Why is it so hard to say things? Thoughts on Newspeak, AIDSpeak, and ObesitySpeak

I am not shy about using the saltshaker, and neither I nor anyone else in my family has any sort of problem with blood pressure. That’s because we mostly don’t eat things that come out of packages or from fast-food places (where someone else takes them out of packages) and the salt that is a problem in the North American diet doesn’t come from the saltshaker but from the extreme levels of sodium in packaged foods.

But you will never hear Michelle Obama say that.

There was a similar unutterability to everything having to do with AIDS back in the day. Even when scientists had a fairly clear understanding of the nature of the threat and how it was spread, most “official” speech tended toward a hedging: “we don’t know what causes it, we don’t want to say what’s causing it…” Even today people don’t get tested because they don’t want to know, even though getting tested obviously doesn’t give you the virus…it merely points out that it is there. It seems to point to so much more, though.

Thirty years ago, the official reticence about the virus pointed to what the culture had deemed unutterable–you can’t say that the virus is in “semen, vaginal fluid, blood, breast milk, etc.,” because these substances embarrass us, or that it is transmitted via blood transfusion (because the blood companies would be angry) that it is transmitted by sexual intercourse (because we didn’t want to admit that people have sex, especially not the gay kind) that it is transmitted via dirty drug needles (because we didn’t want to acknowledge that sort of thing either).

So officials alluded to “bodily fluids” and “intimate contact” and people began to think that they were going to get AIDS if an infected person sneezes on them or from a toilet seat or from changing the diaper of a baby with AIDS, or, ridiculously, from cleaning up trash on the street after a gay pride parade.

via wfuv.org
via wfuv.org

I think a similar dynamic with language is going on with obesity in America. Now, I am not one to get particularly exercised (haha) about fatness per se, because I don’t think that the science necessarily indicates that fatness = unhealthy, but rather that fatness is often associated with a lifestyle and diet that IS unhealthy. You can be a daily yoga practicing, praying and meditating organic real-foods enthusiast who neither takes nor needs any blood pressure meds or cholesterol meds nor has diabetes or pre-diabetes or whatever–and still be quite a large person. Fat and healthy is by no means an impossibility.

Still, I think that there is a real health crisis having to do with obesity when it is associated with inactivity and a processed-food diet, such as the case for many of the nation’s poor. I’m talking about what happens when people eat a steady diet of food that comes out of a package: sugar cereal or “breakfast bars” for breakfast, chips and sodas and white-bread sandwiches for lunch, fast food for dinner, with packaged cakes and sodas and the like all through the day.

It certainly doesn’t help that many of those packaged foods come with pictures of fruits and vegetables on the packages, or big claims of WHOLE GRAINS or VITAMINS and MINERALS, so that you think you’re getting something substantially better for you when you eat a breakfast bar than when you eat, say, a banana. It doesn’t help that one of the “victories” cited by Let’s Move is getting places like WalMart and Disney World to pledge to incrementally improve the health of their packaged foods very, very slowly and over time.

I think that there are plenty of people who really and truly don’t know what is making them unhealthy in terms of diet–I think there are plenty of people who believe the health claims that appear on the package of LUCKY CHARMS cereal (yes.) That’s why it is important to me that the government, if it’s going to be in the position of advising people on matters of public health (in my view, a good thing) speak clearly. Not ObesitySpeak. Not HealthSpeak. Facts.

Let’s Move and every other government or industry statement in terms of health perpetuates talk of the “obesity epidemic” in mysterious ways, never naming aspects of the problem clearly. CLEARLY it is a problem when you can go into Olive Garden (or the like) and for a very reasonable price consume two or three day’s worth of processed, unhealthy calories in a single meal–without even realizing it. You may have a vague idea that what you’re doing isn’t exactly good for you, but you have no clear idea of just how bad for you it probably is.

Similarly, federal, state, and city governments during the early days of AIDS seemed incapable of making a clear statement on the matter, and for similar reasons. Vague governmental nutritional advice (which never comes out and says what not to eat or to eat less) is curiously similar to the vague advice to “choose partners who appear healthy” or “limit your number of sexual partners” even as researchers and officials were aware that healthy-looking people may well transmit the virus and that it really only took coupling with one infected partner to become infected yourself. Public health officials in New York and San Francisco knew that bathhouses were a real danger; that the kind of sexual activity that they facilitated was a slow-moving retroviruses’ dream. (Because people can be infected and infectious and yet look perfectly healthy for quite some time, the virus can insinuate its way into many, many, many people very efficiently, particularly in a bathhouse-type setting, which encourages multiple partners.)

