Mayor Bloomberg of NYC made a splash with his recent attempt to curb the consumption of large sodas, which was thwarted by the courts. Nanny State proponents, such as Bloomberg, argue that it is the government’s right–and even duty–to force us, either through laws or taxation, to eat healthier in order to cut down on the rate of national obesity. Rightfully, many cogent arguments have since been made stating that food regulations and “fat” taxes violate individual rights. (1) And, while this is the most fundamental argument against Nanny State interference with what we choose to eat or not, it isn’t the only argument.
There is an oft overlooked point to the debate: the message we are sending to our children when we focus so heavily on obesity. In the United States alone, up to 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder). Let’s look at these numbers a little more closely:
- A full 95% of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.
- In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, 44% were of normal weight.
- 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
- 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (3)
It is common to hear criticism of too-skinny celebrities for being a negative influence on youth. However, the constant focus by the government, mainstream media, and even parents on obesity, I would argue, is even more guilty for influencing our children since these factors play a constant role in their lives. First, obesity is almost always presented as a horrible thing–“Too many people are obese!” “We have become a fat nation!” Then the news channels show images of morbidly obese individuals, often eating fatty foods. (4) The message is clear: “Isn’t this disgusting?”
In response, people start to clamor for government intervention. Again, the message is clear: “People can’t stop themselves from being fat and unhealthy, so the government must stop it.” At this point, being overweight becomes not just an aesthetic condemnation, but a moral condemnation as well.
As a woman myself and as the mother of two teenage daughters (as well as a two year old), I know the difficulty girls, in particular, experience when it comes to body image. This difficulty is compounded daily when our government-run public schools chastise children for bringing “fattening” snacks in their lunches or even take their lunches away. (5) The message isn’t missed by approval-seeking children who have yet to develop the confidence to ignore or reject overt criticism. Too many respond by embracing unhealthy dieting and eating disorders. And these decisions are merely reinforced when they hear on the news about how fat we are as a nation or they hear their parents discuss why certain foods should be banned.
The fact is that it would be difficult to find a single food or drink that is inherently bad for us. It would be even more difficult to find any single food or drink that will make us overweight if ingested in moderation. So, instead of demonizing people that are overweight and the foods that may or may not play a role in making them overweight, maybe we should be setting an example for our children by embracing moderation ourselves. Maybe we should show our children what it is to accept personal responsibility for the foods and drinks we consume, for better or for worse. Maybe, just maybe, we should be teaching our children that it isn’t about weight–it is about enjoying what we eat, but staying healthy enough to live long, fruitful lives.
Many people argue for the Nanny State against the idea of individual rights when it comes to obesity because, they claim, obese people are unhealthy and thus their medical costs are a burden to the rest of us. Assuming that this argument is valid, it still doesn’t hold water. Here is why: Eating disorders are extremely hard on the human body. From vitamin deficiencies disabling the immune system to esophageal damage and even death, eating disorders create innumerable medical costs. As a matter of fact, the mortality rate associated with anorexia is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years old. (3) Thus, if we hold the Nanny State to its logic, they would have to start banning healthy, low fat foods right along side their banning of unhealthy, fattening foods. Before you know it, we won’t have any food at all.
(1) For a small sample:
(4) For a small sample:
http://www.jones4fitness.com (Anorexia/Bulimia image of girl with measuring tape)
http://www.femalemagazineonline.com (Mischa Barton)