Obesity: What is the problem?
It is time to stop blaming and battling our desire for food
Posted Jan 31, 2014
As I was reading yesterday’s New York Times article, “Obesity Is Found to Gain Its Hold in Earliest Years,” I marveled at how little has changed in the conversations over food and weight since I wrote What a Body Knows five years ago. The conversations over this “problem” and its “solution” are still dominated by a mind-over-body logic that reinforces the “problem.”
What a Body Knows was the first book I wrote here on the farm, and the first for a general audience. It is a work in philosophy, but one that focuses on cultural conversations rather than on canonical texts. It seeks to ferret out the mind-over-body values and ideals where they are being created and lived, in the day-to-day decisions we make about how to relate to the sensations of our own bodily selves, namely, to our desires for food, sex, and spirit.
So too, it not only seeks to disclose and critique the values and ideas enacted in relation to our desires, it seeks to reveal the sensory education that holds those values in place, causing us to believe in them as true.
In these two ways, What a Body Knows takes its cue from Nietzsche, who sought to dislodge what he called the “ascetic ideal” by revealing the bodily practices that held it in place. In turn, he advocated alternative practices—which he often describes in terms of “dance”—that would give rise to new, life-affirming values and ideals.
What would it take to find such alternative "dances" here and now? What would it take to revalue the hostility toward bodies embedded in the conversations over obesity, and instead create the lived conditions for affirming bodily selves as creative, agential, and becoming?
What a Body Knows takes seriously the radical idea that there is wisdom in the movement of our bodily selves—a wisdom that "we" can learn to discern by engaging in bodily practices that help us cultivate a sensory awareness of it. This wisdom can not be encapsulated in a principle or a formula. It is the ability, in the moment, to discern how to move in ways that best align with the condition of our ongoing health and well-being.
This article is a perfect example of why this way of understanding the wisdom of desire is so necessary and compelling. It makes sense, as a mind-over-body perspective cannot, of the data!
The article, by Gina Kolata, reports on a recent study of 7,738 children from a “nationally representative sample," who were measured in height and weight every year between kindergarten and eighth grade. In short, the study found that those children who were overweight or obese in kindergarten had a four to five times greater chance of being obese than their thinner counterparts. “Half of the obese kindergarteners were obese when they were in eighth grade, and nearly three-quarters of the very obese kindergarteners were obese in eighth grade."
The mind-over-body interpretation of this study is evident in the first sentence: “For many obese adults, the die was cast...” When it comes to weight, the logic goes, fate is at work—a force over which “we,” as minds, have scant control. A fate that is making us fat. This fate, researchers suggest, is manifest in our genetic inheritance—namely as a desire to eat. When coupled with environments that "encourage overeating," as researchers relate, the result is predictable: obesity.
So too is the presumed solution to this problem: willpower. Willpower, of course, is assumed to be the first line of resort. But when willpower is weak, as in the case of children, then “we,” as a collective “mind,” must “intervene” and redirect the basic desires of bodily selves so as to “overcome” the challenge of our genetic inheritance. We do so, as the article relates, by providing children with education about nutrition and the importance of exercise, as well as better meals at school. We, in other words, must support children in developing minds capable of overriding their desire for food, so that they can make good decisions about how to manage their bodily selves.
Nevertheless, as the article also notes, the most rigorous studies of such educational intiatives have shown no effect on children’s weights. None. Yet this fact does not seem to deter researchers, from carrying on with the task. They conclude that the new findings will help focus our interventions earlier and more precisely on those at risk.
What, however, if the fact that these interventions have had no effect is rather a sign that there is a problem with the solution?
What is glaringly absent from this article is what What a Body Knows considers: that the “solution” is perpetuating the “problem”; that a bodily self might have a wisdom of its own worth consulting; and that the more important issue underlying this cultural phenomenon might be that we have consistently, systematically learned to ignore the best resource we have: our own desire for food.
What is missing, in other words, is the sense that “obesity” and our ineffective responses to it are symptoms of a common sensory education: both express a mind over body sense of ourselves that causes us to override the very sensations that could guide us to fuller health in relation to what we eat.
Despite its absence, there is evidence—between the lines—in support of this interpretation. Later in the article, Kolata notes one intervention among 4-7 year olds that did work: reducing television and computer time. When the intervention involved such a reduction, calories consumed and body weight indices of those involved went down. No change in school meals. No education in nutrition or exercise. Simply less screen time.
Why the success? No explanation is given. Yet here the logic and language of What a Body Knows offer insights.
What were the kids not doing? They were not spending as much time learning to still their bodily selves while stimulating their mental, imaginal capacities. They were not spending as much time engaging in practices that teach them to ignore the sensations of their bodily selves as the enabling condition of their pleasure, their success, their acceptance. They were not learning to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.
What were the kids doing instead? They might have been napping, or maybe exercising, but they were most likely simply moving around. They were moving in and as bodily selves, taking in information about their world as a function of their movements in relation to it. They were, perhaps, playing.
This difference in activity is significant and it is not just a function of calories burned. More fundamentally, the difference lies in how an activity educates our senses to perceive and respond to stimuli, and whether or not it encourages us to feel what we are feeling as a guide to making choices.
This sensory education to a mind-over-body split was once accomplished most effectively through the process of learning to read and write, beginning in kindergarten. Now, however, via screen use, this sensory education is reaching to colonize younger imaginations. The stimuli provided by an animated video can paralyze a two, three or four year old for hours. By kindergarten, then, these self-splitting patterns of attention and inattention are already developing. And nearly everything in our culture, including our educational practices, encourages that development to continue.
It is this perspective that What a Body Knows offers—not a solution. Not a panacea. But a different interpretation of the problem, and a different path in response. It offers a vision of how to complement a mind-over-body sensory education with practices of attention that prime us to discern the wisdom in our desires—and heed it. These practices include dance and other forms of bodily movement; and the desires that benefit include not only our desire for food, but our desires also for intimacy and spiritual fulfillment as well.
It is possible that our deepest pleasures can and do align with the enabling conditions of our ongoing health. Moving as if it were true can open us up to the possibility of knowing for sure that it is. And doing so, we can come to an ever greater appreciation of What a Bodily Self Knows.