I don’t know how to talk about fat. I’m missing an opportunity to be a healthy influence on my students’ lives. But speaking thoughtfully about fat is hard.
When Megyn Kelly criticized Donald Trump for calling women “fat pigs”, he responded, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.” That line earned loud applause from the conservative audience.
American culture is fixated on skinny as a moral virtue, and encourages the denigration of those who weigh more. I too am critical of people who use worries about weight as a weapon to assert their superiority. That makes me an enforcer of “political correctness”.
I don’t think there is such a thing as Political Correctness as it’s used by conservatives to criticize liberals. Let’s just remember the speech codes of the 1950s. As I was growing up, the legal rules restricting what could be said in print, in schools, in movies, and on TV were enforced with severity. Lenny Bruce was arrested in San Francisco in 1961, in Chicago in 1962, in Los Angeles in 1963, and in New York in 1964, where he was sentenced to 4 months in a workhouse, all for saying words in public performance that were against the law.
But saying things which intentionally slandered whole categories of people was fine. I heard adults use every possible form of demeaning racial and sexual expression in public. I thought that was bullshit, a word rarely spoken then except among friends, but I take no credit for originality. It seemed like my whole generation saw the hypocrisy in that combination.
We are freer today than ever before to use our own voices. But conservatives have never forgiven the youth of the 1960s for rejecting their speech codes, their power to say what they wanted and regulate what everyone else said. People who call themselves libertarians don’t applaud the libertarian impulses of the 1960s, when we not only demanded more liberty, but were willing to stand up for it. They don’t celebrate the increased freedom from rules by authorities, the greatly expanded sphere of liberty in speech and in print. Many conservatives don’t recognize the moral value of today’s social codes, which hold racist, sexist, and generally misanthropic speech up to ridicule.
One of their more successful tactics has been to invent Political Correctness. By turning correctness into something negative, they convert their moral errors into a virtue. We are now more aware than ever of what deliberately hurtful speech sounds like and how it works. Why do so many conservatives retreat into familiar patterns of expressing superiority, and defend them with this invented claim of Political Correctness?
I think it’s fear of speaking. But they’re not the only ones who are afraid. I feel anxious when I think about talking about fat. How do I tell some of my students that medical experts say they are putting their health at risk by gaining so much weight?
I have seen these students since they came to Illinois College. In class, I am concerned about their intellectual development. Beyond class, I care about their youthful welfare. I have watched as they have gained significant weight in just a few years. These students are men and women, black and white. I make no moral judgments or psychological diagnoses. There is nothing wrong with weight, except that the National Institutes of Health say that being overweight increases the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, various cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, infertility and gallstones.
A new study shows that obesity is linked to 1 of every 5 American deaths. Obese 20-year-olds have a life expectancy that is shortened by 6 to 8 years. Worse, their expectancy of a healthy adult life is shortened by about 15 years. Women who develop anorexia as teenagers might lose up to 25 years of life. Overweight is the second leading preventable cause of death in the US, just behind smoking. Weight is important.
The inventors of PC try to make life difficult for anyone who says fat should be discussed thoughtfully as a health issue, not as a social stigma or moral weakness. But that’s not the only reason why few people in our society can talk comfortably about fat. Speaking to relative or friend about weight swings up or down is difficult or dangerous. There is so much psychological baggage attached to weight that conversations about health easily slide into lectures about good behavior.
So far I’ve said nothing to anybody. I don’t know if I will in the future. The health risks of overweight are preventable. But the risks of addressing someone else’s extra weight are daunting.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 17, 2015