As the high-tech economy grows,
so too do waistlines. First, TV turned us into couch potatoes,
and now technology is making us progressively fatter. While
statistics vary, obesity is on the rise. Many people blame
our sedentary habits, pointing the finger at such innovations
In response, Federal Health Minister
Allan Rock, fearing that overweight Canadians will bankrupt
the health-care system, is promoting a new strategy. Describing
fat workers as ''desk potatoes'' who spend their days ''sitting
in front of their computers, on their telephones or in meetings,''
Health Canada is trying to
motivate companies to increase the physical activity
of their employees.
This initiative, reminiscent
of the ParticipAction program begun in 1971, has the goal
of inspiring office workers to do things such as walk or cycle
to work. What it does is make obesity a corporate issue and
losing weight the boss's problem.
For decades, people have
been moulding fat into someone else's issue. It became a feminist
issue when therapists, such as Susie Orbach, began interpreting
fat as symbolic of the suppressed feelings that result from
living in a male dominated society. The idea remains popular
that being overweight is the patriarchy's fault and that women
would feel better if they just said so. Clearly, for many
women, expressing anger beats shedding pounds.
Medicine and the pharmaceutical
industry, on the other hand, view obesity as the consequence
of genetic, hormonal and metabolic factors. So, while giving
lip service to exercise and diet, physicians rely heavily
on drugs, including amphetamine-derived stimulants (amphetamines
themselves are illegal) and the ever-popular panacea Prozac,
to alter body functions and cravings.
Riding the success of
nicotine patches, a hospital in London, England, has developed
a patch to reduce craving for chocolates and other sweets.
And medical researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit
are tracking an ''obesity bug.'' If they can demonstrate that
a virus known as Ad-36 causes fat accumulation, we may eventually
be able to say that we ''caught the fat.''
Two scientists from the
U.S. National Institute of Health, on the other hand, are
examining fatness not as an illness, but as an environmental
issue. Hypothesizing that artificial lighting has allowed
us to alter our waking life so that we don't get the necessary
amount of sleep in the winter season, they believe we should
sleep more. They argue that ''if you sleep at night for the
number of hours it would be normally dark outside, you will
only crave sugar in summer when the hours of light are long.''
According to them, the body will deal with this fat, and exercise
is not only unnecessary, it might just ''be the last nail
in our collective coffin.''
Coming from an opposing
direction, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
(NAAFA) wants fatness to be recognized as normal and acknowledged
as a human rights issue. Founded in 1969 to fight what it
termed ''discrimination based on body size,'' NAAFA claims
to ''provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment
through public education and advocacy.'' The organization
recently succeeded in getting a law passed in San Francisco
that bans discrimination -- in housing, employment, hotels,
bars, restaurants and movie theatres -- against those who
But for NAAFA's members,
mostly women, being proudly fat goes beyond just dignity and
rights; it is a cause to celebrate, as they did at a recent
Fat Acceptance Convention in San Diego. During the day, they
offered each other encouragement and by night they gathered
for costume dances and risque fashion shows, trading slogans
such as, ''It's my body and I'll have pie if I want to.''
Diets and exercise are
clearly not part of their agenda.
While most of us might
laugh at NAAFA antics and ignore far-out theories about fatness,
we'd likely agree with the sentiments expressed in Health
Canada's new strategy. Who can seriously argue against the
benefits of physical exercise?
But this reincarnation
of ParticipAction, however sensible it sounds, is unlikely
to work. That's because all of us, including ''desk potatoes,''
already know that we should exercise more and that it's unhealthy
to be fat. The last thing we need is an educational program
to drum in what stares us in the face and in the mirror.
The problem is that we
lack the will to do anything about it. In this decadent 21st-century
society, when fat is ''flabulous'' and walking to the fridge
is exercise, we want everything to be easy -- to come to us.
That's why, to date, no one and no program has been able to
abate the rising number of fat people in our society.
Years ago, Cyril Connolly
wrote that ''imprisoned in every fat man, a thin man is wildly
signalling to be let out.''
That's where the real
problem for desk potatoes lies. No one can ''let us out''
but ourselves. As long as we keep turning fat into someone
else's issue, that someone -- the patriarchy, a virus, electric
lights or the boss -- will be responsible. Mr. Rock's intentions
may be good, but fat is nobody's issue but our own.