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Open Letter to Michelle Obama: Cutting Calories at the Women’s History Museum

This is a guest post by Laurie and Debbie. Debbie Notkin is a body image activist, a feminist science fiction advocate, and a publishing professional. She is chair of the motherboard of the Tiptree Award and will be one of the two guests of honor at the next WisCon in May 2012. Laurie is a photographer whose photos make up the books Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (edited and text by Debbie Notkin) and Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (edited by Debbie Notkin, text by Debbie Notkin and Richard F. Dutcher). Her photographs have been exhibited in many cities, including New York, Tokyo, Kyoto, Toronto, Boston, London, Shanghai and San Francisco. Her solo exhibition “Meditations on the Body” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka featured 100 photographs. Her most recent project is Women of Japan, clothed portraits of women from many cultures and backgrounds. Laurie and Debbie blog together at Body Impolitic, talking about body image, photography, art and related issues. This post originally appeared on Body Impolitic.

Debbie says:

Dear Mrs. Obama,

I wrote to you several years ago when you first announced your anti-childhood-obesity campaign, stating my opinion that opposition to childhood obesity both focuses on a red herring instead of a problem and encourages low self-esteem in all children (and people) who perceive themselves to be fat. I was sorry never to get an answer.

Last week, I was lucky enough to get to visit the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, NY. I was struck by the opening of the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the first U.S. Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848. The Declaration begins:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

I thoroughly enjoyed the museum, though I was sorry to see that it has apparently run out of money. Many of the computerized exhibits were not working, and the display of women’s history from 1993 onward was ironically blank. As a person concerned with body image, I was especially pleased to note some mentions of the way in which focus on appearance has been a hurdle for women trying to find our own strength.

One of my companions, a recovering anorexic, was triggered as well as horrified when she was buying something in the shop and found a handout from the museum entitled in large letters Burn While You Learn (.pdf at the link). I found its focus on calories disturbing and its presence in a women’s rights museum offensive. My friend, on the other hand, experienced it as a direct criticism of herself for having escaped from the near-death state that obsessively counting calories in and calories out caused her some decades passed.

When I challenged the flyer’s presence in a woman’s-rights museum, the woman behind the counter basically shifted the responsibility onto you, which seems fair since the flyer credits your “Let’s Move Outside!” program. I was able to find at least one other flyer in an identical design on the Internet, which supports her claim. The Let’s Move Outside website, on the other hand, while it mentions calories and obesity in a few places, seems much more focused on what I believe to be the real issues: exercise for every body, healthy food for every body, and positive self image for every body.

Just to be clear about my objections:

1) No one can calculate to any reliable degree the number of calories a person burns while walking a certain distance, even if you know that person’s weight and the speed at which they walk.

2) To the very limited extent that calorie burning is correlated to weight loss (if you haven’t already, please read the incomparably useful David Berreby article on this topic) these numbers are absolutely trivial, which anyone who has ever counted calorie intake is completely aware of.

3) As my friend’s reaction shows, this campaign is basically shaming; it’s designed to hit people’s–usually women’s–internalized oppression buttons and make us feel like we aren’t moving enough, walking enough, burning enough calories, paying enough attention. Basically, there’s no way this kind of message makes anyone feel better, stronger, or more capable, all of which are markers of both emotional and physical health.

4) It is a travesty to put this kind of message in front of women in one of the few places where focusing on our rights and our power is supposed to take center stage.

A body image rights convention would be well justified in “refusing allegiance to” a campaign with the goal of making us hate ourselves.Please rethink the entire “Burn While You Learn” campaign, and while you are doing so, please have your staff remove the flyer from the Seneca Falls and Waterloo sites.

Thank you for your consideration.

48 thoughts on Open Letter to Michelle Obama: Cutting Calories at the Women’s History Museum

  1. I think two of the things Michelle Obama does – stressing fresh food (especially encouraging home gardens) and activity – are helpful for people of any size. The problem for me is when it’s promoted and viewed only as an anti-obesity campaign.

    1. I agree that growing your own food is admirable (too disabled to grow anything other than a bamboo plant myself, but I used to as a child), but don’t laws prevent that in most of the urban US? I was shocked to find out people could be prosecuted for growing vegetables and fruits in their own garden there. (Of course, they’re disproportionately black and poor. Of course.) It seems to me that taking those laws down would do more than any flyer campaign would – I mean seriously, they’re poor, not stupid, if they could legally grow tomatoes and zucchini in plain sight, does anyone think they wouldn’t have done that already?