But bathhouses also made a lot of money for the people who owned them, and, understandably, from my point of view, many in the gay community thought that shutting them down was a form of discrimination, perhaps the first step toward a ‘Final Solution’–especially because ideas of what, exactly, the virus was and how, exactly, the virus was spread still seemed–to the general public, thanks to what journalist Randy Shilts called AIDSpeak (echoing Orwellian Newspeak) so foggy and indefinite.

Similarly, fast food is a huge industry. Soda is big business. If Michelle Obama says, as part of her Let’s Move campaign, that what people really need to do is stop eating processed food and start cooking, people will be all over her for:

1. Hurting big business and

2. Implying a retro vision of mama-in-the-kitchen

It’s not that I think it is all that easy for modern North American folks to start (or to go back to) cooking from scratch if they largely subsist on prepared foods, but even “healthy” varieties of prepared foods tend to have a lot of excess fat and sodium, and mostly eating simple food that cooked mostly from scratch by SOMEONE (not necessarily you) is probably one of the best for your health, with the caveat that the occasional meal at In-N-Out Burger (Full Disclosure: how I love thee!) isn’t going to kill you. But all that is too nuanced of a message for any politician (or politician’s wife) to give, and so we are left with Orwellian vagueness, encouraged to “choose” foods that are low in sodium or saturated fat but never told what those foods are, or, for that matter, to avoid any particular food whatsoever.

I think these two different but related stories testify to the tremendous power of words: that simply to name the facts in a situation–without blaming, without bias, without financial or political interest–is extremely difficult, if not impossible, and yet, so necessary.

(The book to read on the topic of food and nutrition advice is Food Politics by Marion Nestle; on the disastrous handling of AIDS as it emerged, read And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts.)

As compelling as I find both these subjects–HIV/AIDS and food politics–what’s more compelling is the dynamic of unsayability implied in Newspeak, Foodspeak, and AIDSpeak.

Why do you think it is so hard to say things?

What other kinds of Newspeak do you encounter? Do you encounter it within powerful faith communities?

Michelle Obama’s Cookbook

So here’s Michelle Obama on the cover of her cookbook, forthcoming in April:

And here are the ingredients for a Michelle Obama recipe:

Michelle Obama’s “No Cream” Creamed Spinach

2 pounds baby spinach, washed and cleaned

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 shallots, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Here’s a picture of Martha Washington from the National Portrait Gallery:

And here are the ingredients for a Martha Washington recipe:

Martha Washington’s Cake Recipe (makes an 11 pound cake)

2 3/4 cups golden raisins
2 cups dried currants
1 cup orange zest
6 ounces candied lemon peel
3/4 cup chopped candied citron
1/3 cup candied angelica
1/3 cup red candied cherries
1/3 cup green candied cherries
1/2 cup brandy
4 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
10 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup sherry
1 cup sherry

Yeah, so cooking has changed a bit since Mrs. Washington’s day. I don’t, however, understand why creamed spinach has to be made with no cream. Cream is wonderful and goes wonderfully well with spinach! So if that recipe is any indication of what’s going to be in the book, I’m nervous.


I’m nervous that the press release says this:

“Mrs. Obama will describe how her daughters Sasha and Malia were catalysts for change in her own family’s eating behavior…

because Mr. Obama already once said this:

“A couple of years ago — you’d never know it by looking at her now — Malia was getting a little chubby.”

and because more than once I’ve heard something like this:

“My [6, 7, 8, 9] year old was talking about ‘fat’ and ‘obesity’ and worrying about what we were eating…because of something she heard Michelle Obama say.”

I’m really glad that Michelle Obama started the first edible garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt’s WWII victory garden. And I’m glad that she is working to bring attention to and eradicate food ‘deserts.’

no, not desserts. deserts.)

But this book, quite honestly, looks like it’s going to be a pretty coffee-table piece of political advertising, not a cookbook that’s going to inspire a new food culture.

{And I hope it’s not going to add to the fat anxiety already too prevalent in this culture.}

Well, that’s enough speculative judgment on a book I haven’t read. (!)

Anyway, change never comes from the top down. It starts where the inspiration for this book came from anyway–at the grassroots.

As in, next spring, why not pull the grass up by the roots and plant some strawberries or potatoes or lettuce instead? Forget the obesity epidemic: gardening is joyful work.

{Oh, and forgive me, but do those hair-scrolls atop Mrs. Obama’s head remind you of the ribbons on Mrs. Washington’s cap? They do me–HT Sarah–tee-hee.}

Why ‘Childhood Obesity’ Isn’t the Real Problem

Are you ready? I’m going to get critical of Republicans.

