Why I Am Not Attending or Watching “Weight of the Nation”

The national hysteria over obesity has reached a crescendo this week, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts the conference, “Weight of the Nation” in Washington, DC. If you couldn’t make it, no worries, more fear-mongering is on the way in a four-part mini-series on HBO to air next week. The show of the same name is produced in coordination with several federal government agencies. The trailer alone almost brought me to tears, seeing all the awful stereotypes of fat people.

As I wrote in my book, focusing on obesity is problematic for many reasons. One, it ensures the focus stays on the individual, instead of the food industry. What do you think when you see a fat person? That it’s their fault, they just need to eat better and exercise more. Granted, my public health colleagues are trying to change this conversation to one of the “environment” (far too apolitical a word) but as long as we keep talking about obesity, the framing is all about individual behavior change.

Next, scientific evidence shows that fat people have enough problems dealing with discrimination, bullying, etc, and the last thing they need is more hate brought to you by the federal government and cable television. All the images I have seen coming from news accounts of the conference are negative. Even while the headlines may attempt to reframe from blame and shame, the images do not. For example, this Reuters story headline reads “Obesity fight must shift from personal blame-U.S. panel” but the image is of a fat person. Journalists take note: you are adding to the problem of bias and shame by using these images. (Recently, I wrote an article for the UK Guardian about PepsiCo and they wanted to run it with an image of a fat person. I insisted they change it and thankfully they did.)

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs! Indeed, the big announcement coming out of the CDC event yesterday was how the first lady’s Let’s Move program has its newest corporate partner in the frozen vegetable company, Birds Eye, which is launching a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat their veggies. Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye. Never mind all that junk food marketing to kids, which Let’s Move ignores. (If you missed it, this recent excellent Reuters investigation explains the food industry politics at play.)

The only thing bringing me any sanity this week is reading Julie Guthman’s excellent critique of the obesity wars, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. While Guthman’s style is too academic, she does a good job explaining why obesity is over-hyped and offers some interesting alternative theories to the tired calories in, calories out model. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that offers new and challenging insights on this issue. Additional resources I can recommend include:

16 Responses to “Why I Am Not Attending or Watching “Weight of the Nation””

  1. Hi Michelle,
    Nice post. I think you’ll be interested to read the piece I recently wrote for The Atlantic on the subject of “calories in, calories out” if you haven’t seen it already:

  2. Marie Rose says:

    Isn’t your argument the same as the one the CDC and IOM are arguing? What am I missing?

    Thanks! Your blog is inspirational.

    • Michele says:

      Obesity is the wrong framing of the problem for the reasons I’ve outlined. We have gotten nowhere by talking about obesity, this is a political problem at its core and neither CDC nor NIH are prepared to take on the issue politically.

  3. TK says:

    This concerns me:

    “Indeed, the big announcement coming out of the CDC event yesterday was how the first lady’s Let’s Move program has its newest corporate partner in the frozen vegetable company, Birds Eye, which is launching a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat their veggies. Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye. Never mind all that junk food marketing to kids, which Let’s Move ignores.”

    Your facts might be right, but your sentence “Problem solved, thanks Birds Eye” is a very serious accusation. Why can’t a marketing campaign to encourage kids to eat vegetables be celebrated rather than demeaned? Just so you can have a convenient sound-byte whipping boy? And what role does Let’s Move have in the junk food marketing to kids? Are they partnering with junk food corporations? Another serious accusation. We’ve all become so cynical and jaded that everyone is apparently out to get us, including Michelle Obama. What a pessimistic world this has become.

    Your overall important message becomes clouded when you go after the wrong villains. ALL kids would do well to eat more vegetables, no matter their weight.

  4. Michele says:

    Kids should not be marketed to, period. It’s immoral and I have argued, illegal. As for Let’s Move, yes, they do in fact partner with junk food companies. The “Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation” is full of America’s top junk food promoters. See Let’s Move partners here: http://www.ahealthieramerica.org/#!/our-partners and members of that foundation here: http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/supporters/members/

  5. Marilyn Wann says:

    I appreciate very much, Michele, that you’ve publicly pointed out how “Weight of the Nation” and similar programs promote prejudice at the expense of public health (for people of all sizes). That so many people fail to see the bias and the iatrogenic harms doesn’t mean they aren’t there. For the next several weeks, thanks to WOTN, I anticipate living in a world that is even more hostile than usual to my existence and to my health as a fat person. I’m so grateful for the existence of the Health At Every Size® approach, which effectively benefits both health and social justice while doing no harm. I don’t know what I would do without HAES. The fact that this alternative was excluded from WOTN is quite telling.

