First, I’m a Democrat deep in my soul. No matter who runs on the Republican ticket, I’ll vote for Barack Obama in 2012. That said, I’m not so happy with the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign. It’s not about the fear of the “nanny state,” as some conservatives have worried, nor is my issue that I want to keep fruits, vegetables and physical activity away from children. My issue with the First Lady’s campaign is its focus on the potential costs of obesity rather than on the fact that everyone ought to have equal access to food and activity, regardless of their current body weight or whether or not they become thin as a result.
On the Let’s Move! website, the campaign is described as “dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.” The goals and strategies of the program, however, would benefit all children—regardless of weight or body size: eating fruits and vegetables, exercising portion control, and participating in a variety of physical activities.
Given that we can all probably agree that children deserve access to a variety of foods and the ability to play and be active, why the focus on obesity? Because obesity has become a convenient means of motivating people to care about issues like nutritious food and safe neighborhoods and playgrounds for children who are members of marginalized groups, groups that mainstream America may not care about otherwise.
The Let’s Move! website emphasizes that childhood obesity is more prevalent in African American and Hispanic communities. At the launch of the campaign, the First Lady noted that, because of childhood obesity, "The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake." Rhetorically, she’s asked that people care about children in these communities not because all people deserve access as a human right, but because they’re unhealthy and about to bankrupt the country.
If what we really want is for these children and their families and neighbors to have equal access, then we don’t really need the argument about obesity. Some might say that the ends justify the means here, that focusing on obesity is fine because in the end what matters most is that children have nutritious food and meaningful physical activity.
I agree with that, but I also see the issue a bit differently. I worry about what happens when large children still aren’t thin after they’ve been given access to foods and activities that will supposedly make them thin, especially if they’re already marginalized due to their racial and/or socioeconomic status. I also worry that thinness is being used as the measure of health in the First Lady’s campaign. We have ample data now to suggest that being smaller (or specifically having a lower BMI, which seems to be the new preferred measurement) doesn’t always mean one is healthy and that being larger doesn’t always mean one is unhealthy.
And, besides, doesn’t anyone care about the thin kids who may not have access to good food and a playground?
If what we really want is for all people — regardless of age, where they live, or their racial and/or socioeconomic status — to have access to a variety or foods and the ability to engage in physical activity, then let’s just say that. Whether people are thin or fat before or after having that access shouldn’t matter.