The girth of a nation

September 14, 2000


Suddenly, your weight is an office issue


   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 as e-mail.

 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 are wide-loaded.

 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.


@ Dr.Tana Dineen

by Dr. Tana Dineen, special columnist,