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?

How Republicans and Democrats Both Get “Obesity” Wrong

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.

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.]

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.)

{repost from the archives}

The Gospel of Personal Responsibility and Obesity

While I was away a few weeks ago, regular reader and fellow blogger Charity Jill tweeted to me about speaker/blogger Shane Blackshear’s post “It’s Probably Time We All Talked About Obesity and the Church”:

Shane’s post is not particularly unique in its outlook; over a year ago, Marcus Thompson, a pastor in Oakland, CA, published a piece on RELEVANT called “The Immorality of Gluttony”  that expresses very similar concerns. (I responded to it here.)

In the post, Shane seems to think that churches haven’t done much to assert that ‘gluttony’ is a sin; we may trot out the “body is a temple” verses for smoking or alcohol abuse, says Shane, but we don’t care about healthy eating, and we should.

This is actually a big point where I have to disagree with Shane, because I think it’s pretty unlikely that anyone in or out of church in America hasn’t been duly informed of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and the dangers thereof.

{this book gives a great history of American Christian diet books}

In fact, American Christians have been linking healthy diets with spiritual health for at least 100 years and probably closer to 200. As Lynne Gerber demonstrates in her excellent book Seeking the Straight and Narrow (see my Christian Century review here), fatness is a “sin” than Americans of all religions and no religion seem to agree on. For example, a popular church-based weight-loss program, First Place, sits comfortably within mainstream culture’s weight-loss discourse; in Gerber’s estimation (and mine) the Bible provides “window dressing” but no real challenge to the principle of fat as “secular sin.”

Shane asked Charity Jill (and me) on Twitter how the church can address obesity without it being absorbed as criticism or shaming. Charity Jill got at a big part of it in her post with the subtitle “It’s Not About the Fat.” As I wrote last year:

American culture already demonizes fat and worships thinness. Claiming that people who are overweight are therefore sinful isn’t only unhelpful, it’s also unfair. Body types vary greatly: some people are just plain bigger than others. Some people can’t exercise due to disabilities. Some people have hormonal imbalances that keep them overweight despite their efforts to the contrary.

[Besides, lots of things that Americans love are ‘sins’ that no one seems to get too enraged over. Like loving money! And gossiping. But getting upset over fatness? That’s for people of every faith and no faith.]

The other thing I have to say about obesity in America is that I don’t think it’s the result of a lack of personal responsibility/willpower/determination. I think it’s the result of a food industry that’s bent on profit above all else. Have Americans suddenly lost “self-control” in recent decades, or are there simply more ways to eat more food more often?

To those who might disagree, I offer two book recommendations: The End of Overating by David Kessler and Appetite for Profit by Michele Simon. Both demonstrate how obesity and diet-related disease are at least as much the fault of corporations who exploit our innate cravings for profit. It isn’t Ayn Rand-ian of me to say so, but I think that the food environment that Big Food Corporations have created is probably more to blame than the mythical “individual” who can make “personal choices.”

Beyond that, my own contention about food and faith is that the Bible says nothing about eating for health.

Instead, food, in the Bible–and in our lives–represents God’s gracious gift. In the beginning, in Eden, God delights to feed the people God has made. A Biblical understanding of food recognizes that food doesn’t come from the store, or from money–it comes from the soil, the sun, and the sustaining, gracious hand of God.

I think that’s worth remembering.

Health = Morality = Nothing New

I LOVE this article by the Princeton University Classics Professor Brooke Holmes, which appeared in yesterday’s Huffington Post

“The moralization of obesity is all too familiar these days. As America has gotten heavier, blame has become something of a national sport. Yet the ancient roots of Warren’s Plan are a reminder that the association between health and morality is nothing new…”

“…ancient authors are clear-eyed about the relationship between health and wealth. The author of a handbook on diet that was later attributed to Hippocrates imagines two audiences for his advice: people who lack the money and the time to take care of themselves on a regular basis; and people who can afford to devote themselves to their health. When Plato assigned different doctors to the free man and the slave, he was talking about two models of care. The slave’s doctor barks orders like a dictator before rushing off to his next patient. By contrast, the doctors of rich elites take the time to explain to their patients what’s wrong with their bodies. And not everyone was sitting around reading Plutarch. Health, the ancients knew, is a product of leisure, education and quality care.

Read it all here!

{have a great weekend!}

Coffee Cake Communion

(or, the dilemmas of Sunday Coffee Hour)

Recently I talked with a woman who’s in recovery from bulimia. “We’d never bring a bunch of recovering alcoholics into a room full of booze,” she said, “but you can’t really avoid food, and especially not at church.” Indeed, eating and drinking together is an important part of the community life in most churches, whether it’s limited to the celebration of communion (or Lord’s Supper, Mass, or Eucharist) or extended in “coffee hour” and potlucks. Eating together–as in MOST DAILY MEALS together–was an important part of the life of the early church. And it’s still important, though it’s different and in some ways, more complicated.

Some people really struggle with overeating, and I’ve heard from some folks, firsthand, that the platters of doughnuts and coffee cake and other goodies set out after church entice them in ways they don’t fully understand and want desperately to resist. (Before you’re tempted to cry out “they need willpower,” consider that the food industry does all it can to press the right ‘buttons’ to get us attracted and addicted to their offerings; if you don’t believe me, read this book.) Other people struggle with various forms of under-eating, and dread having to attend potlucks.

Eating in front of other people can be embarrassing, complicated, and messy in ways both literal and figurative. Maybe that’s partly because, despite all the rituals surrounding cooking, serving, and eating, eating is still so primal–such a naked acknowledgement of need. But I still think we’re meant to eat together. Eating together is good for what ails us–whether we’re inclined to binge, restrict, or whatever. A number of studies suggest that eating family meals protects children and teenagers emotionally, physically, psychologically, and socially. The most effective treatment for anorexia involves little more than love and meals eaten together. And people who eat with others are likely to be better nourished and at a healthier weight than those who eat alone.

So I think it’s important that churches eat together–especially when they eat together in ways that really focus on the togetherness. That’s not possible in all churches–say, in really big ones–but it’s more than possible in small churches and small groups. I do wonder if we’d not serve one another (and maybe even the Lord?) better if in these settings we’d be careful to meet the needs of those who are struggling with food issues in one way or another. I won’t say “no desserts!”–but I do wonder if communal meals (or snacks) that focus on simpler nourishment–like soup and bread, or fruit and cheese, or vegetable platters–would better serve the needs of those who (given the dismal statistics on these things) are likely to be struggling with food and weight.

At the same time, intentionally simpler and more mindful table fellowship can draw our attention to the meaning of the Lord’s Supper–which points us to Christ, our Bread of Life, and unites us to one another, Christ’s Body. “Don’t eat and drink without recognizing the body!” St. Paul wrote. Our food sustains us, as Christ sustains us–and as we sustain each otherthe body of Christ. Eating is complicated, unduly alluring for some and unimaginably anxiety-producing for others. When you eat with others today–whether at church, at home, in a restaurant, or outdoors (lucky you!)–consider how you might build the body.