I used to think that Maine was a boring state. Non-diverse, highly rural, and moderate it was a state that rarely made news on a national scale unless it was to show off how much snow had fallen in a given day/month/season or to highlight the rampant poverty consuming many areas of the state. But now with the creative governor in place journalists have something to write about other than things happening in other states and the local agricultural fair.

All kidding aside, the Bangor Daily News saw fit to include this article from the Associated Press on Monday which criticizes the war on obesity and more specifically Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative. Considering that overweight and obese people (when their numbers are combined) make up 59% of Maine’s population, about 25% of high school students are obese, and 36% of Kindergarteners have a BMI greater than the 85th percentile (according to a 2007 study) this issue should hit home for the BDN’s target audience.

The gist of the article is the following:

1. Billboards in states such as Georga portray overweight and obese youths with negative messages in an effort to shame parents into getting their kids to lose weight. Opponents state that this portrays an already bullied youth population in a negative light, increasing and feeding the stigma attached to being overweight or obese.

2. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign reinforces the idea that being overweight or obese is an undesirable condition and worthy of stigma and (oversimplified)  fast solutions. It states that increased exercise will (somehow) fix the childhood obesity problem which is growing in this country.

Discrimination against overweight and obese people is a real phenomenon. Studies have shown that such individuals receive sub-par service in retail establishments, pay more for services and clothes, and may be the most bullied group ahead of all other groups that are actually protected under law (i.e. sex, race, ethnicity). If you can prove that someone didn’t hire you because you are fat, you might be up a creek without a paddle. But that’s not the angle I want to take here.

There are several undesirable conditions that a child or adult might have and conceal in order to exist peacefully and productively in our current social environment. If a child is gay, they can hide that and no one would think to tease them if they seal the closet door well. If a child has depression or other mental illness generally it can be medicated to the point that they can continue normally, avoiding ridicule or isolation from social groups. Adults who have drug or alcohol addictions can exist in the world as recovering addicts without anyone ever knowing that they have a disease. I’m not saying that it’s good for people to hide these conditions, I’m just saying that it’s much easier to hide these conditions to avoid the isolation and ridicule that might generally accompany knowledge of the condition in an individual, and in the case of being an alcoholic or a drug addict, it is possible to continue recovery apart from any pressure or rejection.

Now let’s picture the fat kid, and let’s say he’s in middle or high school (ages 14-18). He’s exercising like Michelle Obama suggests. He’s eating veggies and great meals because his parents don’t want him to be fat forever. Even if he does everything and is losing weight, he can’t hide that he’s still fat. He can’t hide his condition until he’s ready to accept it. He can’t go to Weight Watchers once a week but go on with his life the rest of the time without anyone knowing that he goes to meetings. Even if he is trying to improve his condition, he may have to do so through a torrent of name calling, teasing, bullying, etc. And you can imagine how that contributes to a productive effort at weight loss.

Children are cruel. Junior High children are ruthless and high school students are no less so, but by that age students are pretty well parceled into social groups so they have people to ease the emotional pain. This article makes the great point that we should keep in mind that this is a war against obesity, not against obese people/children. Instead of screaming “EXERCISE DAMN IT!” or “Stop shoving food in your mouth fattie!” perhaps education is necessary about the process of losing weight, about how it doesn’t happen overnight. That fat people can’t just stop eating like smokers can stop smoking or alcoholics stop drinking. This doesn’t mean quitting smoking or drinking is any easier, it’s just that this process is not readily recognizable while being fat or losing weight is out there for all to see AND that person still has to eat to survive so they are under constant criticism.

Come on! Get thin! Hurry up and be acceptable! Why can’t you just give up being fat! You’re making us look bad as Americans! So now not only are we showing obese people lumber about headless on the news as we bemoan our fat population, we are victimizing our children who may or may not have control over whether or not they are fat. This is not how to deal with this problem. We need to educate the public not only about how to lose weight but also how to be tolerant towards those who may be battling obesity or being overweight. I think what this article is trying to say is that we are missing the tolerance and support pieces of the puzzle, and without these pieces we may never win the war on obesity.

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