      1. There’s also a lot of urban areas where all of the soil is contaminated with lead (from car exhaust or house paint or other past usage). While it’s certainly possible to put in clean dirt in a lined vegetable bed in those areas, someone who’s already struggling to make ends meet isn’t likely to be able to do that. (And a lot of people don’t know how to get their soil tested or that they might need to.)

      2. If you don’t own your own home, it’s not really a possibility. I live in an apartment in a working-class part of a mid-sized US city. Even if my landlord were to allow it (which I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t), there simply isn’t enough room for a garden. We have a small front yard, and a parking lot in back.

      3. I have only lived in a few (east coast) cities, but I don’t know of any laws against gardening where I am. Boyfriend and I rent a house downtown with a tiny yard and use every inch of it for vegetable gardening & our compost. Depends on your landlord, but it’s certainly not impossible to garden at a rental house, and if you can’t use the yard, many veggies can be grown in containers. I grew up in baltimore and we gardened in the front yard there, too, without issue. Just my experience…

    2. Home gardens can be a pipe dream for many people. My mother used to have one, and I was shocked to discover exactly how back-breaking gardening can be – especially on people whose joints and bones have issues. I can like the idea of a White House Garden, but I also know that Michelle has a staff who help maintain it. She’s not in a positon to be there consistently to maintain it. Thus, it’s a bit unrealistic to look to her example for people who lack the Obamas’ resources. Here’s a thought: why do you think, in the US, farming and harvesting crops is largely relegated to migrant workers, the low-income and others like them? It’s because the work is incredibly hard and demanding, and most people like being able to not do it. Gardening in some form is admirable for the people who can, but those who can’t shouldn’t have to be put out of having decent food. That’s personally why I have a tough time looking to the White House garden as any kind of example for most Americans.

      1. For several years when I was young, we survived by supplementing food stamps with a backyard garden. It was brutally hard work to plant and painful when the plants failed (most often due to weather). Plus, it wasn’t particularly nutritious since only a few things are hardy enough to grow in certain climates. And when they are ripe you eat a metric ton of it, and the rest of the year you eat beans and rice. Particularly skillful or brilliant people might be able to rotate plantings to produce a varied diet, but IME when the thing you need is calories you plant what grows and what grows =/= what is the most balanced nutritionally.

        Community gardens like those that have been created in Detroit seem to be a better solution (I can’t link/seach properly on my phone, but I think there was a series on this by a guest blogger, bfp maybe?, a few years ago, and it was also featured in O, I think, and probably a bunch of other places). I wish Mrs. Obama had chosen to highlight these efforts instead. Individual solutions have their place, but for the most part people have plenty of personal incentives to eat healthily, what they don’t have is community support to make their desire for healthy eating a reality.

      2. Yes. I have two small raised bed gardens in my back yard, and we also have some fruit trees, and herbs in pots. But what we grow is really only an enhancement to our meals – last night I picked three tomatoes and put them in something I was cooking, but all the other ingredients came from the store. I do it because I like fresh stuff, but there’s no way we could live on what we grow, or that it could even be a substantial percentage of what we eat (and we live in a warm climate where you can pretty much garden year round). As far as money goes, I doubt I’ve broken even, when you consider the money spent on soil, beds, tools, seeds, compost bin and young fruit trees.

  2. The thing that the campaign seems to wholly miss is that, for a lot of us (myself included), eating healthy and getting adequate activity actually leads to a weight gain. My unhealthiest point was also my thinnest. It wasn’t until I got into serious physical activity (MMA, martial arts, rock climbing) that I actually had the impetus to eat well – and for me, that meant eating higher calories, nutrient dense foods. Between eating more and strength training, I was nearly guaranteed to gain a substantial amount. Today, my BMI is in the overweight range. However, my total body fat percentage is actually lower than before. Does that stop my doctor and the coach at my employer-sponsored wellness program from bringing up my BMI each time I see them? No, it happens like clockwork.

