17 August 2013

The Danger of Normalizing Obesity

As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Like many first children of a household, I was born in a period of my parents’ life during which they were still establishing careers, house, etc. So contrary to my brother’s upbringing, much of my earlier years were heavily influenced by my mother’s parents. Besides having a natural sweet tooth, my grandmother grew up in abject poverty. When she immigrated to the States, she took great pleasure in discovering sugar in all of its American forms. Since sugar was a commodity of luxury in India that she had often been denied, her natural instinct was to shower me with all my heart’s content. Having a strong sweet tooth myself, yet little moderation, I was obese by the age of eight. 

The peak of my heavy period was my senior year of high school. I spanned out to tightly fill a size 13 pair of jeans.[1] Certainly a 13 isn’t the most extreme of American sizes, but considering my age, that I came from a highly educated family with good constant access to healthy food, advanced medicine, a life that allowed for recreation time, and a solid understanding of the long-term health implications of obesity, my size was hard to justify short of a psychological explanation, which I have to admit I could not blame. It wasn’t until I saw myself on TV towards the end of that school year that I realized how large I had become.

I decided to make a lifestyle change, and have been an avid gym rat ever since. I take bad food in moderation and eat plenty of the good, all in balanced portion sizes. In the ten years since I made that change, I have lived everywhere from the cusp of the Sahara desert to some of the most expensive parts of Europe and the States. I have been through major surgery, dealt with a few traumatic events, and been through many highs and lows. Understandably there were some bad weeks in these ten years. Still, through it all, I have remained very consistent in always finding a way to exercise, to get proper nutrients, to find a way to take care of myself. After losing that weight, I become a happier, better, stronger person. Most of the health problems I had went away, I stopped having mood swings, and even my skin and hair look better.

When I was in grad school, I took a small road trip with two of my classmates and the sister of one. During that trip, the sister explained that she was working on a thesis examining a media movement in South Africa among HIV/AIDS infected people. While the movement did a lot good in bringing a much needed voice to those who were infected to ensure they were being treated fairly and HIV/AIDS as a disease was understood, the movement went too far as to normalize the disease itself. It was diminishing the gravity of what it meant to be infected. It was building an exaggerated sense of community in HIV/AIDS patients that it had almost become a badge of honor to be infected. Public health officials were concerned the simple fact that AIDS is a life threatening disease was being lost in the messaging of the campaign.

I by no means wish to suggest that discriminating against someone who is obese is anything but illogical. We all know physical lazy people who are mentally very driven, and physical driven people who are mentally very lazy. Being thin doesn’t automatically mean someone is healthy or in shape, and being overweight doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t care about their body. And in fact, it is not uncommon to see blogs, online forums, commercials and other media outlets promote the very pragmatic ideas of being comfortable in one's own skin, not being obsessed with size, and having a healthy self-image. 

Though not as extreme, my concern, however, is related to the example above: obesity is becoming normalized. Being obese is often now explained as “just another trait” some people have, like one’s race or sexual orientation. The problem is that in reality, the message of self-confidence can be misconstrued to mean that being concerned with one’s health and weight are categorically superficial goals. In that skewed interpretation of being comfortable with oneself, self-accountability for taking care of oneself can be demonized. Valid concerns for another person's health can be branded as shallow. Telling a friend they should quit smoking is socially acceptable; telling a friend they need to lose weight is not. Addictions to specific substances are a bad thing; arguing overeating is an addiction is not even considered to be a thing by many people.

Of course, losing weight is not the cure to all health problems, of course there are many physical and mental ailments that might prevent a person from being healthy, of course there are cultural implications for a lot of people in making healthy choices, of course the cost of being healthy in America is prohibitively high for many, of course modern medicine has increased life expectancy drastically even as the world becomes increasingly sedentary. But regardless of the reasons behind the problem, being obese does have many negative effects on the body and mind. As is the case with any disease, not treating both the cause and the symptoms can have dire consequences. The literature of what obesity is costing the United States alone in health care is endless. The quality of life obesity strips away is a finer, but equally important point. Looking at my life is a perfect example.

When I made that lifestyle change, I finally embraced the idea that wanting to be fit is not embedded in superficiality. Laughing at consistently unhealthy eating habits is a detrimental defense mechanism. Writing off a total lack of physical activity as “understandable laziness” is not an excuse. Increasing my clothes size every year is not a suitable alternative. My decision to lose weight was not based on media influence of impossible-to-achieve standards of attractiveness. It was not predicated on some idealistic notion of finding the perfect partner only after attaining the perfect body. It was a decision to become accountable for my own choices, and to allow my health to take precedence in my life.

I can only hope that individuals who are going through the battles of obesity make the same moves to learn how to prioritize eating well, exercising, and staying away from harmful substances (or, equally - harmful amounts of substances). Attributing unhealthy behavior to a beauty counter-culture is not the solution. Finding excuses instead of answers is not the solution. Normalizing obesity, justifying obesity, is not the solution to the epidemic. 

[1] Back then I shopped in the juniors department. The adult American equivalent size is 14; the adult European equivalent size is a 44. For those who have seen me in the last few years, I currently wear a size 8 (38 in Europe), though my body composition is now of much more muscle than back when I was in high school.

08 August 2013

Now more than ever in America is a good time to be gay, but will it stay this way?

 "I support same-sex marriage."

In present-day, 2013 America, saying this statement means you are in agreement with about half of the country. When I said this statement my second year of university, I was at the extreme. 

