Is obesity imposed on victims by nefarious outside forces? That’s what “health journalist” Julia Belluz argues in the New York Times:
The three-day meeting was infused with an implicit understanding of what obesity is not: a personal failing. No presenter argued that humans collectively lost willpower around the 1980s, when obesity rates took off, first in high-income countries, then in much of the rest of the world. Not a single scientist said our genes changed in that short time. Laziness, gluttony and sloth were not referred to as obesity’s helpers. In stark contrast to a prevailing societal view of obesity, which assumes people have full control over their body size, they didn’t blame individuals for their condition, the same way we don’t blame people suffering from the effects of undernutrition, like stunting and wasting.
The researchers instead referred to obesity as a complex, chronic condition, and they were meeting to get to the bottom of why humans have, collectively, grown larger over the past half century. To that end, they shared a range of mechanisms that might explain the global obesity surge. And their theories, however diverse, made one thing obvious: As long as we treat obesity as a personal responsibility issue, its prevalence is unlikely to decline.
But personal responsibility must play some role. Weight is something that is within the power of most people to influence. I look to my own life as an example. I have fought the weight battle much of my life, but that’s on me. I decide to overeat, and when I do, I gain weight. Sometimes, I eat because I am bored or anxious or because the food tastes so good. Conversely, when I discipline myself, I am able to lose weight or find a place of equipoise. No one stuffs food into my mouth. If I go back for seconds or thirds of Thanksgiving stuffing and pie, that’s on me.
The alternative to personal responsibility and individual agency is to assume that all problems are beyond one’s own control — and, thus, that we need some outside expert class to “help” us. Indeed, years ago, I wrote a piece noting that obesity was becoming the new global warming because the proposed solutions to both issues were very much the same: Coerce people out of their cars, destroy the meat industry, build more bicycle lanes, and regulate, regulate, regulate. Sure enough:
When I asked many of the researchers how they’d tackle obesity, given the uncertainties, they pointed to policies that would alter or regulate our environment, like outlawing junk food marketing to kids, banning vending machines in schools and making neighborhoods more walkable. They talked about changing the food system in ways that also address climate change — a related crisis once met with policy inertia that now has international momentum. But when it comes to obesity, governments are still accused of being nanny states if they try to intervene with regulation.
So it’s not surprising to see more examples of arguments that this problem demands not personal responsibility but protection by “the experts” within the warm embrace of an imposing technocracy.
Advocacy such as this is the real problem:
Until we see obesity as something that’s been imposed on societies, not as something individuals choose, the fat shaming, magic hacks and bad policies will continue. Until we stop blaming ourselves and one another and start focusing attention on environments and systems, the global obesity rate will continue its ascent — a trend no country has substantially reversed, not even in children.
No. Eschewing personal responsibility breeds dysfunction and dependency. The more we believe that our mistakes are beyond our control, the more mistakes we will make.