Just before the holiday weekend I finally finished viewing all four installments of the HBO documentary on obesity, “Weight of the Nation.”
I’d been contacted by one of the show’s producers months before and was eagerly anticipating the show’s debut. So I was surprised to encounter so much negative feedback about it before I watched. One friend of mine pronounced the show “boring,” particularly the first episode on “Consequences,” and some TLT readers told me they were disappointed with the lack of meaningful solutions offered. Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon (who originally refused to watch the show on principle) strongly criticized the documentary in “Uncle Sam and HBO Team Up for Fat Shaming, Avoiding Politics,” as did the Crunk Feminist writer “sheridf,” in “The Wait of the Nation.” [Hat tip to Dana Woldow for pointing me to the latter.] And here’s a good round-up of many more critiques of the show.
It seems that a lot of commentators took issue with the very premise of “Weight of the Nation” — an examination of weight and obesity — by equating it with “bullying,” “weight-shaming” or just plain being “mean.” One writer (who felt justified in critiquing the show even before watching it) likened the show’s focus on obesity to encouraging racial or class discrimination:
The real message of all the hand-wringing is not that obesity is a risk for health and the GDP. It’s that fat is a cultural signifier: Just as swarthy skin and accents marked the lower classes 100 years ago, today we identify the Other by waistlines and thigh bulges. And that’s what you’ll be seeing on HBO this week.
But I feel this particular attack on the show was entirely unjustified. Rather than enforcing negative stereotypes that “fat people are just lazy and lack willpower,” I thought the interviews with overweight or obese individuals were respectful, dignified and gave needed human faces and voices to what sometimes feels like an abstract, statistical issue. Personally, I was left with only greater compassion for those adversely affected by this complex problem, with roots at both the individual and the societal level.
“Fat stigma” aside, other critics felt the focus on obesity — rather than just health generally — provided political cover for those fueling the crisis. As Michele Simon put it:
Continuing to focus on obesity is problematic for numerous reasons. As this program painfully demonstrates, it’s too easy to place the blame on individuals, to make them the sole locus of change instead of fixing the systemic problems with our food system. Also, exercise is a powerful and safe distraction for policymakers.
Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!
Instead of talking body size, (don’t thin people get sick?) let’s garner the political power we need to focus squarely on fixing the food system, which is admittedly more complex than calories in, calories out but is also more compassionate.
But I was actually pleasantly surprised that the documentary didn’t just gloss over the role of Big Food and its stronghold on our nation’s politicians and food policies, as I feared it might.
For example, as someone who has written extensively about governmental efforts to rein in the advertising of junk food to children, I found it fascinating (in a perverse sort of way) to watch Congressional hearings I’d only read about, in which Republican lawmakers put the kibosh on purely voluntary reforms in this area. Similarly, the show offered a reasonably good primer on the role of agricultural subsidies in distorting our food supply and the outsized power of huge agribusiness companies. In both cases, the message to any viewer was clear: food companies do not have your (or your kids’) best interests at heart and they will do whatever is necessary to preserve profits, even at the expense of our nation’s health.
At the same time, I thought the show’s focus on obesity at the individual/local community level had its own value. Yes, we certainly do need to fix large scale flaws in our food system, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore individuals trying to effectuate their own change. For example, observing the incredible vigilance required to maintain a healthy weight after weight loss (as shown by the two women on the National Weight Control Registry) will likely serve as both a cautionary tale for those yet to gain excess weight and be instructive for those struggling to maintain their weight after a diet. (For more on the science of weight maintenance, see my post “The Latest Science on Obesity - and Why Early Childhood Intervention is Critical“). Meanwhile, many viewers seeking to improve their own health might also benefit from the research presented on “mindful eating” and the chemical role of stress in overeating. And I thought it was useful to see local efforts (both in workplaces and cities) which have been successful in improving health so that interested viewers can replicate those efforts more widely.
So overall I felt the documentary did a good job of providing information and advice for the individual viewer and giving at least a broad strokes outline of the societal and political underpinnings of this public health crisis. But the show’s greatest weakness, in my opinion, was the lack of any real public policy solutions to address the latter.
For example, the final installment of the show ended with rosy but vague predictions that obesogenic foods will someday be viewed as we now view cigarettes — and that food companies will be “part of the solution.” Yet, to date, industry efforts at self-regulation have been ineffectual and Big Food has repeatedly and successfully blocked any actual regulation of its activities. (See “Big Food’s Money vs. Children’s Health: Guess Which Wins?“). So having already been shown by the filmakers the food industry’s entrenched power and its widespread predatory practices, the viewer is left scratching his or her head. What on earth is going to account for the food industry’s supposed future role as promoter of good health? On that critical question, I thought “Weight of the Nation” proved to be very much a lightweight.
So, what did you think of the show? I’d love to hear your views about it in a comment below.
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