Over the last several years, there has been a lot of chatter in the media about the obesity epidemic afflicting the United States, especially young teenagers of junior-high age. I will not rehearse the linked statistics here: you probably know them better than I, since, unlike your faithful Skeptic-In-Residence, most of my “Skeptic’s” readers are parents. (However, in fairness, I do have a PhD in being a kid ... a fat kid in particular. So I do have some modest competence to say what I say below.) I have even written humorously here and, somewhat humorously, here about my own struggles with weight, body image, and exercise. But this is really no laughing matter. Now, as far as the biological, somatic, and nutritional dimensions of the problem are concerned, basically no one is laughing. Michelle Obama, for example, worked tirelessly to address this issue with teens – and was brutally ridiculed by old, fat, middle-aged-male Republicans who presumably want to remake the Nation in the bloated image of their own lipophilia (“lover of fat”). But not even Michelle Obama nor, as far as I know, any other writer on the subject – with the conspicuous exception of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) -- has addressed the issue of the socio-cultural bigotry against obesity and its origins, least of all from the standpoint of actual, lived experience. At least to some degree, speaking as someone who was a fat baby who grew into a fat adolescent, and finally into a fat adult, I can.
Every fat kid, especially every fat boy, who ever attended a junior-high school, even if he never read Shakespeare's Richard III, is all too well acquainted with the revulsion with which Richard, the Duke of Gloucester as the play opens, greets the sight of his own body (Act 1, sc. 1):
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
So this will, of necessity, be a more or less personal reflection on what it is like to grow up fat as a child into a fat adolescent, and what it is like to be a fat adult. And why. For me – again, speaking for myself – the locus of the problem was going through puberty in the feral-teenager, Lord of the Flies culture of junior high school. (Side note to literature teachers: there is no point in assigning Lord of the Flies as required reading to fat students, least of all to fat students who are intellectually gifted / curious, at the junior-high and high-school levels. By the time fat students like that reach high school, they do not need to read the novel. They have most likely already lived it.) In that context, and even that early, I can identify two sources of the problem. The first source is the generalized bigotry against fat people that gets imported into the junior-high school subculture from the surrounding culture, i.e., what I refer to as lipophobia (the fear / hatred of fatness and fat people). Given the exaggerated value attached to physical fitness and athletic prowess characteristic of the junior-high culture, an emphasis magnified by the raging hormones and nascent sexuality of kids that age, importing societal prejudices against obesity and lack of athleticism into any secondary-school culture is like telling great white sharks that it is quite OK to eat any passing SCUBA diver: you are giving them carte blanche to do precisely what they were predisposed to do to begin with.
It might be possible – I am not optimistic, but it might be marginally practicable – to at least mitigate such lipophobic prejudice by undertaking school-wide re-education efforts to inculcate a competing culture of fat-acceptance, not by minimizing the health risks of obesity, which are quite real, but by somehow teaching kids that teens who struggle with body image and obesity are actually heroes for undertaking the struggle in the first place. (From personal experience in gyms – of which I am no longer a member – I can tell you that the heart-attack victim whose recovery includes an exercise program is viewed as a hero, whereas the fat person trying to get into some kind of decent physical shape is often treated as a source of free slapstick-comedy entertainment. This double standard still exists.) But this cultural change must begin – and will never succeed unless it does begin – in boys’ and girls’ gym / PE classes at the junior-high level. And at that point, you will crash into the brick wall of actual, deliberate, premeditated, even institutionalized fat bigotry on the part of PE teachers and gym coaches, whose professional training evidently included courses on how to make fat kids feel like chimpanzee shit ... five days a week throughout a nine-month school year.
So consistent and so strong is lipophobia on the part of junior-high-school gym / PE coaches that I must insist that, at some point in their professional training, perhaps in college, coaches-to-be are intentionally taught how to ridicule, humiliate, and denigrate un-athletic people in general, and fat people in particular. In fact, I will go farther than that: most junior-high and high-school PE coaches seem to be frustrated at having been born too late to be members of the Hitlerjugend. I base that judgment on personal experience with PE coaches in junior-high school and high school. Fortunately, I quizzed out of high school quite early and was fast-tracked to college at an age when I was, chronologically, a high-school sophomore, which may well have saved me from becoming just one more suicide statistic. I was gratified to discover that, in college, there was, yes, a place for jocks, but there was also a co-equal place for nerds and intellectuals. (I know a few high-school students here in the Greater Seattle area, and they and their parents tell me that, in their kids' senior- and junior-high schools, the school administrators have adopted the policy of allowing kids to letter, not only in athletics, but also in academics. So it would be possible in such schools to letter in math, physics, literature, music, etc. I do not know how widespread this innovation is, but I do have some modest hope that a few tentative green leaves of academic virtuosity are gradually breaking through the overlying layer of gym-class Nazification and jock-athleticism.) I have personal experience of only one sterling exception to gym-class fascism as an undergraduate in a PE class in college. (More about that later.) Ridding junior-high and high schools of that prejudice, and getting rid of the people who harbor and perpetuate it, is the educational equivalent of de-Nazification in post-World-War-2 Europe. For both Naziism and lipophobia are alike militantly opposed to respect for the dignity of others.
