It is an interesting time for all of us, no doubt, as we face economic insecurity and an anti-obesity rally-cry that seems to unite most politicians across party-lines. But where does this leave consumers?
I first learned of the phrase “bulimic society” from Julie Guthman in her book Weighing In, though I think she borrowed the term from someone else (oh, academia!). I keep coming back to the phrase as I consider our current political climate. On the one hand, we are consistently getting the message to eat less. On the other hand, we consistently get the message to eat more – just in different contexts. The “eat less” camp is led by Michelle Obama and anti-obesity advocates and the “eat more” camp is, of course, the food industry and its marketers who find creative ways of playing on Michelle Obama’s side while also undermining her efforts.
I think there are many insidious plots at play here and one of them is that no matter how much Michelle Obama, Bloomberg, et al, try to address food matters, as long as they’re doing so under the guise of “obesity,” they’re building an empire on a fallacious cause (and worse, contributing to our current crisis of ignorance – most people are vigilantly standing behind “obesity” without realizing it’s a war on their own body and that it has nothing to do with health). And, they continue to place band-aids on complex issues – one of them is that the food and beverage industries can buy their way out of proposed legislation (as is happening now with the Farm Bill) and the other is that they know how to manipulate uninformed consumers into thinking they’re part a solution (to a number of things; obesity, cancer, etc. – which is 99% of the time untrue no matter how you spin it).
Another issue that I think we should think about is what a “healthful environment” would look like. In other words, should we be building a society that teaches that “health” is based predominantly on body size and accessed via restriction and prohibition? Or, should we be teaching that our health is much more than what our bodies look like; that it’s not accessed by restricting one particular indulgence; that, instead, it’s about being empowered to make the right choices for yourself. I think, again, that the biggest problem is that people simply don’t want to think for themselves. That’s how this “war on obesity” has come so far; people simply never questioned whether warring on body size was the right thing to do, they just saw it was popular and profitable to do so and thus jumped on the bandwagon. I also see people quick to jump on the “yes, we should ban soda!” bandwagon while chugging diet soda and sweetened ice tea. So while I definitely think that we should build a society where healthful behaviors are the norm because people want to engage in them intrinsically, I’m not sure how we get there because we’re so accustomed to doing things simply because we’re forced to or because others shame us into doing them. I’m also not sure how to address the food & beverage lobbies because while I feel we should not ban “junk foods” (and have changed my stance on taxing junk food as I no longer think we should), I have to acknowledge that these industries have most of America, mostly our impressionable children, in a choke-hold.
I have more questions than answers.
Here’s a peek at some of the bulimic messaging consumers are faced with day-to-day:
Bloomberg Wants to Ban Big Ass Sodas in the name of “Obesity”
This noir is currently the cover of The New Yorker
McDonald’s says Drink More for Less!
Taco Bell’s “Live Mas” campaign
Live more translates to EAT more. By the way, Taco Bell Tampa, FL just donated 1800 meals to Children’s Cancer Center. Just another compassionate partnership…riiiiiiiiiiight? Hm. Much like KFC’s partnership with breast cancer awareness. Just like Girl Scouts’ anti-obesity campaign, which can be tracked back to a partnership with “Bumble Bee Foods, Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg’s Company, Kraft Foods, McCain Inc., (the world’s leading producer of frozen prepared potatoes), Nestlé, PepsiCo, PureCircle (the world’s leading producer of stevia-derived sweeteners), Ralston Foods/Post Foods, Sara Lee Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company, The Hershey Company, and The J.M. Smucker Company!”
If we’re not already using the term “obesity washing,” it’s due time. Obesity is just another “cause” that has become profitable – more than beneficial – and which will continue to fuel marketing campaigns and PR efforts by both the public and private sector who have much to gain in this climate.
The Cranky One