Friday, May 26, 2023

Body Positivity and Systemic Obesity

When I got back from a winter vacation to Puerto Rico with family, I was dreading the return to normal life.  Not because of work.  I love my work.

It was because I was going to weigh myself, and act on the results.  I knew it wasn't going to be pretty.  When I started in ministry at my little church, I was around 160 pounds.  That was twelve years ago, in my early forties.  I'm now in the sprawl of my mid fifties, and weight has started to become a struggle.  It's oscillated wildly, as I've gained mass, then fought to lose it, then gained again.  

On my return from an entirely delightful and indulgent trip, I put on my birthday suit, and stepped on the scale.  It hemmed and hawed, and finally indicated one hundred and ninety one point four pounds.  Not that this surprised me.  I didn't need a scale.  I felt every one of those thirty pounds.  Clothes were tight, but I've never really cared about clothes.  It was what my body was telling me.  I could feel it in my knees, which throbbed and complained after walking.  I could feel it as an ache around the hernia mesh that had to be surgically inserted back during the pandemic, after my growing gut breached my abdominal wall when I squatted to lift some firewood.  At least I didn't strain my back, AmIrite?

And most significantly, I could feel it in my heart whenever I engaged in any significant exertion.  My cardiovascular system purred along happily when I was 160 pounds.  But at 191?  When our family took a five hour hike up a mountain in El Yunque national park in Puerto Rico, I was struggling.  My heart, racing, hammering away in my chest, thudding in my ears.  My breathing, labored.  It wasn't just hard.  There were points where I wasn't sure I could continue.  Where I felt a little woozy.  Where I was seeing stars.

Not that I mentioned this at the time, because I'm stubborn about such things.  I just pushed on, as men foolishly do.  But it was a marker.  An alarm bell.

When I returned, I set about dieting yet again.  There was calorie restriction to start the process, because I didn't yet trust my body to respond well to exercise.  The first 10 pounds took about a month and a half to take off, at 1,500 calories a day.  Then I folded in weights and cardio, and by mid April, I was down slightly over twenty pounds.  My weight, at five foot nine, was now one hundred and sixty nine pounds.  

I'm a man of average height, and at 169 pounds, I am exactly the average height and weight of an American male in 1969, the year I was born.  It is worth noting that in 2023, 5'9" is still the average height of a man in America.  But the average weight is now 199 pounds.  We are thirty pounds heavier.  You can tell this by looking at any picture of Americans fifty years ago.  We were a lean, rangy people.  We were farmers and factory workers.  We used our bodies every day.  We moved.  Even when we drove, it was more physical.

Ever drive a car from the 1960s?  I recently spent a few days behind the wheel a 1963 Corvette convertible, a gorgeous work of mid-20th century automotive art.  Everything about it demanded physical engagement.  Want the windows to roll up?  You cranked 'em.  Want to shift gears?  There was a four speed stick and a really, really heavy clutch.  It required gym-level effort from your left leg.  Want to stop or turn?  There was no power assist.  The brakes were great, but required gym-level effort from your right leg.  Turning required both arms.  It was a workout, and after an hour on twisty back roads on a perfect spring day, I was both exhilarated and physically tired.  I felt it in my legs and shoulders.  Now, almost no effort is required to drive.  Transitioning back to my modern vehicle was surreal, unsettlingly cushy.  This is true about everything in our lives.  

In the absence of the effort that life used to require, we've gotten big.

This ain't muscle mass.  This is fast food mass, the adiposity of a sedentary people, Wall-E Spaceship Captain weight.  Our food systems stuff us with empty calories, calories that are industrially designed to appeal to us on a primal level.  We cram calculated salt and sweet and fat down our collective throats like we're self-annihilating foie gras geese.  Then our economy straps us to chairs in front of screens for work, and sofas in front of screens for play, eliminating even the slightest effort from our lives.  More calories plus less energy expenditure means more fat cells to store the energy we consume but do not need.  That excess fat makes us sick, reducing both our lifespans and the quality of our everyday life. 

Which is what makes me struggle a bit with the "body positivity" movement.  Feel good about yourself, it says.  Be fat positive!  Fat is beautiful!  On the one hand, yes, of course.  Shaming or belittling others for their weight is and has always been cruel.  Media images of the idealized human form have fundamentally sabotaged our understanding of what the range of normal human bodies looks like, in both men and women, a process that has been supercharged by omnipresent media.  You can have a body that does not conform to the preposterous perfections of consumer culture and be just fine.  Beautiful, even.  And it's more than just aesthetics.  That extends to health, too. There's a wide range of healthy physicalities, so you can be a little husky or a little zaftig and that don't matter.  Even if someone is morbidly obese, we never know what any particular individual is dealing with.  Treat everyone with kindness, no matter what.  All of these things are true.

But it is at the same time equally true that consumer culture is inflicting harm on our bodies, that access to healthy food and healthy understandings of food are undercut by our compulsive-by-design industrial diets and laptop lifestyles.  We are all heavier, and that shifting norm is a marker of something fundamentally off in our society.  We are no longer obese as individuals.  We are systemically obese, because the system that surrounds us...of food, of mobility, of unhealthy.  It is a disease.  It is opposed to the healthy homo sapiens sapiens body, and to resist that, we must be countercultural.  We must take back control of our bodies, and listen to them when they tell us that the soulless machine we inhabit is harming them.

It's not a question of choosing a side.  We have to live into that tension.

In a malign cultural context, the assumption that it's all fine and there's nothing wrong and aren't we all wonderful feels...harmful.  We are more and more unhealthy, all of us across the board, because we are all being penned in and overfed like a veal calf.  This is not OK.  This is not "positive." 

At what point does "body positivity" become something that masks...or worse, enables...a health crisis?