson, style columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a column so disdainful of JCPenney's plus-size mannequins that the Times' ombsbudman later wrote that he could read "a virtual sneer" coming through her prose. A NEWSWEEK post about Glamour’s recent plus-size model (in fact, a normal-sized woman with a bit of a belly roll) had several commenters lashing out at the positive reaction the model was receiving. "This model issue is being used as a smoke screen to justify self-destructive lifestyle that cost me more money in health care costs," one wrote. Heath guru MeMe Roth has made a career crusading against obesity, and made waves when she suggested that American Idol contestant Jordin Sparks needed to lose weight. (That MeMe Roth is considered something of an extremist doesn't stop the media attention) Virtually any news article about weight that is posted online garners a slew of comments from readers expressing disgust that people let their weight get so out of control. The specific target may change, but the words stay the same: Self-destructive. Disgusting. Disgraceful. Shameful. While the debate rages on about obesity and the best ways to deal with it, the attitudes Americans have toward those with extra pounds are only getting nastier. Just why do Americans hate fat people so much?

Fat bias is nothing new. "Public outrage at other people's obesity has a lot to do with America from the turn of the 20th century to about World War I," says Deborah Levine, assistant professor of health policy and management at Providence College. The rise of fat hatred is often seen as connected to the changing American workplace; in the early 20th century, companies began to offer snacks to employees, white-collar jobs became more prominent, and fewer people exercised. As thinness became rarer, says Peter N. Stearns, author of Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West and professor of history at George Mason University, it was more prized, and conversely, fatness was more maligned.

At the same time, people also paid a lot of attention to President Taft's girth; while Taft was large, he wasn't all that much heavier than earlier presidents. Newspapers questioned how his weight would affect diplomacy and solicited the funniest "fat Taft" joke. "This [period] is also when you get ready-to-wear clothing," says Levine. "For the first time, [people were] buying clothes in a certain size, and that encourages a comparison amongst other people." Actuarial tables began to connect weight and shorter lifespan, and cookbooks published around World War I targeted the overweight. "There was that idea that people who were overweight were hoarding resources needed for the war effort," Levine says. She adds that early concerns were that overweight American men would not be able to compete globally, participate in international business, or win wars.

(Source: NewsWeek, http://www.newsweek.com/id/213646)


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