Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obesity as a Fad or Obesity as Neglect?

Let me start by saying that I have never had to battle with my weight. I have an athletic body type which I embraced by playing sports almost everyday from 10-22 years old.  I considered my reward to be being able to eat what I wanted without a second thought. A girl's gotta get something for going to 6am practices and spending the school day unattractively covered in dry sweat. Do you think cute hair styles were in my daily teen routine? Anyway, so just know that this post comes from an outsider to the obesity world, looking in.

A few weeks ago, United Airlines announced that it would begin charging overweight passengers for a second seat on their flights. Recently, The Daily News wrote of Leanne Salt, an obese, British mother of triplets, who began feeding her babies McDonalds at 6 months old (A longer article can be found at She says she plans to teach her kids that big is beautiful (does she plan to include the risks associated with this level of beauty?). So what is my connection between the two? That we, the public, are being pulled in two directions in the obesity debate. Pity their disadvantages or embrace their beauty? Well, I am certainly not disagreeing that there is beauty in all body shapes and sizes. Past and present civilizations throughout the world have tagged extra body weight as the desired standard. But in this quickly changing modern world what is the cost of being overweight and where does personal responsibility weigh in (pun intended)?

I'll address the first news bulletin first. As an airline passenger, I'll admit I was not opposed to this new policy by United Airlines. I have been on flights where the person occupying the next seat was well into my seat. On the subway, I can choose to simply stand if the seat becomes too crowded, but this is just not an option on a flight. If I only have half a seat, should I get a partial refund? My mind raced back and forth, looking for any suspicion of anger toward overweight people. Then I thought that maybe my anger should be at airlines for making seats so narrow (I have not dismissed this one). After a long dialogue with myself I decided that wouldn't solve the problem either. How much bigger would seats need to be? Big enough for a 300 lb. person or 500 lb. person? Do weight limits for water slides need to be decreased to allow underweight people to ride? Someone will always be left out. In today's society, there is always a person too large and too small to accommodate. So what's a good, fair solution?

Given I said before I am an outsider on this issue, this is what I see. There are cases where medical conditions make it difficult for individuals to stay within healthy weight parameters. But even for these people, some simple lifestyle changes will do wonders. This is why the show The Biggest Loser has become so popular. I don't have an opinion about weight as it pertains to attractiveness, but I am quite conscious of today's obstacles to staying healthy and able, regardless of weight, and I can't imagine it is desirable for anyone to increase these risks by increasing their body weight. So back to this airline policy. I can fully appreciate that if I were overweight, I would oppose it. Who has double airline money laying around? However, I then thought, perhaps part of the obesity rise we are seeing is because we continue to accommodate larger sizes. Bigger clothing, bigger meals, bigger cars. I am not for the discrimination of any people, but this all seems to be about as helpful as a midwife encouraging a scheduled c-section. A person I know who once struggled with weight loss once said to me "when I went into a clothing store and saw that there were now plus sizes into the 20s, that scared the mess out of me.  There was less motivation for me to lose weight because society had begun to adjust to my growing."  So I think to myself, albeit unfair, perhaps airline fees will encourage people to lose weight?

Now to address Leanne Salt. Aside from being completely impressed and happy that she gave birth to triplets at the weight of 420 lbs. without serious health risks to her or the babies, I was disappointed to read that she is feeding her babies fast food.  I have read what I can about her personal struggle with weight and I can begin to guess her children's.  Her reasoning is that she doesn't have the time to make home-cooked meals and I wonder if she is aware of any options in between home-cooked meals and fast food.  There are gray areas in between. I don't assume everyone knows as much about healthy food options as I do (don't hold me to being an expert though) just as I know very little about many other subjects, but my instincts tell me that at 420 lbs. perhaps there is an indication that your children are also at risk for following this path. And if this is the case, and if Ms. Salt is happy being this size, I have a hard time opposing her having to pay for an extra seat on an airplane. 

And, I have another question burning in my mind. If parents are proud of being unhealthily overweight, at what point are they responsible for their children's health problems. I am not relinquishing our fast food nation's responsibility for destroying our food and our health. 
But that is a separate battle. One that we cannot win tomorrow. But we can change our own lives whenever we choose. Back to my point, in our society, social services will take children from their parents if they are malnourished (even well intended malnourishment, such as a poorly balanced vegan diet), however a 200 lb. toddler who is fed three times the daily recommended everything goes unchecked.  As our children are younger and increasingly diagnosed with asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and frequent seasonal illnesses brought on by weak immune systems (see, where does personal responsibility meet societal responsibility? Do we not intervene in the health of anorexic children? So why ignore the much larger group of at-risk children (no pun intended this time) who are suffering, both physically and emotionally. 

As a parent, I have to believe my maternal instincts that protect my child's well-being.  We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel now, as our society takes steps to bring healthy eating back into our homes. It is now less excusable to say we didn't know. WIC programs provide raw fruits and vegetables and promote breast feeding, lung cancer survivors come to us through commercials to discourage smoking, the dentist tells us sugar will rot our teeth, and we know exercise is great. There is enough information out there to make a first attempt at regaining and maintaining our health and our children's health. It is our responsibility as individuals and parents to not condemn ourselves and our children to shortened, sickly lives. It is our responsibility as members of a society not to accept this detrimental pattern in the name of convenience or political or social correctness but to support those who want to live longer and healthier and those who are too young yet to know. If each person said goodbye to their obesity and gained 20 years on their lives all to avoid an extra $300 to get from New York to California, wouldn't that be worth it?

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