Our nation’s unhealthy body image

Posted on Apr 12 2013 - 3:49pm by E.M. Tran

When it comes to weight, we are a nation of extremes.
Childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

Mississippi is the unhealthiest of them all, particularly impoverished African Americans in the state struggling to make ends meet and put dinner on the table.

Unfortunately, poverty and healthy groceries do not go hand in hand.
Yet our magazine covers, television commercials and movie stars are misleading, portraying a country packed with severely underweight Mary-Kate Olsens.

Images of rail-thin models and muscular celebrities send a totally unrealistic message about body image that permeates our culture.
Being thin has come to signify all forms of societal achievement, as if being financially successful or influential in the public space means a lot less if you’re not skinny.

Likewise, clothing choices, makeup and personal appearance mean nothing unless you’re thin.

This is especially true for the expectations of women.

Just look at the jokes aimed at Adele.
This connection of skinniness with success is not only detrimental to how people view their own bodies and accomplishments, but also, logically, equates being obese with something shameful.

Instead of adequately addressing the issue, there is a stigma attached to being obese.

Many look down upon someone who is overweight but then also feel uncomfortable talking about the health issue in a productive way.
I’ll admit, perhaps I am being unfair and the reason we feel uncomfortable talking about it has more to do with the depth of the problem rather than with collective condescension toward it.

Obesity increases one’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.
Eating habits and physical activity have a lot to do with obesity, and simply suggesting eating better and exercising more sounds like a great solution (Geez, why hasn’t anyone ever proposed that before?)

But knowing how to eat well and being able to afford to eat well are luxuries of the rich.
It’s no mistake that the poorest parts of the country — I’m looking at you, Mississippi Delta — struggle the most with obesity.
First, public education in Mississippi is in dire need of help.

Physical education and health programs are poorly instituted in our schools, and if children don’t learn how to care for their bodies and establish good habits from an early age, then they never will.
Second, the cheapest foods are also the unhealthiest.

The poorest of our nation cannot afford to buy fresh vegetables and fruit but can definitely scrape up change for a gallon of sugary fruit punch and a few bags of frozen pizza rolls.
This fact is reflected in our capitalistic culture.

When was the last time you saw a Whole Foods in a poor area or a convenience store in an upscale neighborhood?

Big chain convenience stores and fast food restaurants, which sell cheap and unhealthy fare, target low-income neighborhoods because they know that’s their market.
Fixing our obesity epidemic is much more than just telling people to eat right and exercise; it’s uprooting our approach to education and reversing the ever-growing income gap.

It is also examining the companies, of which there are really very few compared to the diversity of production less than 30 years ago, that provide our country’s food.
I’m not saying we should create a country of skinny poor people and regular-weight rich people.

I’m saying we should look at our institutions and societal attitudes and examine how they’re related.

Then maybe we’d have a chance at becoming a country of healthy people who can afford the most basic tools to human survival.

E.M. Tran is in her first year of MFA graduate studies. She is from New Orleans, La. Follow her on Twitter @etran3.