  6. MJ says:

    While I’ve only seen one part of the documentary – the 4th section (Challenges), I felt like in that part there was a huge focus on the food industry. I am not very well versed in ag policy, so I definitely learned a lot about the farm bill, commodities, etc. It was pointed out in the documentary that there are no incentives to grow fruits & veggies and that the current supply produced would not meet demand if everyone ate fresh & local foods. A lot of time was spent on the production of corn & soy and why it’s more profitable for farmers, but not good for our food supply. I can really only comment on the section I saw, but I did find it to be balanced and fair. Yes, the statistics are shocking and the trailer is very bold – but I still think it’s worth the time to check it out.

  7. ryanmichelle says:

    I agree with TK. All in all, we need to be educated about obesity as some people still don’t realize that it’s about more than skinny jeans. People should also learn how the food industry toxins are contributing to the obesity among other things. Then, we can talk about change and reform from consumers to congress.

  8. Sweaty Momma says:

    Great, now there will be more ‘informed” adults to harass me at the gym and stalk me in the grocery aisles.

    I already have to put up with the “I saw you buying a leafy green vegetable in the grocery store, good for you.” with that rude tone. Now it is going to be even more common. Maybe I should wear a “keep your agenda to yourself” badge when I shop and workout.

    What we really need are more people willing to be part of the solution: paying attention you put in your own grocery cart, enjoy the outdoors, and make being physically active a part of enjoying life – and stop offering our kids junk at play dates.

    The CDC and this documentary won’t help people who are really working to address this in their own lives. (I already am getting requests to log my steps at nearly a dozen different sites, none of which work together or are easy to use, and the incentives are pathetic. Sheesh, this is no fun… a lecture and a pathetic prize/incentive from people who really just want to profit from the use of my data? Not a fair deal at all.)

    More size obsessed bullies who are offering my kiddo HFCS juices at play-dates? no thank you.

    How about more water fountains, public walkability, and ways to make it easy-peasy to up our activity levels? Oh wait… that money was used to pay for this conference… gotcha.

    Count me out.

    [responding based on post by General Healthy]

  9. [...] vocally critical of the documentary is Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon, who I usually agree with on almost everything. However, on this I think [...]

  10. [...] week, after I declared my refusal to watch the HBO series, “Weight of the Nation,” Marlene Schwartz, of the [...]

  11. Court S. says:

    As someone who has two parents diagnosed this year with Type 2 diabetes (one requiring amputation and is now in failing health), two obese brothers (both with high cholesterol) I will tell you in my opinion this country has a huge metabolic problem, not obesity. Obesity can be a symptom of the problem, but the metabolic disorders and lifestyles that precede such issues are really the problem. Most adults I know have NO CLUE as to how food, alcohol, tobacco, sleep, exercise, stress and other factors affect metabolism and its functions in the body (including waste and toxin removal). And I’m sure it’s just as bad for kids. Frankly, I’m scared for this country and the millions of Baby Boomers aging into these problems (my parents are the first of the Boomers, and their health declined rapidly in early 60s). Shame is not the answer, but I find both doctors and patients terribly undereducated about what to recommend and how to live better.

  12. Jackie Topol, RD says:

    I thought the series was extremely well-rounded and brought up the many factors that are contributing to the obesity epidemic. I agree that food subsidies and food marketing to children are at the heart of this problem. Weight of the Nation did not ignore this. They also brought up many other important problems, such as cuts to physical education programs in schools, the sedentary lifestyles adults lead, and overall lack of food and nutrition knowledge. The one area I think they could have spoken about more was the economic stresses of affording healthier food and food deserts.

  13. [...] with the lack of meaningful solutions offered.  Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon (who originally refused to watch the show on principle) strongly criticized the documentary in “Uncle Sam and HBO [...]

  14. Patrick says:

    Michele, I understand your concerns, but I think Weight of the Nation does indeed address the contributions of the food industry to the current obesity issue in this country. Additionally, why should there not be images of or interviews with people who are dealing with weight management in a documentary about the difficulties of weight management? One thing that leads to weight and obesity stigma is a paucity of images that portray obese or overweight individuals in a positive light, doing normal things. One effort to remedy this comes out of the Yale Rudd Center, it provides a collection of photographs that portray obese individuals in ways that are positive and non-stereotypical, as well as guidelines for portrayal of obese or overweight people in the media. these can be found under “Media Resources” at the following URL: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=10

  15. [...] Watching ‘Weight of the Nation’ ” was originally posted May 8, 2012 on her Appetite for Profit [...]

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