    I can applaud a program that encourages physical fitness and healthfulness. However, it amazes me that nobody has yet grasped that promoting those two goals might be in actual opposition to promoting weight loss. We have a lot of people in this country who stand to gain or remain about the same if the country got serious about health. It is still like pulling teeth to get people to realize that.

    1. I can applaud a program that encourages physical fitness and healthfulness. However, it amazes me that nobody has yet grasped that promoting those two goals might be in actual opposition to promoting weight loss.

      That’s the crux of it for me. If you don’t know enough about physiology to understand that being fit/healthy does not always come with being thin, then you’re not qualified to be a health/nutrition spokesperson of any kind.

      Michelle Obama as such is not qualified.

    2. Sort of the same here…I tend to gain muscle, which is good, but gaining muscle is still gaining. Muscle tissue doesn’t defy physics. More of it is more of you. The only time in my life during which I could get on the scale and have it show well within the “skinny” range was a time during which I was drastically ill. Once I got better I started to put on weight. So: yeah; if you want people to get healthier and more fit, you can do that with lots of them, and if you want people to get thinner than they are, you can do that with at least some of them, but there are going to be some people for whom the two goals are irreconcilable. I commented about a related subject down the thread.

  3. So, I could be completely off here, but I’m kind of uncomfortable with the fact that this–completely valid of course–criticism of anti-obesity is framed as criticism of Mrs. Obama, even as the issues raised in #soliditaryisforwhitewomen remain unresolved on this blog. While I get that Mrs. Obama is heading a big anti-obesity campaign, historically there have been problems in the white feminist blogosphere with white feminists disproportionately criticizing the First Lady (cf. criticism of Beyonce), and to me, the timing of the post and its framing as a letter to Mrs. Obama seems a little bit tone deaf.

    1. To me (and I say this as a biracial person), there isn’t anything particularly wrong with it. Mrs. Obama is a WOC. However, there isn’t anything that precludes a POC from taking part in any of the other -isms. I can easily think of some people of color who espouse some pretty sexist and homophobic viewpoints. Should they be beyond reproach because they are of color? I’d like to think not, because destructive views deserve a good challenge. Can racial differences certainly impact a conversation? Sure. I’d like to think that Mrs. Obama might be particularly passionate about health because she likely has experience with exactly how severely poor healthcare and food insecurity hits communities of color. And there’s nothing wrong with that. However, when she emphasizes and positions “Let’s Move” as an anti-obesity campaign, that is harmful (and let’s not forget, promoting anti-fat views also disproportionatly impacts communties of color).

      I don’t think the article is tone deaf in the least, personally. If I thought it was racist, I’d say so in a heartbeat. However, I disagree with you that race (or any other marginalized status) should be able to be used as shield against legitimate critique. Michelle Obama is very different then the vast majority of WOC out there. She has an enormous platform. I don’t think it is tone deaf to ask any person (of any race) to consider using that platform in a way that doesn’t promote bias.

      FFIW, as well, if you do some Googling, you’ll find WOC discussing this very issue and talking about their personal issues with Mrs. Obama’s campaign as well.

  4. I don’t agree that this is more inappropriate at a women’s museum; if one agrees with the premise that obesity is linked with poor health, then the fact that more women are obese than men should be concerning because it shows that women are or will be disproportionately experiencing poor health. I get why a focus on body size is bad — but since when is encouraging walking considered “fat shaming”? I must have missed the fat memo, because last I heard the latest craze was talking about how fit and fat everyone was, which included very detailed descriptors of how far they walk every day…

    1. It’s also silly to address Obama with this; she encourages people to eat healthy and get outside, and it’s absolutely not her fault that her campaign got chained to the obesity trends or triggered people with eating disorders, because saying “try to eat veggies” doesn’t have anything to do with shaming.

      1. It’s also silly to address Obama with this; she encourages people to eat healthy and get outside, and it’s absolutely not her fault that her campaign got chained to the obesity trends or triggered people with eating disorders, because saying “try to eat veggies” doesn’t have anything to do with shaming.

        Barnacle, thank you. This nonsense needs to be shut down. Michelle Obama has said a number of assy things during the course of the Let’s Move campaign, like that childhood obesity is not only a public health issue, but an economic threat and a national security threat. That’s right, a national security threat. You see, fat people can’t serve in the military, because fat equals physically incompetent, and fit and fat are mututally exclusive, apparently.

