Los Angeles Times Publishes Opinion Pieces on Cultural Aspects of Obesity Debate
The Los Angeles Times last week published a series of opinion pieces on obesity, including the biggest obesity myths, best public policies, the government's stance and parameters of the problem. On the final day of the five-day series, the Times featured a discussion between Kelly Brownell -- a psychology and epidemiology professor at Yale University where he also is director of the university's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity -- and Paul Campos -- a law professor at the University of Colorado and syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard -- on the cultural and class components of the debate. Summaries of the pieces appear below.
"It is a mistake to think that obesity is a problem only in certain social or racial groups," Brownell writes, adding, "It is rampant in all races, in both genders and across all ages. It would be mistake, as well, to believe that race and social class do not matter." According to Brownell, 40% of blacks, 34% of Hispanics and 29% of whites are obese. Seventy-eight percent of black women are either overweight or obese, according to Brownell.
Brownell writes, "The reality stares us in the face -- poverty discourages physical activity and encourages excess calorie consumption. Anything but sky-high rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases would be surprising." He adds, "Blaming the victims for making bad choices is common, but more helpful would be an honest assessment of the conditions that create the problems and solutions based on the causes."
Brownell suggests that to address the problem, zoning laws and tax incentive programs should encourage more supermarkets in poor neighborhoods; food-stamp programs should give bonuses to those who purchase fruits and vegetables; healthier food options should be available in schools; and advertising for calorie-dense, low-nutrition foods should be reduced in disproportionately minority populations (Brownell, Los Angeles Times, 9/ 21).
"Americans are obsessed with fat because fatness has become a symbol for poverty, downward mobility, nonwhiteness and socially marginal status in general. Fear and hatred of fat has very little to do with the health risks associated with being 'overweight' and 'obese' ... and everything to do with the symbolic meanings that thin and fat bodies have in this culture," Campos writes.
"The fundamental strategy of the war on fat is to universalize the attitudes of middle- and upper-class white American women toward weight, food, dieting and exercise," Campos writes, adding, "Such women are taught from a very early age to hate their bodies, to be terrified of fat and to turn eating into an endless moralistic struggle."
According to Campos, many weight-loss companies, such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, are beginning to target blacks and Hispanics. In addition, Campos maintains that nearly four out of five black women are overweight or obese, though black women have "much more positive views of their own bodies" than their white counterparts. He asks, "Is it a coincidence that studies also record no increased mortality risk associated with even very high levels of body mass among black women?"
"Perhaps all we 'diet- and shape-conscious folk' ought to put down the white man's (or more precisely, the white woman's) burden and stop inflicting our neuroses on everyone else. ... [W]e out to consider the possibility that ... our 'methods have become unsound'" (Campos, Los Angeles Times, 9/21).