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Health, Paternalism

Black Women And Fat: Thoughts and Takeaways

This story in the NYT, titled, Black Women and Fat, by Alice Randall was a very interesting read.  I’d encourage all who are interested in the topic of food justice and obesity, etc. to take a look because it focuses on an issue which typically does not get discussed for a variety of reasons (at least not in public).  That is, as the author puts it, that “many black women are fat because we want to be.”  I actually think that this applies to more than just Black women (for instance, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I need to fatten up), but, it is probably a more pronounced issue for Black women.  We even have a term for it.  It’s not fat…It’s “thick.”  And “thick” is something to aspire to, not something to run from…for a variety of reasons which Randall touches upon.

I’m not debating whether I think that’s a good or a bad thing here (the author concludes it is not), nor whether the reasons she describes for this desire to be “fathick” are accurate or not.  Instead I want to focus on the following…

Individual Freedoms vs. Societal Costs
The issue of people wanting to be fat highlights that individual desires and decisions can have harmful societal effects.  The fact that women may want to be fat, and endure the physical maladies such as diabetes that result, is a personal choice.  The fact that healthcare costs are rising for those that don’t make that choice is a societal cost which harms everyone and causes neglect of other key areas that require time, money and resources.  As the author writes:

The billions that we are spending to treat diabetes is money that we don’t have for education reform or retirement benefits, and what’s worse, it’s estimated that the total cost of America’s obesity epidemic could reach almost $1 trillion by 2030 if we keep on doing what we have been doing.

Now while I don’t think that “a room full of thin affluent people applauding the idea of forcing fatties, many of whom are dark, poor and exhausted” to participate in mandatory exercise programs is a good thing, I do recognize that people have an aversion to paying for the poor choices of others.  That’s why things like soda and sugary drink taxes also rear their heads, as well as proposals to limit the use of food stamps to buy fast food.  Personally, I think each of those “solutions” is paternalistic, especially if it does not apply to everyone and just the poor, which is the bigger problem than the actual solution itself.  If everyone decided for themselves that mandated exercise were the best way to address obesity, I’d have no problem with it.  As a result, there are better ways to achieve this than authoritatively dictating it…such as…

Addressing the Lack of Education
The article highlights the fact that not everyone understands the negative consequences to being unhealthy, especially the cumulative effects over time.  When you’re growing up “praying for fat thighs,” the future of a dialysis machine is far from the front of the brain.  When your attractiveness and potential ability to land (and keep!) a mate is also tied to said “fat thighs,” doesn’t that choice start to make more sense?  Of course, if there were a clearly understood link between the “fat thighs” and the dialysis machine which you were educated about, perhaps that choice would change…though perhaps not…which leads to….

The Need for Collaborative Solutions
These issues above highlighted why collaborative solutions are so important to me…how many people whose ideal is thin at all costs would stop to think that other people from other cultures might not want to be thin at all?  And, if the former can’t even fathom that possibility, how can they even get to the point of understanding why the latter don’t want to be thin in order to figure out the best ways to assist the latter in improving their conditions (and society overall). Lacking understanding of a culture can make it near impossible to effectively address it in a way that is effective and educational.  Yet at the same time, collaboratively working with people and empowering them to change their own behavior is hard, laborious, all-consuming work.  That’s why some people, who don’t want to do the hard work, advocate such things as mandating exercise.  It’s easier.  But it’s also not as effective in the long run.  And in that way, those advocating quick fixes may be acting in exactly the same fashion as the way they think of those whose behavior they are trying to change:  Shortsighted and for immediate gratification instead of long-term and long-living. And dare I say…lazy?

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