In Praise of Obesity

by | Feb 23, 2003 | POLITICS

Americans are criticized for being the world’s most overweight people. Yet our excessive bodyweight reflects on America’s highest values and achievements. Being obese is detrimental to one’s health, resulting in the risk of stroke, certain cancers and premature death. Some researches estimate that obesity in America contributes to more than 300,000 deaths a year. How […]

Americans are criticized for being the world’s most overweight people. Yet our excessive bodyweight reflects on America’s highest values and achievements.

Being obese is detrimental to one’s health, resulting in the risk of stroke, certain cancers and premature death. Some researches estimate that obesity in America contributes to more than 300,000 deaths a year. How then can this problem be considered a [political] achievement?

Historically, before the United States existed, obesity was virtually nonexistent [except among Kings and Queens]. In the West, people were fortunate enough to survive, since famine was common and disease was rampant throughout Europe. In parts of France during the mid-17th century, for example, life expectancy was 20 years, and in early eighteenth-century London, three-quarters of the children died before they turned five. Men, women and children labored for many hours doing some form of backbreaking work simply to feed, clothe and shelter themselves.

These dire conditions changed with America’s pro-reason philosophy and unprecedented freedom and their consequence — the Industrial Revolution, with its labor- and time-saving machinery. The 20th century witnessed the transition of an economy dominated by physical labor to one more intellectually driven, along with the continual growth of everyday labor-saving devices, including the automobile, vacuum cleaner, and remote-controlled TV. All of these developments created for the general population a dramatic explosion of wealth, food production and spare time for rest and recreation. For the first time ever, the average man had the opportunity to live a relatively sedentary lifestyle — including the option to eat in excess.

Certain critics of American obesity often indict our productive but less physically demanding lifestyle as the cause of this problem. Curiously, they say we are too fat because we are “lazy,” yet these same critics, usually from the political left, cry that Europeans have longer vacation time than “overworked” Americans. When these productive Americans then buy material goods or take vacations in exotic locals with their earnings, the critics decry these as “luxuries” that add to the notches on our belts. We Americans have become too removed from our “primitive origins,” they chide, and we must get “back to nature.”

In reality, the further man progresses from the cave and the generally brutish, short life he has lived up until the West established capitalism, the better he is due to the freedom and opportunities inherent in that economic system. While obesity is an unhealthy, undesirable state, the fact that people can put on many pounds is an historical achievement. It represents what our numerous emaciated and famished ancestors were unable to possess: the option of choosing their bodyweight.

When I once leafed through a five-and-dime movie magazine from the 1940s, I found something unseen in contemporary America — an advertisement for skinny people wanting to gain weight. Observe that today obesity is more common among poorer Americans than with their wealthier countrymen. This fact indicates that America’s problem with weight may greatly lie with the Left’s “progressive” social and political measures than with our nation’s capitalist-inspired lifestyle.

American obesity is rooted in attacks on personal responsibility, a virtue undercut by the progressives’ expansion of the welfare state during the 1960s, when our waistlines began expanding like never before. With the expansion of a system that discourages people from saving for their own retirement (Social Security) and health care (Medicare/Medicaid), and that pays them for not working (welfare), came the spread of increased anti-personal responsibility in American life. A phenomenon reflected by the many people who fail to keep themselves in good health, which includes their overeating fattening foods.

Moreover, a crusade is growing, born of feminism’s attack on objective standards of beauty, which asserts that weighing, say, 400 pounds is as “beautiful” as being a Victoria’s Secret model; that people who exercise to earn trim or muscular physiques are aesthetically no better than people whose bodies are shaped by their sitting around indulging in sweets.

The fat-is-beautiful crusaders criticize Americans for being “obsessed” with thinness. Their criticism, however, is aimed at the same target as the critics of obesity. The fitness movement is also a product of the Industrial Revolution. Only when man’s backbreaking labor was eased or eliminated by machinery did he have the energy and time to lift weights to build his muscles as a form of recreation.

Thanks to the Western values of reason, capitalism and productive achievement, he now has the choice to gain weight, lose it or develop his body to perfection. From here on out then, let America’s fattest people be a reminder of how far we’ve advanced from the cave.

Joseph Kellard is a journalist living in New York. To read more of Mr. Kellard's commentary, visit his website The American Individualist at americanindividualist.blogspot.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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