Obesity and Freedom

by on Monday, 13 May 2013 Comments

I once experienced "culture shock" before even leaving my country. In the library of the Department of Western Languages and Literatures at Peking University, I read an article in Paris Match about Elizabeth Taylor. What shocked me most was not the fact that she was married eight times (the number appeared astronomical, but not unfathomable for a beautiful Hollywood star) or twice to the same person (I knew some people would change their mind back and forth), but the oxymoronic statement that when the two-time husband Robert Burton died, she was so heartbroken that she gained 30 pounds.

I had never heard of such a thing. Chinese literature is full of allusions to the loss of appetite or sleep, or both, when people are sad, distressed, melancholic, or heart-broken. I could not reconcile the image of a voracious appetite with profound sadness. Living in close proximity with many college-aged girls: six of us shared a room, with all of us grouped in a few buildings by the southern gate of the campus, I did not notice dramatic weight gain from anyone, and instead most of us tended to lose some weight over the years, regardless of our "heart condition."

This story seems to show the extent to which our relationship with food is conditioned by the culture in which we live; in other words, our lack of freedom in this regard. Now that I think about it, I realize that another reason most of my classmates slimmed down during our college years can be attributed to how space was arranged on campus. Our dormitories were located in the south of the campus, the department building where some of the classes were held stood at the northwest corner, and most classrooms were either in the north or northeast. Every day we had to crisscross the campus from morning till night to get to various places. Eating itself could require serious walking or biking: since several cafeterias were scattered around the campus and none of them were very good, we would sometimes check out more than one place before settling on one of them. Then some of us would take a long stroll after dinner, not to burn calories, but to procrastinate and put off as much as possible the "evening individual study", so highly recommended that we would feel guilty not to do it. Other than sleeping, there was not much else to do in our crammed room, so a lot of us also enjoyed weekend excursions and dancing. We obviously did not choose the space arrangement on campus, but it was indeed conducive to a healthy weight.

While studying in Boston and Paris, I continued to spend a lot of time walking, mostly using public transportation. Not until I settled in Indiana did I realize that staying fit is an uphill battle for most Americans, because odds are against them. I do not have the expertise to offer a comprehensive study on the causes of obesity, but merely intend to reflect on the relationship between obesity and freedom through my wandering observations.

In places where walking is part of everyday life, people can maintain their weight without giving it much thought. Spatial environment in the United States makes it extremely difficult to incorporate natural ways to walk around. In most places you cannot get around without cars, unless you want to risk getting run over by them. People have to set aside time on purpose to exercise in the gym. Since exercising for the sake of weight loss requires a stoic effort, many people overestimate how many calories they have burned and reward themselves afterwards by eating more. It is not easy to win this mind game. Walking on a treadmill or a Stairmaster can be such a misery that most people watch TV, listen to music, or read a book to kill time. Even though I can hike or walk in interesting places for hours, the few occasions when I got on one of those machines, I kept staring at the timer and never lasted more than 30 minutes. Although I enjoy yoga and dance as long as instructors vary their routine, it is a challenge to find classes that fit my schedule. To make matters worse, there is such a worship of thinness that words which appear unflattering to me such as "skinny" constitute a compliment, and anorexic fashion models parade themselves in size 00 clothes. If you want to look like them, you will hate every ounce of your flesh. If Titian's Venus were somehow brought to life, she probably would feel compelled to do three hundred sit-ups and hours of muscle training a day combined with the most recent liquid diet to fit into her clothes. Or she could simply give up and even sink into a depression. Perhaps that is why we are getting increasing number of people who have a hard time fitting into an airplane seat.

How much we eat is another factor in weight gain or loss, but portion control is much easier to practice in certain societies, such as France, where people tend to sit down with family members for their meals. There is a sense of structure and a relative consensus on approximately how much one should eat for each course of the meal. Food is served under the watchful eyes of others, making it unnecessary to join Weight Watchers. When children grow up eating this way, they naturally learn to condition their appetite to recognize how much should be enough. Many Americans do not sit down regularly to eat with their family members for various reasons, one of which is they do not have the same schedule, with so many workplaces requiring long hours or even night shifts. I am not talking about emergency workers; some American supermarkets are open twenty-four hours.