And Democrats.

Because while everyone loves a partisan controversy, on this issue, folks on both sides of the aisle are cowed before food industry drones who have shareholder interests–not public interest–in mind.

if I squint, the red person and ball looks like a diver that has been decapitated.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign (which, if anecdotal evidence is telling, is doing more to provoke anxiety in healthy-weight kids than to help kids who are actually at risk for diet-related disease) wrings hands about “the epidemic of childhood obesity” and wonders how we got here:

Thirty years ago, kids ate just one snack a day, whereas now they are trending toward three snacks, resulting in an additional 200 calories a day.

Portion sizes have also exploded – they are now two to five times bigger than they were in years past. {…} in the mid-1970s, the average sugar-sweetened beverage was 13.6 ounces compared to today, kids think nothing of drinking 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages at a time.

The average American now eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year than in 1970.

I need to point out a few things about the above excerpt from the Let’s Move! website:

1. It points out that consumers eat and drink more (including more sugar): consumers are the agents.

2. It mentions “sugar-sweetened beverages”–but not soda by name–that’s not an accident: the soda lobby would never allow that! And how would kids be getting those sugar-sweetened beverages? Couldn’t be because there’s SODA at SCHOOL, could it?

3. It says “portion sizes have exploded” as if they did it all on their own!

4. It notes that kids are “trending” toward 3 daily snacks but fails to point out WHY that is–namely, the fact that cheap, unhealthy snacks are EVERYwhere–like in school vending machines.

5. It talks about Americans eating “pounds” of sugar as if we’re sitting there eating out of a bag of granulated sugar–it doesn’t point out that there’s sugar (or, more accurately, high fructose corn syrup) in spaghetti sauce, hamburger buns, ketchup, and pickles, not to mention all the more obvious places.

These may sound like the observations of a curmudgeonly former English teacher (which they are, because I am.) But in fact, these omissions and ‘weasel’ words are very telling. Purposeful vagueness all over the Let’s Move language. Why?

Because the food industry won’t let anyone in or near government point out what’s really going on.

More fundamental than these vaguely weasel-y communications is the whole framing of the discussion in terms of OBESITY as the problem.

As Michele Simon points out in her book Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back:

“If you think about it, obesity is only one symptom of a much larger, underlying problem: a profit-driven, corporate-controlled food supply. We should devote our energies to fixing the root problem (the food system) rather than squander our precious resources on symptoms like obesity.”

(Plus, as Simon points out, people can have diet-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes WITHOUT being obese, and NO ONE is helped by reinforcing the stereotypes and biases that go along with calling people “obese.”)

One of the things that could be done is to persuade food companies NOT to advertise unhealthy foods to kids.

Children have a hard time distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children are naturally drawn to sweets and salty snacks, especially if cool characters are on the packages or promoting them on TV. As parents, all our “eat your veggies!” messages can get drowned out by the sheer attractiveness of junk.

Which is why I’m pretty annoyed at the GOP for blocking proposed guidelines that would’ve boiled down to this:

“By the year 2016, all food products most heavily marketed directly to children and adolescents ages 2-17 should meet two basic nutrition principles — they should contain foods that make a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet” (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, eggs, nuts and seeds, or beans) and they should limit nutrients with a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium.” (source)

Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to ask, does it?

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) seems to have been especially outspoken at the hearing, saying that these guidelines amounted to “government” supplanting the role of parents in monitoring children’s eating. The Congresswoman got lyrical, remembering her mother forcing her to eat liver once a week because it was good for her. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) “helpfully” noted: “the problem is in our world today, we just don’t take the time to do what we need to do.”

Or maybe the “problem” is that Rep. Mack gets much of her campaign finance from the TV industry as well as a good bit from farm/food processors. (Rep. Barton gets plenty from TV as well as the health industry.)

Not advertising junk food to kids is one small thing, but it could go a long way. And taking a stand shows respect for children–and their parents–who could do with a few less confusing advertisements in their lives.

[Processed food (and that’s almost everything that you didn’t cook yourself from scratch these days) has been as powerfully implicated as a destroyer of health as have cigarettes. The tobacco lobby worked just as hard to keep government from pointing the finger toward the real culprit there, too.]

one of the few kid-ads I can cheer on!

Don’t hold your breath waiting for someone in (or near) government to say something pointed, like “don’t eat stuff that comes ready to eat in a package” or “drink soda once a week at most” or “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Better yet, let’s not listen to anything those folks have to say about food. They’re not really working for us, after all.

(And–did you know?–advertising AT ALL to children under 12 is illegal in most of Europe.)