        This idea that it’s “absolutely not her fault” that her initiative is fatphobic is laughable and needs pushback. It didn’t get co-opted or something against her wishes. It’s her initiative, and she’s shaped it with the things she’s said.

        I loved, loved, loved Michelle Obama until Let’s Move. When I heard about it I hoped so much that it would be what was on the tin – promoting exercise to move and feel strong and feel good instead of sitting in front of a computer or a tv. Instead, it’s been ‘kids, your bodies are a national security threat.’

    2. I’ve been to a lot of hiking trails Bagelsan, and none of them mention calories. They all have the distance listed.

      This ties into the way men and women’s fitness is treated. Women are told to count calories more, whereas men are pointed toward taking enough protein and sold “Ab Fuel” type things, and pushed toward building muscle. Women are pushed toward weightloss.

      You don’t find it a bit telling that this was done, not at one of the many, many, many unisex themed parks, but instead at one specifically aimed at women’s history?

      because saying “try to eat veggies” doesn’t have anything to do with shaming.

      Arguable, and the difference between HAES type advocating and complete fat acceptance. I don’t have have to eat any damn veggies if I don’t want to. No one has a right to tell me what I should eat or put in my body. No one has a right to sit here and try to guilt trip me about their tax dollars and healthcare cost because I bought some Doritos or put some salt on my fried egg.

      And bullcrap it’s silly to address it at Michelle Obama. She has said and encouraged many anti-obesity things, try googling instead of just laying down some lovely platitude about how she’s only pushing people to eat their veggies.

      1. This ties into the way men and women’s fitness is treated. Women are told to count calories more, whereas men are pointed toward taking enough protein and sold “Ab Fuel” type things, and pushed toward building muscle. Women are pushed toward weightloss.

        This is true, and REALLY frustrating.

        I just joined a gym for the first time in my life, mostly for stress relief (and also because I used to work outdoors and I miss being able to lift all the heavy things). The gym I joined has many good qualities, and is a very comfortable space for amateurs. Among other things, they give you a free training session at the beginning to show you how to use various pieces of equipment safely. Which is awesome. So I scheduled my appointment…

        Overall it was a very good experience. But the following things happened:

        Me: (fills out piece of paper with medical information and reasons for joining a gym. Checks off “stress relief,” and “health.”)
        Trainer: Annnd your wait loss goals?
        Me: I don’t care about what happens to my weight.
        (we do some other paperwork-y things)
        Trainer: What was your target weight again?
        Me: I’m not interested in losing weight.
        Trainer: Do you eat two or three times a day?
        Me: I eat at least three times a day, otherwise I start to feel sick.
        Trainer: What was that? You feel sick when you over-eat?
        Me: (facepalm. repeat previous statement.)

        And things like that kept happening – comments that made it clear that this person either explicitly didn’t believe me or was just incapable of comprehending that I did not care about weightloss.

        And I would bet you serious $ that he does not do that to the men he sees.

        1. Yeah, this is basically the reason I dropped out of gyms, because magically when I say “my hands and arms are very weak and painful and I want to build up some strength in them, slowly” it means “lol I am lazy fatty fat fat who should be forced into pushups haha”. It might be better now I’ve got Official Diagnoses to waggle in their faces, but I don’t care to find out. I’d rather do yoga at home at my own speed than try a workout (that might actually do more for me) just because I never want to have to deal with that shit again.

        2. Particularly when it feels like I’m paying to be shamed, guilted and have my sense of what my body can and cannot do (which, with fibromyalgia, is going to be way keener and more accurate than any abstract understanding) overridden by some muscle-brained fatphobic asshole.

      2. While I’m on board with the idea of stressing healthier food options and exercise rather than weight loss, this:

        I don’t have have to eat any damn veggies if I don’t want to. No one has a right to tell me what I should eat or put in my body. No one has a right to sit here and try to guilt trip me about their tax dollars and healthcare cost because I bought some Doritos or put some salt on my fried egg.

        I just find silly. No one is trying to force you to eat vegetables. Michelle Obama is not going to come to your home and confiscate your Doritos. Are you seriously suggesting that even discussing which foods are generally better or worse for people, and the benefits of exercise infringes on people’s rights?