For a Chinese meal, we eat by serving ourselves from the dishes on the table and it is easy to lose count of how much we have eaten. Portion used to be limited by what we could afford to put on the table. As more and more people become wealthy enough to eat as much as they want, they naturally start to gain weight. Although health-conscious people try to heed the advice to eat until seven-tenths full, that is not an easy guideline to apply, especially because children are usually not taught to practice it. On top of that, people can now eat fattening dishes we used to have once in a long while for special occasions whenever they want, regardless of the season. 

Cultural norms can affect weight as well. For instance, a surprising number of Americans admit that they would eat ice cream straight out of a carton, and finish it off. Some seem to be proud of it and dare anyone to pass judgment on them, which I do not, but it obviously could lead to quite some weight gain, because an average carton contains more than 700 grams of ice cream! It is also more culturally acceptable for children to be picky eaters in the US, and picky means refusing to eat what is good for their health, typically vegetables. One reason is many people do not know how to cook tasty vegetables, from scratch, with fresh ingredients. Cooking is not only an art, but also a lifestyle habit, both of which are most effectively learned through family tradition. When a great number of people lose that tradition, the problem keeps compounding. It is also a constant struggle for American parents to make their children eat a variety of vegetables. Almost all American experts say that parents should not compel their children to eat vegetables because it will be either counterproductive or traumatizing. Judging from the result though, whatever methods they recommend have not worked for most people. I actually notice that children can be highly sensitive to collective cultural norms. My daughter, who travels extensively with me to China and France, behaves differently depending on what is culturally acceptable in each place. It was in France that she felt pressured to eat and grew to like vegetables she had always refused even to taste in the US: green leaf salad, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, etc. The problem is what happens in the US concerns the rest of the world, due to American cultural influence that can potentially modify people's mindset. In recent Chinese TV soap operas, I observed something I had never seen all my years in China, either in real life or in "art": young women mindlessly stuffing snacks into their mouth nonstop in rapid motion when they became upset. I was horrified.

Since cultural and environmental conditions play such a large role in obesity, one may wonder how much freedom we have in the process. In fact, if we unreflectively live in our own cultural and spatial environment, then we are either obese or fit by default. Even worse, one can almost be tempted to think that obesity is the price Americans pay for their "freedom": every time there is any government legislation aimed at reducing obesity, such as requiring schools to serve more vegetables at lunches, limiting soda vending machines, banning high-sugar drinks in large containers, or requiring restaurants to disclose calorie counts, outcry predictably rises from those who claim to defend our constitutionally guaranteed "freedom" against government usurpation. Government actions to improve or expand public transportation systems have consistently met opposition from proponents of the "free market".


Art by Bendu

Two opposing camps occupy American national discourse on obesity: by extolling "freedom of choice", one side, the so-called conservatives, blames obesity on consumers' lack of personal responsibility and reject any government actions that fight obesity, while the other side claims that "obesity is a disease" and therefore not a choice. Both positions simplify the complex relationship between obesity and freedom. If obesity stemmed completely from lack of personal responsibility, then we would not be able to explain why most individuals or groups who move to the United States from other countries tend to quickly gain weight. While obesity has become certainly a disease, not to say an epidemic, unlike many other diseases such as cancer, it is largely preventable without medications.

In fact, individuals' choices are often shaped by what society makes available. For example, when people are placed in an "all you can eat" buffet – nowhere else in the world can you see as many of them than in the US – their "choices" are skewed towards overeating, which is predictably how most people exercise their "freedom". Modern societies, the US above all, are full of powerful social and environmental factors that lead to obesity in a similar way. When obesity reaches such an epidemic level, it is irresponsible to rule out collective actions as if freedom could only be achieved by isolated individuals. A legitimate government should not be viewed as a separate entity from the people, but rather a participatory means through which individuals take the responsibility and exercise the freedom to improve the macro environment where they live by reducing the factors that lead to obesity. This is not in opposition to but in conjunction with personal actions they can take. Individuals also live in complex webs of networks which provide powerful ways to mutually influence each other. Rather than become engrossed in internal ideological debates, a more fruitful approach is to examine other cultures in order to discover one's own blind spots. For both societies and individuals, freedom does not mean to mindlessly follow our own existing habits. At different stages of our life, we can reexamine our life, fine-tune it, make small or big, but sustained adjustments, change our mindset, acquire different tastes, and cultivate new habits. It is through the never-ending process of collective and individual actions that freedom can become a force against obesity.

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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