By Lesley | March 18, 2011
Edited to add: Comments that attack Michelle Obama or the President on broader political issues are off topic here and will be deleted. This is a discussion specific to Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign, not the whole of American politics. Thank you for your compliance on this, my loves.
Edited to add, part two: Yes, my darlings, parts of this are satirical. I resent having to acknowledge this at all, so I am refusing to tell you which parts, exactly. So there.
It sounds like some outrageous bit of satire, but this actually happened.
…[This is] an issue that can drastically alter the economic landscape of our cities and towns for generations to come. And I am obviously talking about the epidemic of childhood obesity. [...] I’d like to spend a moment today really to focus on the economic impact that this issue is having on cities and towns all across America. Now, everyone in this room is worried about budget shortfalls. I know that. All of you are making wrenching tradeoffs and painful cuts just to stay afloat. I know that’s what’s going on. And I know that the last thing you need during times like these is a new issue on your plates. But all of you here know something else, and that is this isn’t a new issue at all. You all know better than anyone that childhood obesity is already affecting your communities. It’s already weighing down your budgets. It’s already hampering economic growth.
It goes on like that for quite awhile, as Michelle Obama outlines all the myriad ways in which the existence of fat children is contributing to unemployment and hurting our military readiness, among other things. Frankly I am disappointed that she does not also manage to pin rising oil prices and the recent increase in powerful earthquakes on fat kids too, but I suppose there are limits.
And you know what I say to Michelle Obama? Well done, Michelle Obama. Because the surest way to make people healthy is to shame them. I vote for desks in classrooms nationwide to be replaced with giant kid-sized hamster wheels, and attended by soulless taskmasters carrying horsewhips to drive them on! Nothing, after all, is more important in a child’s life than the size and shape of his or her body. Of course, there will always be stubborn children who, in spite of Michelle Obama’s tireless and unselfish efforts, will persist in being obese. These children, half-starved on diets, possibly surgically altered, routinely bullied, their parents openly embarrassed by them, their peers unwilling to accept them—all thanks to Michelle Obama’s hard work!—must know that their continued existence is unacceptable, for the good of the nation. They must be told! Of course, the simplest route to this end is to blame them for sabotaging something that is a near-universal problem, something that concerns us all, that being the economy.
Now, I’m not saying, “Michelle Obama wants fat children to kill themselves.” No way. I’d never say that. I’m just saying that if fat children were to die by their own hands more frequently—which they do, already, as kids who are overweight, or who even who just think that they are overweight, are more likely to attempt suicide—that would help solve the problem, wouldn’t it? Maybe, you know, a little push from a well-respected public figure might edge a few more kids to the breaking point? Not intentionally, but if it happened, all the better, right? Every dead fat child means one less obese lead balloon weighing the economy down, folks. It’s for our own good. And it’s not like those kids would have had any kind of decent life anyway, right? Indeed, it’s not like those kids, the kids who are bullied and harassed by both children and adults who fear no repercussions, deserve any kind of decent life. In a nutshell, Michelle Obama is blaming fat kids for killing the economic future of the United States of America, for sabotaging us all.
And you know what I say, to Michelle Obama?
Fuck your self-righteous twaddle, your pathetic scapegoating of a group of fucking children who, in your despicable and perverse view, simply aren’t shit on enough already. I am left to wonder if you have spoken to a single fat kid, or better yet, a single adult who experienced what it was like to be a fat kid, who told you how it felt to be bullied and humiliated for it, and how rare it is that anyone—child or adult—sticks up for the fat children. Instead of defending children and working toward their best interests, you are piling on, and contributing to a culture in which disordered eating is turning into an epidemic, and in which those fat kids will never learn to feed themselves in ways that keep tune with the needs of their bodies and their health. Participation in sports—a good source of exercise, I might add—is difficult enough for fat kids who are always assumed to be inept and likely to be chosen last, which takes a psychological and social toll all on its own. But you would prefer to reinforce the idea that fat children are inherently bad and responsible for all of the ills of our nation, no matter how tenuous and preposterous the idea. Getting adults to rethink this notion is challenge enough; here you want to ingrain it all the more deeply in our kids.
The concept of the “scapegoat” is mostly known as a biblical reference, described in Leviticus, home to some of the bible’s greatest hits so far as grotesqueries are concerned. It is in Leviticus, of course, that we get the alleged admonitions against homosexuality as well as against eating shellfish and planting two different seeds in the same field. As Leviticus tells it, you take a couple goats and draw lots against them. The winning goat gets sacrificed (how this is a win, I don’t know). The loser goat is symbolically heaped with the sins of the community and sent off into the wilderness, dragging the invisible pile of sin with it, possibly much to the relief of the goat, who can now wander the forest eating rocks or whatever it is that free goats do. The idea behind this ritual is that the loser goat somehow absorbs all the bad that has been done in the community, and when it leaves, it takes the evil with it.
It is a lesser-known fact that this practice didn’t start with the Bible, but with the Greeks, who had a practice of selecting a pharmakos—usually a disabled person, a person who was just plain ugly, or some other social outcast—and placing the blame for troubled times upon him or her. The pharmakos would then be removed from the community as a means of correcting the local issue at hand, such as a famine or a flood. The Greek version is even more gruesome than the biblical one, as in their ritual the pharmakos was not merely driven into the wilderness but often beaten or stoned to death. Then as now, people who are not attractive are disposable, indeed, barely people at all, and serve as a convenient target on which to lay blame for issues far beyond their control, because who will stand up for the right of the ugly or the disabled to survive?
Fat kids are not loser goats. Fat kids are kids who need support and reassurance and encouragement, like all kids, but maybe even a little bit more. Fat kids are kids to whom adults must demonstrate a specific sensitivity and thoughtfulness, to counteract the hate and bullying that even kindergarten-age children already know they are culturally entitled to heap on their fat peers. Fat kids are kids who need advocacy that does not single them out from their thinner counterparts but treats them fairly. All kids benefit by the assistance of adults and public health initiatives in being active, eating a wide variety of healthy foods, and learning to know their bodies and their abilities, not because it is a chore but because doing these things makes you feel good, and being active can be fun. Not all thin kids are inherently healthy, and inadequate nutrition can take a serious toll even on “normal”-looking children. With exercise and improved diet, sure, some fat kids are likely to stop being fat (and some won’t). But this is not the point. The point is to improve the overall health and fitness of all kids, and for this to happen these children must be allowed to thrive in an environment which does not shame them, and which does not shame their bodies, but which instead teaches them that their bodies are awesome machines and that every one is different, sometimes in ways that are dramatic and sometimes in ways that are very subtle.
Fat kids deserve love and respect. They deserve to be given room to be their best selves. But by blaming fat children for the ills of a nation and thereby reinforcing an already-powerful cultural bias against them, Michelle Obama is rapidly becoming the biggest bully of them all. I don’t doubt that her intentions are good, but their execution is clueless in the extreme, and I’ve had enough. Michelle Obama’s work on this issue cannot possibly succeed in improving children’s health when so much of it rests on prejudice and shame.