Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: Do We Place Too Much Focus On Body Shape?

One of my main concerns about the "War on Obesity" is the casualties. Fat-shaming is at an all-time high, with everyone from corporations targeting children to state health departments using negative descriptions of people's bodies in an attempt to address lifestyle-related disease.  Proponents of this approach cite the success of public health campaigns against smoking, saying that the shock tactics used in those campaigns (a matter up for debate) reduced smoking.  (As I was researching this story, I was distressed to find that models for the NY photographs were unaware of how their images were to be used - e.g. the perfectly healthy leg of the "amputee" pictured was airbrushed out of the photo.)

Setting aside, for now, the social justice issues involved in fat-shaming, these campaigns ignore the fact that it is possible for people of all shapes to be unhealthy or healthy.  A 2002 study in Puerto Rico showed that "The benefits of an active lifestyle are independent of body weight and that overweight and obese Puerto Rican men who are physically active experienced significant reductions in all-cause mortality compared with their sedentary counterparts." Conversely, thin people are not necessarily safe from Type 2 diabetes, and little is known about how to manage that disease when weight loss is not an option.  All that being said, even when the discussion turns to healthy or unhealthy lifestyle choices rather than body shape, it often fails to address the various social and economic forces driving those choices.

Beyond food policy - what's a caring parent to do?  We want our children to grow up healthy and happy, and we certainly want them to avoid choices that might interfere with those two things.  I found this article on the blog Body Impolitic, that quotes a variety of sources that focus on positive behavior; for instance: want your kids to be more active?  Get out and play with them!  Want them to eat less junk food?  Don't buy it!  Blogger Shaunta of Fierce Fatties sums it up beautifully: "Here’s the thing: every human being benefits from increased exercise (of a type that suits their abilities) and eating a varied diet of nutritious foods. Not just the fat ones. And here’s more: As much as your child’s physical health is your responsibility, so is his or her emotional and psychic health. Do the right thing."

And - just to add - ugh.  One word: if they're selling it, the best thing we can do is not to buy.

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