        Because if so, we just have completely incompatible views on the role of government. I think seatbelts should be mandatory. I think that cigarettes should come with warning labels about the health risks of smoking. And I think that it is 100% a good thing for the government to encourage healthier* food and exercise decisions, especially because there is a multi-billion dollar corporate industry that inundates us all with the opposite messages every single day.

        *There’s obviously a lot of disagreement about the way to define that word, but Barnacle, you seem to be against any and all versions of these campaigns, even if they say nothing about obesity, weight, or calories.

        1. Esti, you can oppose a program like Let’s Move for reasons that have little to nothing to do with it’s anti-fat slant. I personally think the program is largely bunk as well. Let me explain why to you: because it’s another program that promotes individual responsibility for institutional and government failures. Do you know the single biggest change that would help change American eating habits and poor health? It has nothing to do with encouraging healthy eating. It has everything to do with eliminating agricultural subsidies. While Mrs. Obama encourages ordinary Americans to choose veggies over processed meals, her husband continues to back subsidies that continue to ensure that the processed stuff remains cheaper and far more accessible than the veggies. Do you see the tiny problem here?

          Facially, there isn’t anything wrong with Let’s Move or encouraging healthy lifestyles. However, there is something wrong with small gestures to encourage health from one hand and big gestures that work against it from the other hand. I dislike that Let’s Move has basically, from where I’m sitting, become a cover sheet that progressives are supposed to point at and say, “The government does care about our health.”

          This is a personal issue of mine because I grew up in an area where food issues were a big thing, and I saw firsthand how screwed up our national priorities are on this front. So that’s why I feel the way I do.

        2. Drahill, I absolutely agree that there are much larger, systemic issues about food and lifestyles in general (urban planning, labor laws, etc.) that need to be addressed. But I don’t think that programs encouraging healthier choices–which are available to many people, even if not as big a set of choices or as widely distributed as they should be–are still valuable.

          From my own experience–growing up in a suburb that had plenty of supermarkets and farmers’ markets, a primarily middle-class population, and a whole lot of traditional 9-5 workplaces–I can tell you that my family 100% could and should have eaten healthier and been more active than we were. I personally know that my diet and exercise choices today, as an adult, were profoundly influenced by how I grew up, and that I still struggle with choosing non-processed food and activity over what seems like the “default” of processed, seriously not good for me food and sitting on the couch most of the time I’m not at work. I think improving school lunches and encouraging kids to be active, in whatever form they can/want to, are absolutely good things regardless what other changes need to be made.

          If the government has to wait until it has eliminated agricultural subsidies, addressed the economic and social factors that cause people to have to work 2 or 3 jobs, brought everyone to a higher-than-poverty-line level of income, etc. before it’s allowed to also encourage people to be more active and to incorporate some healthier food choices into their lives… well, I would like to see all of those things happen, but I don’t want to wait until eternity before we get some fun, encouraging PSAs about moving your body.

        3. Esti, I’m trying to be friendly here, so I’m going to be careful in what I say. Okay, let me start:

          You aren’t really a person who is really impacted by a lot of what I said above. You, by your own admission, grew up middle-class and sububan, with plenty of access to healthy food and resources. A great many people are not like you. Let me count them off: the urban poor. The rural. The disabled. The working class who can’t cook between the 3 jobs. People in food deserts. Shall I go on? Basically, you aren’t somebody who the government’s disasterous food policies have hit full throttle. Your family could pretend that those policies didn’t really affect you. Many are not so lucky.

          I grew up rural, in a town that fluculated between 400-500 people. Over half the people lived below the povery line. The town is surrounded on 3 sides by vast corn fields – that were owned by a corporation. The town didn’t benefit from that stuff. The corn was harvested, shipped off, and, thanks to agricultural subsidies, came back to us in the forms of soda, processed canned meals and tv dinners. And that is what we lived off of. So my lived experience is radically different from your’s. My town could not pretend that bad food policy didn’t affect us. It was in our faces each day.

          And you ask “well, when can we have a fun campaign?” How about when the government owns up for it’s huge role in the food crisis? Maybe this is just me, but given what I know and have seen myself, I personally refuse to let the same entity that created the mess lecture me about personal responsibility. Let’s talk about institutional programs first. I think the problem is that you had the ability to not see the insititutional problems growing up; I did not.

