Solve America’s Obesity Problem With Shame
Several years ago, one of the best-loved theme parks in the world shut down a classic ride so it could make some adjustments: People had become so obese that the ride’s boats were scraping the bottom.
How would obese patrons feel if, in front of hundreds, they were required to stand in a different queue—one simply marked “Obese Riders Here”? And instead of meeting just a height requirement, theme park guests were also forced to meet a “width” criteria.
Or when boarding an airplane, fat people would be called separately so they could sit in extra-wide seats, for which they pay double?
And what if stadiums had a section of reinforced double-wide seats where obese folks were required to sit?
Unfortunately, our country doesn’t go for such options, which is truly a shame.
And that’s precisely the problem. There is no shame.
In genuflecting to political correctness, America shuns shame. It has become a nation so afraid to offend that it turns a blind to its biggest problems, such as obesity. And that problem is burgeoning. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, and a staggering percentage of our children—our future—are growing up (and out) with little regard for how this epidemic will impact them. In this regard, some medical experts have predicted that our children may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. For many, they are the product of their environment, where parents (many obese themselves) and society as a whole have sent the message that being fat is no “big” deal. The stigma once rightly associated with obesity is disappearing as quickly as fat is accumulating.
So how do we get to the bottom of this problem? For starters, shame. Because no matter what else is attempted, if shame is not the cornerstone of the solution, the situation will never improve.
Two fantastic and courageous examples of how shame is being effectively utilized are occurring in Georgia and Minnesota. In Atlanta, an extensive advertising campaign “Stop Sugarcoating It,” sponsored by Children’s Healthcare, targets childhood obesity. Taglines under obese children include “Warning … It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not”; “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid”; and “Big Bones Didn’t Make Me This Way … Big Meals Did.” There was also a YouTube ad with a sad girl saying, “I don’t like going to school, because all the other kids pick on me. It hurts my feelings.”
Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota has launched a similar campaign, targeting overweight parents whose behavior is often mimicked by their children. One ad shows two chubby boys arguing about whose dad can eat more—a discussion overheard by a father as he approaches their table with a heaping tray of fast food. Another shows an obese woman filling her shopping cart with junk food, only to notice that her obese daughter is doing the exact same thing with a smaller cart.
Both campaigns use shame correctly. Without being mean-spirited or over the top, they prod people to acknowledge, and change, their unhealthy behavior. Not surprisingly, though, both have something else in common: They’ve received significant criticism from the waistline-challenged community. Their biggest beef? It’s not education, but shaming, which, of course is “bullying.”
They simply don’t get it.
Shaming isn’t the total panacea, but it must be an integral part of the solution. There’s no better example of how shame can change perceptions than smoking, which was once considered cool but is now viewed with utter disdain. Sure, cigarettes are expensive, but that’s not why smoking is down. It’s because society made a conscious effort to shame smokers. Try lighting up in a bar with co-workers, and you receive dagger-like stares. Do it outside, and people immediately move away, because smoking is regarded as disgusting, and therefore, the smoker must be, too.
Smoking kills, and we have no problem pointing out that as a deterrent. Yet so does obesity, and we still hesitate to mention it. Just as non-smokers are picking up the tab for the massive medical costs related to smoking, non-overweight people are subsidizing the obese since it is “discriminatory” to charge differently for health care (though a section of the Affordable Care Act would change that).
But shaming is now taboo, and no one is ever at fault or accountable for his actions. Consider:
• It used to be, when a student received a detention, they weren’t just shamed in front of their classmates. They knew they had to tell their parents, which would invariably trigger another punishment.
Contrast that to the reaction this week to a New Jersey principal’s letter to parents about pictures of their underage children on Facebook holding alcohol bottles. Instead of thanking the principal for bringing that situation to their attention, a number of parents ripped him.
• Airlines have attempted to charge double for obese passengers whose girth extends beyond the armrests. While this is clearly commonsense, since not doing so penalizes paying passengers of normal weight, such policies are met with scorn and even lawsuits by those lobbying for obesity-without-consequence.
• And since it would be considered “discriminatory” to have an obese-only section in stadiums, seats are being made wider to accommodate overly plump posteriors. And when seats are wider, there are fewer of them. Who pays? You do. The same way that the non-obese eat the cost of new toilets that must be installed with ground supports, as the standard wall-mounted commodes can no longer bear the weight of America’s fat brigade.
We have coddled ourselves so much that we have shamed using shame. As a result, people have become clueless to their appearance. Sure, what’s under the skin matters, and no one should feel that obese people are bad, but what’s on the outside counts, too. Or at least it should. But go to any beach, and count how many linebacker-sized women are showcasing themselves in bikinis. Ditto for men whose guts reach the next block. Since they all have mirrors, one can only assume that shame is simply not a part of their lives.
Should we have scarlet letters for the obese? Of course not, since there is no problem identifying them. But we should employ shame to shed light on an issue that affects us all, in the same way that some judges order drunk drivers to place “Convicted DUI” bumper stickers on their cars.
And speaking of cars, how shameful is it that overweight people are not just guzzling food, but fuel? A recent report calculated that one billion gallons of gasoline are wasted every year (one percent of the nation’s total) just to haul Americans’ extra pounds. And given that the average American weighs 24 more pounds than in 1960, airlines are using roughly 175 million more gallons of jet fuel per year just to accommodate the overweight. That’s downright shameful.
And if not shame, then what? Do we tax fast food? Soda? Candy? Do we regulate portion size? No. Not only are such ideas preposterous and unenforceable, but they are tactics, not strategy. It’s time to tip the scales against obesity and solve the problem.
Otherwise, we will soon find out that the “elephant in the room” isn’t a pachyderm at all.
It’s an average American.