Back in September 2004, I took a required public speaking class in college for which the final assignment was to make a 5-minute oral argument on a well-known issue. I picked same-sex marriage. My arguments were fairly straightforward talking points: 

  1. The United States is a secular nation
  2. The American Psychological Association has definitively concluded homosexuality is not a mental disorder, nor is it related to dangerous or "perverted" behavior
  3. Same-sex marriage extends thousands of state and federal rights to law-abiding, tax-paying citizens in committed relationships with their partners
  4. It protects children who have LGBTQ parents or guardians
  5. Its economic benefits are widely recognized

In other words, my arguments were more or less what you hear nowadays. The difference between 2004 and today is the reaction. Any person who was old enough and paid attention to the rhetoric during the 2004 US Presidential elections likely recalls the vehemently negative portrayal the Republican party used against LGBTQ communities. Foreign policy, the economy, and war took a backseat to the backlash waged on the sexual orientation minorities. And the worst part of rhetoric? IT WORKED. George W. Bush won the election.

America is a country whose laws are based on the idea of historical precedence - that is, an argument for or against a law can be built on what was decided in the past. Of the many arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, a very compelling one follows suit with Brown v. Board of Education, whose ruling that overturned "Plessy v. Ferguson", and dismantled "separate but equal" laws allowing public places to be segregated by race. The mere fact that there were two different systems for two different sets people made the systems inherently unequal. 

Since gay and lesbian people cannot enter into the same kind of physical, emotional and mental commitment with the opposite sex as straight people, since same-sex marriage applies to two consenting adults, and since denying someone's rights based on archaic notions of what is right is simply wrong, the majority of the country now agrees that same-sex marriage should be allowed. The majority of the country now agrees with me.

Back then, giving a speech like I did in favor of same-sex marriage automatically relegated me to the "very liberal" or "socialist" category of the political spectrum. Those of us who were in favor of full same-sex marriage were often dismissed as extremists and therefore often written off. Even most of my so-called socially liberal friends would only go so far as to back civil unions, most moderates I knew didn't dare make a stand for any kind of same-sex rights, and most conservatives I knew were categorically against any LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage and civil unions included.

Yet today, less than ten years since I made that speech, all of the points I made that were then tossed out as liberal banter are now seen as mainstream logic. Whether it's the media total embrace of an open and proud LGBTQ community, whether it's politicians finally recognizing the financial power of the LGBTQ community, or whether the power of the Internet making the LGBTQ more ubiquitous and visible, the tides have certainly changed in favor of same-sex marriage.

But will it stay this way?

In 2003, Supreme Court justice Scalia wrote in his dissent to the majority opinion of Lawrence v. Texas that striking down an anti-sodomy law would pave the way to same-sex marriage. Thus far, Scalia seems to be correct. The swing towards same-sex marriage equality is gaining momentum. The question that a lot of us then extremists, now normalists have is whether the upward swing towards fully embracing LGBTQ rights in America is here to stay or is simply a social trend that will oscillate back. Some may call this line of thinking paranoid. Given current events, however, I call it cautious optimism.

There's no doubt that since the Supreme Court since decision of Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973, the constitutional protection for women to abort the fetus(es) they are carrying up to the third trimester has fueled much controversy. Indeed, some now argue that part of the reason the pro-choice movement has taken a beating in recent years is because the Supreme Court decision was on the back of a temporary social movement. With the resurgence of a very socially conservative and very powerful Republican party, the movement to make abortion rights a moderate issue has faded. As a result, some states in the south have effectively closed all abortion clinics, and made abortion services nearly impossible to access. And they've done this with widespread voter approval.

In high school, I became a fan of a Russian pop duo known as t.A.T.u. Their schtick was that the two members of the group, who were young females, were gay and possibly in a relationship. Though the founder of the group went through very valid scrutiny of promoting a pedophilic image of the two girls (who were 16 when they started t.A.T.u.), the point is that this group was allowed to gain huge public momentum from their own country, and eventually became one of the best-selling Russian artists ever. English and Russian language t.A.T.u. albums have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

Twelve years later, Putin has taken the country back to the dark ages of LGBTQ rights, publicly humiliating gay men, beating peaceful Pride protestors, and issuing statements that gay athletes competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics may be detained and jailed. Surely a musical act such as t.A.T.u. that openly displayed acts of lesbianism would not have survived or thrived in this environment.
Of course LGBTQ rights in America differs greatly than abortion rights. A gay person can be of any ethnicity, race, religion, gender or socioeconomic class, whereas the majority of people who receive abortion services tend to be of poor socioeconomic status, and are of course all women. With the power and visibility of online platforms, with the slow nature of establishing a long-term relationship, and with the sheer financial power many LGBTQ people have in major cities, one would think that as a greater community, positive change for LGBTQ people will have greater staying power.

Likewise, America is not Russia. Many politicians in this country certainly have incredible power at their whim, but as flawed as our democratic system can be, it is one of the most stable in the world. Waving a wand and summarily outlawing homosexuality (or any other attribute) across the country has very different consequences for our elected officials than it does for Putin, and will therefore not happen in such a swooping, unquestioned and uninhibited way.

Still, the backlash against pro-choice advocates and LGBTQ people in Russia does make me stop and question. 2004, after all, was not that long ago. The sweeping support the LGBTQ community has received in recent years is hard to explain by even the most informed political and media experts. Since we do not know how or why it happened so suddenly, and since present-day events are now telling us that social progress can be a temporary phenomenon, us then extremists now normalists are left to wonder whether this relatively golden era of being gay will indeed stay this way.