        4. Drahill, I absolutely understand that there are people who do not have access to healthier food, who do not have the ability (or the resources or the time or the energy) to cook meals every night or to exercise every day. (And for the record, I did not say that my family was middle class, just that the place I grew up was primarily middle class. Trust me, I have some personal experience with the difficult economics of food.) I am acknowledging those things. I agree they are problems. I agree the government needs to tackle them. I am actively supporting initiatives that do so.

          What I am ALSO saying is that there are a lot of people who DO have the opportunity to access healthier options, both in terms of food and exercise, but are not doing so. I find conversations about these issues on feminist/social justice blogs somewhat frustrating, because it often seems like the fact that there are many people who lack those choices (a very real, very important problem) is used to dismiss public awareness campaigns wholesale, when there are a lot of people who can and do benefit from those programs.

          And Michelle Obama’s work in particular seems like an odd target for this argument, because part of what she is doing is providing MORE options to people who previously lacked them. The school lunch standards she has been a spokesperson for are aimed at ensuring that children in low income areas are getting at least one meal a day that contains fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Her Active Schools initiative is aimed at expanding physical education programs in schools, which is of particular benefit in low income neighborhoods where lack of funding and facilities have traditionally hindered the provision of good phys ed programs. Let’s Move incorporates various grants and federal programs that are aimed at expanding access to healthy options in food desserts and making safe, convenient physical activity possible in communities lacking play facilities for children. Even if her husband can’t eliminate agricultural subsidies right now, those all seem like good steps forward to me.

        5. Esti, I still don’t think you are getting what I’m saying. You ask, “well, isn’t Michelle Obama working to combat the issues that keep healthy food inaccessible?” Yes, but – and here’s the big BUT you seem to keep missing – those iniatives don’t mean a lot when she insists on packaging and presenting them under the guise of “combating obesity.” Healthy food is a noble goal inandof itself. It does not need the obesity boogeyman to make it tenable. Doing so actually weakens the otherwise decent message.

          And now on to that message. Bringing healthy food to people is noble. However, nothing about the Let’s Move program actually addresses why there is such a derth of healthy foods to begin with in many areas. Namely, because agricultural subsidies have made healthy foods more expensive, and thus, less attractive to poor and urban storekeepers to stock (do you see how this all keeps coming back to the subsidies? There might be a reason for that). Arguing in favor of increased accessibility without trying to address the root causes of the inaccessibility is a futile pursuit. It also proceeds from the presumption that once that inaccessibility is remedied, people will no longer have an excuse to be unhealthy (or, since we’re being realistic, “fat” anymore). Thus, it doesn’t address large systemic issues and then proceeds to play the “personal responsibility card” with gusto.

          The problems with American food policy are large and wide-ranging. However, the majority of them can be traced directly back to governmental policy – not individual choices. So to answer your question – why should the government even feel like it has the right to offer individual critique when it is responsible for far more of the damage? And I was not pointing out that you personally never had food issues. However, in your initial comment, you pointed out that your family had access to healthy food (including farmer’s markets) and the means to purchase it, but chose not to. That already puts you leaps and bounds ahead of a good chunk of the population, whether you could do that at all times or not.

        6. Drahill, I think I do understand what you’re saying, I just don’t fully agree with it. I do agree that it was/is a mistake to position Let’s Move as anti-obesity rather just about healthier lifestyles.

          But as far as what it’s actually doing: I just fundamentally disagree that increasing the accessibility of healthier food and exercise opportunities is futile if you don’t get rid of agricultural subsidies first. For one thing, the government subsidizing healthier food options helps to reduce the skewed economic incentives that agricultural subsidies create. But more to the point, there are a whole lot more kids in the country who are getting better nutritional content in their daily lives with MO’s policies in place than there were before. There are more kids getting more physical activity than there were before.

          Even if other government policies, like agricultural subsidies (which I don’t think are the be-all and end-all of the food issues this country has, but whatevs) are 95% of the issue, it can’t hurt to tackle the other 5%. Because there are a whole lot of political and financial incentives that make it really, really difficult to get rid of agricultural subsidies. But in the meantime, childhood obesity rates (and while obesity is not a particularly accurate measure on an individual level, I think it is informative on a population level) have started to drop, including among poor and minority children, for the first time in decades.

