Stop Coddling Overweight People

Sasha Brown-Worsham

**This is Part 1 of a 2-part Point/Counterpoint discussion. Click here for Part 2.

Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly may be a mean girl with a host of social issues, but let's face it: The obesity problem she exposed (albeit cruelly) is very real.

We don't need to call overweight people "fatties" like Kelly did to be able to recognize there is a serious, growing epidemic in this country. And instead of finding ways to fight that, we spend our time coddling it -- finding new and improved ways to be politically correct while never admitting the facts: Obesity is an ongoing, massive health crisis.

The problem, most certainly, is not a cosmetic one. It's a serious health one that could have devastating effects on our economy and our ability to stay competitive on a global scale. Obesity-related medical bills total nearly $93 billion, or 9 percent, of our national medical bill.

Do you still want to pretend the problem is merely a cosmetic one?

But many want to turn their cheek and pretend that obesity is a quick-fix problem and one that is really more about being physically unappealing than terribly unhealthy. Case in point: the response to the aforementioned Marie Claire blog last week.

Last week, Kelly fired off a snarky and poorly written blog addressing the problem with "fatties" on television in response to the new CBS show Mike & Molly, a sitcom focusing on two obese main characters. The post seemed like something the former anorexic writer gave little thought to until the wrath of the wounded came down on her.

Kelly spoke of her "disgust" with overweight people. She was widely excoriated for her post. 28,000 emails were sent to the Marie Claire offices calling for her head. The post has since been removed from the website (and then mysteriously put back up today).

Would the same worry have been applied if the people she had mocked had been "too thin"? Does anyone get up in arms when people mock Kelly Ripa who weighs 90 pounds soaking wet? It's never right to mock a person's weight, but if that person happens to be obese? Then it's extra off-limits.

Consider this: Mike & Molly on the CBS show met in Overeaters Anonymous, which is in itself an admission. Their obesity is caused by something they want to change. It isn't their fault necessarily -- it's an addiction like any other -- but it isn't the "norm" or the "ideal" or the healthiest way to be. If it were, why would they be trying to change?

The fact is, in our country, obesity is an epidemic, not a cosmetic problem we need to fix. People are undergoing dangerous, major surgery -- gastric bypasses and lap bands -- just to be able to live. The "fat acceptance" movement may be important in terms of valuing oneself, but let's not let it blind us or allow us to pretend that being obese is healthy.

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 68 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Roughly 75 million adult Americans would be considered obese.

Staggering statistics when we consider the health problems obesity causes -- knee/joint problems, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other physical problems.

"There's a tremendous social cost to obesity," says David Allison, an obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Obese people are less likely to be given jobs, they're waited on more slowly, they're less likely to be given apartments, they're less likely to be sent to college by their parents."

Part of what made Kelly's post so egregious was the flippant way in which she mentioned diet and exercise as though they are simple. They aren't. Losing weight is incredibly difficult and keeping it off is even harder.

In some cases obesity is a lifestyle "choice," but in many others, it isn't. That still doesn't mean we should accept it. Chili's chain of restaurants is buying chairs 14 inches larger to accommodate larger patrons; furniture makers are working to build more accommodating furniture; and airlines are providing larger lap belts. Many are also pushing for more fashionable and readily available plus-size clothing.

It's great that we're recognizing the problem and trying to build around it, but accommodating the problem is not necessarily the answer. Building bigger chairs may help for comfort and eliminate embarrassing squeaking or breaking, but it doesn't really address the core problem -- how did the weight get there in the first place?

There are heavy people who are healthy. Some people exercise and eat right and are just naturally heavier than others, but for the most part, the kind of obesity that balloons out of control is not healthy. Period.

Rather than building a world around obesity and accepting it, why not try to change it instead? We, as a society, could encourage healthier lifestyles choices: offering incentives to join gyms and then rewards for regular usage. Rather than build bigger chairs, restaurants could cut out all-you-can-eat extravaganzas. We could build more sidewalks and walking paths in rural/industrial areas that would encourage people to go to work in more active ways. Other countries have city-wide bike rentals and a culture that supports cycling as a means of transportation.

In addition to all of this, we need to ask some hard questions of our society as a whole. There are very real socioeconomic issues at play here, too. For some, access to healthy foods and gyms and places to exercise are just not the same as they are for others. We have to work on finding out why that might be and finding solutions for those problems. Let's not just build a bigger chair, throw on a size 22 dress, and call it a solution. 

Is it easy? Not at all. And for some it isn't a simple equation. There are a host of very real physical and emotional issues that contribute to obesity. But let's fight the underlying cause of the problems, not the symptoms. To find those causes, we may have to dig a little deeper, maybe bruise some egos along the way, but in the long run, if the end result is a healthier population, how could it be the wrong path to follow?

What do you think will help fight obesity?


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