Free to be Fat

Winona Winkler Wendth
WinonaWW@mac.com

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NPR ran a story this week, versions of which have been in the news for a few days, now—on the security threat posed by obesity.   In “Too Fat to Fight,” Richard Knox, who covers medical and health care news for the station, says “Obesity threatens military recruiting,” the online headline suggesting that the condition, like some dangerous concept such as greed, is affecting the minds and hearts of Americans, rendering them less than the best citizens and unwilling to serve on the Army’s terms.  Of course, this story came about because potential recruits wanted to serve but couldn’t.  They really couldn’t—they couldn’t move fast enough, prevail against physical odds long enough, or lift themselves—or others—far or high enough.  And drill sergeants could not have whipped them into shape in time to make their inductions worthwhile.  After all, the military isn’t exactly The Golden Door.

One wonders how eager these men and women were to correct or cure their condition; I suspect that, given their recruiting officer’s assessments, very few said, “O.K., then, tell me what to do, give me six or seven months, and I’ll be back.”  My guess is that a very large number left the offices discouraged, and wandered off, back to their living room couches, video screens, and Big Macs, disappointed but not disaffected.  “Obesity” isn’t the menace:  Obese Americans are. 

I know how harsh this sounds—after, all, unlike atheists, Southern Baptists, anarchists, or junk bond traders, who choose their conditions, obese people would rather not be obese; they are not consciously committed to lives of obesity, cardiac stress, diabetes, or swollen feet and joints.  However, they are committed to lives under their control—at least as they understand that. Generally speaking—although we all know exceptions—those who have least control in other parts of their lives exert it in what they insist on doing—or not doing—with their bodies, which are “the final frontier,” although who is advancing on what is not always clear.

One must allow for poor education, certainly health education, but the American tendency to refuse advice given on behalf of the community is widespread.   The Government had a hard time talking Americans out of smoking, then limiting triglycerides and sodium against the preferences of food manufacturers and most consumers.  Finally, local policies moved sugar-laden soft drinks out of grade school buildings.

Many educators are still fighting what might be a losing battle to get children and their parents out from in front of one screen or another—two, fifteen, or fifty-inch screens.  Some of this is insidious habit—some have considered inertia an addiction.  But in all cases, we have under-paid, under-educated, Americans who feel ineffectual and whose initial response to almost any request that requires change or largess is, “You can’t make me.”

The new American Tea Party more or less comes from this self-view; it’s the central tenet of what many consider ultimate liberty:  “You can’t make me.”  

No, we can’t make you.  Americans have the liberty to be fat, to be indolent, to not do what they don’t want to do—read, study, change their lives, especially make adjustments on the part of their communities or their planet.  To an extreme, this suggests a Constitutional right to destroy themselves and everyone and thing around them.  Some of that is indisputable.  But your freedom to move your fist, literally or figuratively, extends only as far as my nose. Or my safety. Or my liberty to move about—literally—as I need to.  Liberty without responsibility is anarchy—an anarchy by default, not a strategic one come by ideological choice, which, unlike the energies of mindless mobs, is subject to debate and recovery.

The spouse of a Midwestern congressman told me not long ago that many representatives saw obesity and ill-health as a domestic national security risk.  An obese person at home or work is no more able than a deconditioned army private to move quickly or lift him or herself or a fellow American out of harm’s way.  Obese Americans—not obesity—block stairwells and hallways and inhibit the movement of others who don’t.

“During World War II, at least 40 percent of potential military recruits were undernourished,” Knox says in his NPR article.  As a result,  “military leaders helped convince Congress to pass the National School Lunch Program.”  It worked—we’re taller than we were by an inch-and-a-half, and for a while, stronger.  Maybe the military, who found a way to make us taller, can also find a way to make us smaller.  On the other hand, convincing the hungry to eat is quite different from asking the overfed to get a nutritional grip and consider passing up the liberty to be sick. 

About the Author

Winona Winkler Wendth is a peripatetic New Yorker and freelance writer who lives and teaches near Boston. She taught The History and Philosophy of Health Care at Kettering College of Medical Arts in Dayton, Ohio, and worked closely with physician assistants in legislative, community, and international projects. She was the Eda Kriseova Fellow at Univerzita Karlova in Prague for the study of writing and cross-cultural issues in Czech and American literature in 2008, and assisted in editing English translations of Danish philosopher Knud Logstrup and Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. She has published in Spectrum , Third Coast, and The Bennington Review. Wendth holds an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars.

Published: May 10, 2010