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Academia, Obesity Epi-Panic, and the Emperor’s New Clothes

A quick hit today with apologies to everyone since I have been completely overcome by work lately and unable to dedicate time to writing. I hope to have everything sorted soon so that I can continue the series on food and food processing. In the meantime, I want to talk about articles in the press, and commenters who bring joy by pointing out the naked emperors in our midst.

It is both wonderful and terrible to have the Newspaper of Record for these United States as one’s hometown paper. On the one hand, there is some VERY fine reporting in the paper. On the other hand, one has to contend with the Fat-Bash Olympics on a daily basis. I have been really fed up lately with the patronizing tone of some of the writers who address topics of health. It really has been worse than usual. And yet, a new crop of commenters seem less and less willing to remain silent, so they are pointing out the birthday-suited emperors running around in academic head-dress justifying their studies by bashing fat and fat people.

Most of the time, unfortunately, I have to say that the worst of the fat bashing contenders play on the Commenters team, not the Journalists team, in the contests. What I have been seeing more of, however is, a commenter such as the one (whose comment I will talk about today) who will distinguish him or herself by calling shenanigans on one or more aspects of an article, and showing very clearly and with few words the bias which underlies it.

One such article appeared last Tuesday in the Times. You can see the article here. It was written by Jane Brody, and it references primarily the work of Dr. Richard J. Jackson, professor and chairman of environmental health sciences at the UCLA. He works in the field of analyzing how the built environment (our cities, suburbs… our living environment in short) affect health. Well, so far so good. In these pages we have often commented upon this. What is unfortunate, however, is that this Dr. Jackson seems compelled to repeat the same shibboleths of the fat-hating academic tribes to justify his pursuits. Here is an example (emphasis supplied):

unless changes are made soon in the way many of our neighborhoods are constructed, people in the current generation (born since 1980) will be the first in America to live shorter lives than their parents do.

“People who walk more weigh less and live longer,” Dr. Jackson said. “People who are fit live longer. People who have friends and remain socially active live longer. We don’t need to prove all of this,” despite the plethora of research reports demonstrating the ill effects of current community structures.”

If one were to remove the highlighted bits (please read the full article for the context), the good work that public health professionals concerned with our built environment would still be emphasized appropriately. The justification of creating environments where movement is possible, encouraged and supported would be maintained.

Why, oh why, does weight have to play a part? Are these academics concerned that their work will be invalidated if obesity is not highlighted as “the problem”? SHOULD they be concerned that their funding will be reduced if it is NOT thus highlighted? I really want to know. Perhaps if one of you academics is reading this you can enlighten us in the comments to this post.

The Comments Section for these articles is where we can feel the zeitgeist most clearly. These were actually (on balance) not bad in the case of this article. That is actually a welcome change. One comment, stood out for aiming a strong beam of light right at the implicit fallacies. The link I provided shows the comment and the responses to it (a fine recent refinement to the commenting process). A gentleman (to judge by the picture provided) writing as Kip Hansen (who I hope keeps commenting on these topics in the future) said:

“…Compare his dreadful predictions with the fact the average lifespan in the US continues to rise, year after year. Americans are healthier and live longer than ever before.

There is always someone who can drag out some 'purpose-chosen' statistics (doesn't that sound nicer than 'cherry-picked' ?) showing how this and that disease is on the rise (usually because we're living longer, and moire [sic] of us suffer the usual diseases and discomforts of older-age)...”

Some people who responded dog-piled on his comments saying that – of course – the increase in diabetes will not show up in death stats for years, and (I am paraphrasing here) that we are all just fat pigs. Yet the gentleman’s comment stands as a very clear counterbalance of common sense to the Obesity Panic-mongering that is de rigeur amongst academics working in public health. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I seem to see a larger number of comments such as Mr. Hansen’s showing up and being recommended by readers several times.

I know a number of regular readers of this blog comment on articles in their papers or on websites. If you do… What have your observations been in terms of the number of pro-HAES comments Have you encountered any great comments that pointed out some fundamental prejudice in an article? Do you have commenters that you consider favorites? What makes you decide to comment or to withhold your thoughts on any given article?

Looking forward to reading your thoughts…

A note to those who have been following the efforts to put up billboards in solidarity with the children of Atlanta who have been subjected to odious and shaming signs depicting fat children: You can follow the progress of the donations on Ragen Chastain’s page. There you will also find links to donate a dollar (or more) in solidarity. The effort exceeded original expectations, and is extremely close to meeting the requirement for a challenge grant from the More of Me to Love folks. Thank you if you have donated, and please donate if you possibly can. Every donation counts!

Stand4Kids Update | Feeling Excluded

AndyJo's picture
February 6th, 2012 | Link | Great!

Your comment on the TVO site was excellent! Thank you for giving us the link!

--Andy Jo--

Bree's picture
February 7th, 2012 | Link | Great reply and the response

Great reply and the response above yours was also wonderful.

Hopefully more and more people will get brave and and fight back against the fat warmongers.

Alyssa February 26th, 2012 | Link | NYT

AndyJo, thanks for sharing this NYT article with comments. I read the NYT regularly, but I missed this article. However, I have seen the same type of article with the same type of comments for a number of NYT articles on "health." Interestingly, on non-health topics, I find the comments for the most part to be intelligent and informed, but when it comes to weight and "obesity," many comments degenerate into the fat-hatred and fatphobia seen here, including, comments like, "well, if I lost weight, you can too, and here is my foolproof solution." Others are downright vitriolic. Either these articles bring out the haters or they reveal the bias of otherwise sane people--or both. Nonetheless, it is very discouraging.

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