The burden of fitness

I have written a number of times recently about the problem of obesity. It is a public health crisis that needs to be addressed, of course, but my focus has been different. Whereas the fact of being fat is a bad thing from a public stance (and a private stance for those who are, indeed, fat), it is not a moral issue. Where morality does play a role, however, is in the lack of an honest effort to be healthy. I call this the burden of fitness.

The first things which come up when I start making this argument are whining about how I’m not sensitive to how difficult it is to be fat, how hard it is to eat healthy for the poor, and why I think it is okay for me to impose my morality on others. To address them for the nth time (not that most people are interesting in understanding this argument): the burden of fitness one person bears will be different from the burden another person bears. A fat person cannot be expected to run 5 miles with any bit of ease or even regularity. A poor person cannot be expected to eat the best foods possible. They still need to do what is within their power to be as fit as possible, but I fully acknowledge that their power is limited. (None of this, of course, addresses the millions and millions of Americans who are fat and relatively wealthy and/or relatively able.) And on morality, I don’t want to impose my morality on anyone. That doesn’t mean that I can’t hold a moral position on the matter. After all, if it is wrong to intentionally and willingly mistreat a human body, I don’t see why that logic should not apply to one’s own body. The only difference comes when the issue of societal enforcement is addressed. Clearly a person’s autonomy is the biggest factor there.

Now that I have that out of the way, it is because I see people as bearing a burden of fitness that I fully support an effort in Georgia to aggressively go after the issue of childhood obesity:

“Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid,” read graphics of a TV ad in which a young girl tells of how she doesn’t like going to school because she’s bullied over her weight.

It is part of a video and print campaign to combat childhood obesity in Georgia, which has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation…

“We needed something that was more arresting and in your face than some of the flowery campaigns out there,” said Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Some people are naturally worried that this will stigmatize fat kids, but I think that worry ought to be secondary. First of all, fat kids are becoming the majority. There is no more “the fat kid” in class. The article has been changed to “a”. Being overweight still brings with it unfortunate mockery, but today’s environment cannot possibly be anything like that of years past. Second, none of the efforts thus far have worked. Coddling fat people and telling them to be proud of their bodies is detrimental not only to them but to society in the form of healthcare costs and lost productivity. We need this new approach.

But let’s not lose sight of things here. As I said, one’s burden of fitness will change under different conditions. That is, context matters. Poor or disabled people bear less of a burden. Children, then, must bear little to no burden, depending on age. They don’t control what food is bought for them, nor should we expect them to be well educated on health or even have great foresight on the matter. That is why this campaign is also targeting parents:

The organization also made a point to specifically target parents. One TV spot shows a child looking miserable and asking his mother “Mom, why am I fat?” His equally overweight mother sighs and looks ashamed.

Good. Adults are to blame for virtually every case of obesity in America. It is their responsibility to do a better job. If that means guilt-tripping them into action, then so be it.

Something has to be done. Even for all the people who don’t see how morality factors into this (not that anyone ever addresses that argument), it cannot be denied that there are important issues at stake here. The nation is on its way to overwhelming healthcare costs, even as we improve our ‘system’. Our productivity has to be impacted. Even our ability to respond to natural disasters is impacted – how much clean up effort can be had from a person carrying an extra 100 pounds? We have to do something to get people moving again. The health of the nation clearly depends upon the health of its citizenry.