I am pretty typical of the consequences of long-term lipophobia. I am also pretty typical of what could have helped me, had such assistance been available much earlier in my life. And, though it is too late to help me now – I will be 70 in 2019 – I think my case is typical enough to serve as a prototype for what to do in junior-high school, high school, and later. I am a living example of lessons learned about what not to do, also, and of what to do before it is too late. As I said in the first linked article in the first paragraph. I do not hate exercise so much as I hate the ideology of exercise. The ideology of exercise insists that, inside of every fat person, there is a fit person absolutely clamoring for release from her / his prison of low-density lipoproteins. (Interestingly, in a recent episode of This Is Us, Kate, the obese wife of Toby, screamed that she was tired of being “Trapped in this body”.) The first step in addressing body bigotry is to recognize that this is flat-ass false: contrary to the ideology of fitness, not every fat or skinny person is an athlete in potentia. The problem is that the fat person, who is usually the first person to discover this, often gives up because they encounter the ambient body bigotry of the surrounding culture that tries to shame them into being what they cannot be: “If I can’t be an athlete, then I freakin’ give up!”
Instead of setting people this often-impossible task, I would strongly suggest instead that coaches / PE instructors be assigned to un-athletic people, fat or skinny, to teach them that, yes, you can learn to swim, yes, you can learn to play tennis, yes, you can learn golf, yes, you can learn to ski – in general, yes, you can learn to do what other people more physically gifted can do, but you must learn these skills in your own way and in your own time, i.e., you will never be an athlete, but you can learn to have fun. I would also suggest that, as part of their professional training, PE instructors be given the option of specializing in the teaching of athletic skills to the athletically un-gifted. I do not mean people who are physically challenged, e.g., paraplegics or stroke victims, but people who, though physiologically normal in other respects, are, to speak frankly, like myself, incorrigible klutzes. I.e., this should be explicitly recognized as an area of professional specialization, no different from cardiology, otology, hematology, etc., in medical school.
My understanding is also that college students majoring in education can often specialize in the teaching of the intellectually un-gifted and learning impaired. The PE equivalent of the same specialization should exist in university PE departments for PE coaches-to-be. This is the approach taken with, e.g., kids who are dyslexic: teach them that they are quite intelligent, but because of the way their brains are wired, they have to learn to read the way a dyslexic person learns to read, not the way a non-dyslexic person learns to read. My wife and I personally know of dyslexic kids who stopped viewing themselves as “dumb” and who did exceptionally well academically … once such a teacher was found who could teach them to read the way they learn, not the way someone else learns. Of course, the problem with implementing a program like this at the junior-high- and high-school levels would be that the lipophobic adolescent culture would knee-jerkingly react by labeling such classes “fat-kid gym,” etc., which would only succeed in socially ostracizing obese and un-athletic kids. That is why the culture as a whole must change, and, in particular, why gym-class de-Nazification is so critical. As a “somatically dyslexic” person, I did not have anything like that help as an adolescent, and so did what kids often do: I gave up, and to this day I see participation in almost any sport as merely a golden opportunity to publicly humiliate myself. So I avoid it at all cost -- the unique and sole exception being my old Boeing "stretch" class for seniors, where we were all about equally un-athletic (however, see next paragraph).
This aversion has grave consequences, has had grave consequences for me. People whose life experience, especially as early-puberty teenagers, causes them to view exercise as the equivalent of Queen Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame on Game of Thrones will usually, it may be for most of their lives, go out of their way to avoid exercise. (I did discover the exercise program for older adults and retired Boeing employees and their spouses, which is taught by some magnificently fit, but very enlightened staff – but then Boeing demolished the exercise center and dispersed the teachers to other Boeing campuses. Evidently the gods of History do not like fat people any more than high-school coaches!) I hardly need specify these consequences: high-blood pressure, joint problems from carrying excessive weight, pulmonary issues when you combine lack of exercise with smoking (which I never did, fortunately), etc., etc., etc. Basically, when it comes to fat kids – un-athletic kids generally, but specifically and especially fat kids – when in junior-high and high school, you steal their bodies from them even as they are inhabiting them, you shave several years off their quality and longevity of later life. It is slow-motion genocide-by-body-mass-index.
And religion does not help, least of all Christianity. Christianity has never had, nor does it presently have, anything like a coherent theology of the body. Christians are told – Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, mainline ... you name it ... they only differ in the vocabulary of lipophobia – that the body is basically something to be subdued, to be viewed with at least some degree of reflexive and critical suspicion. I hardly need continue to say that this aversion applies to the Nth power to matters sexual. I well remember in 2002 Attorney General John Ashcroft having the nude statue of the Spirit of Justice covered in preference to being photographed with a nude female breast hovering over his shoulder in the background. Instead of celebrating the actual human form, fat or skinny, the historic tendency in Christianity, all of Christianity, has been to either idealize the body to the point of unapproachable ethereality – e.g., St. Paul’s depiction of the body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” – or to treat the body with knee-jerk suspicion as merely “of the flesh”. Not a hint of Greco-Roman exuberance in celebration of actual people with actual bodies -- and none at all of Hinduism's exuberant celebration of physical sexuality guaranteed to precipitate a paroxysm of hyperventilation and pearl-clutching from American conservatives. In more conservative streams of Christianity, in fact, a passionate concern with the body is often viewed as at least incipient homoeroticism. This is really bad news for junior-high adolescents who look to Jesus for help in dealing with their changing bodies and is an actual hindrance to kids who are struggling with peers’ and their gym-class coaches’ actual explicit bigotry against them for their obesity and lack of athletic competence. On the day of His Resurrection, when Mary at the Tomb reached out to touch Jesus, His reaction was Noli me tengere: “Touch me not”. This attitude toward the body is hardly what a fat kid needs to hear.
The issue of adolescent obesity – yes, to be sure – does involve vital issues like diet, exercise, and nutrition. Only a fool would say otherwise. But I will continue to insist that the main problems are, not somatic, not nutritional, not biological – but cultural. Small wonder that people do not give a tinker's damn what they eat when their fundamental dignity as a human being is not respected, and they are used as foils for jokes at their expense and for the expression of ignorant prejudice about their physical appearance. Until this cultural dimension is dealt with, addressing the matter of childhood obesity by only talking about diet and exercise will amount to drilling holes in the bottom of a sinking boat to let the excess water run out.
James R. Cowles
Addendum: I do have one brilliant example of the kind of enlightened, anti-fascist attitude I would like to see inculcated in every teacher and administrator in junior high and high school who has anything to do with the physical conditioning of students. That example is the late Dr. Robert Holmer, head of the PE department at Wichita State University. Dr. Holmer taught "adapted PE," i.e., PE for students who were healthy enough to undertake some level of exercise, but who were not fit enough to regular PE. The first day of class, I, along with my lame, halt, and blind fellow adapted-PE students, gathered to listen to Dr. Holmer. He told us basically "Don't worry about grades. The only way you will get less than an A is if you don't show up to class and at least try. The main purpose of the class is to teach you to have fun playing badminton. That's all. Show up, suit up, whack away at the badminton bird, and you will get an A. Just have fun!" We did. And it was. Fun, that is. I regularly stayed over with some of my classmates and played extra games of badminton until I had to shower, get dressed, and leave for my next class. In fact, for that class that semester, I was a terror with a badminton racquet and became round-robin singles-badminton champion. (I fantasize that badminton birds would shriek and scatter in panic when they saw me coming, and that behind my back they whispered of me as "The Enforcer".) In the beginning, I was clumsy and tripped over my own feet. Dr. Holmer would lift me up, slap my butt, and just said "Try again!" Why can't junior-high and high-school gym classes be more like that, more like Bob Holmer, instead of junior-level Nuremberg 1938 / National Socialist torch marches? That is the way junior-high and high-school PE should be: don't get into pissing contests about being a jock, just have fun.
Hairy belly ... Pixabay ... Public domain
Tape measure on belly ... National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences ... Public domain
Michelle with kids ... White House ... Public domain
Kids walk against diabetes ... Lorrie Graham/AusAID ... CC 2.0 generic
Fat woman stretching ... Garry Wade / Getty ... CC 2.0 generic