          And I also disagree that MO’s programs are about blaming individuals or pretending this is all about personal choice. A lot of what she’s doing is aimed at policy changes on a local level: city governments, schools, businesses, etc.

          I understand your frustration that the government, which does a lot of things that make it more difficult for people to be healthy, is also in the position of encouraging individuals to make healthier choices. But I don’t see that as hypocrisy or blame shifting, just a natural result of government being a very big, very slow-moving animal. It’s not like MO’s husband created agricultural subsidies, and since he took office he’s consistently proposed cutting them. But the fact that Congress is skewed in ways that make that pretty close to impossible in the current political climate doesn’t make me think that other, totally separate parts of the government have no right to educate about, and encourage people to make, healthier choices where they can.

          And when the alternative is letting big corporations–the ones that benefit from, and finance politicians to ensure they continue to benefit from, agricultural subsidies–broadcast constant encouragement to make unhealthy choices, I’d rather have an imperfect government counterbalancing that than nothing at all.

        7. Esti, you are far more charitable to the government than I. We are not talking about, as you so charitably say, is imperfect. We are talking about the government actively playing both sides. It’s not a government that has made some mistakes and now is working to correct them. They continue to “encourage” Americans to do better while handing vast amounts of cash to the very entities that prevent us from “doing better.” That’s not imperfectness. That’s hypocrisy.

          I’m personally starting to get the impression that you value the style of the message over the actual substance. Almost every major study undertaken on food policy seems to reach the same conclusion – we’d do far more for people’s health by ending the current food subsidies (at, at the very least, directing them elsewhere) than any “encouragement campaign” could ever do. Because guess what? You can encourage until you’re blue in the face, but when you’re a working class stiff with a couple kids, the government’s “encouragement” doesn’t mean jack, while their subsidizing of cheap foods means a lot more.

          As to your last point about the need to “balance out” the corporations – honestly – where do you think that power comes from? The most profitable food businesses are those who create the most processed foods. And how do they turn such huge profits? Because they create the products that can be sold for dirt cheap, all thanks to – gasp – subsidies! Do you see the pattern here now, or are you still going to insist that somehow, all this encouragement is a good thing?

        8. Esti, I agree with your idea that 5% of the problem is inactivity, and 95% systemic stuff like the subsidies. What concerns me is that the government seems keen to act on the 5%, and is completely unwilling to move on the 95% (Obama’s own preferences aside). However, launching high-visibility campaigns on the 5% allows everyone to say “well look at how much money/time/resources we’re spending on this issue!” and never do anything about the 95%. It’s a pretty tried-and-trusted technique to ensure a standstill on progress while appearing to be very industrious.

        9. Esti, I agree with your idea that 5% of the problem is inactivity, and 95% systemic stuff like the subsidies. What concerns me is that the government seems keen to act on the 5%, and is completely unwilling to move on the 95% (Obama’s own preferences aside).

          I know you probably know this already, mac, but they even fail at the 5% issues a lot of the time too. I used to have a go-to NPR article link when talking about this, that dealt with obstacles to a healthy lifestyle in my neck of the woods (the San Joaquin Valley of California, ironically one of the biggest agricultural producers of the world), and among the exercise related things the article brought up were the large stray dog populations that often roam in packs and can and have hurt people (another irony, this one personal…even when I’m in pretty good health, I can’t walk too much at one time, but one of my doctors’ offices is close enough that I always took advantage of the opportunity to walk to my appointments…now I no longer dare to because I’m afraid of the dogs); the other one given was just a general lack of places that are safe and don’t cost anything to get exercise. Some people enjoying walking up down the main streets of their towns with friends to get exercise, but poorly maintained infrastructure in the Valley makes it hard for a lot of people. One example of that in my town, a teenage girl was walking down our main street and the sidewalk literally fell apart beneath her and fell into the basement of a furniture store. Unfortunately for her she didn’t have a cell phone with her and it was late at night so she had to wait until the store employees showed up the next morning so she could get help. Who would want to run on sidewalks like those?

          I’m sorry for ranting, it does frustrate me when programs like Let’s Move get a bit too lecturey when not everything is in the power of individuals to solve.

      3. … No one has a right to sit here and try to guilt trip me about their tax dollars and healthcare cost because I bought some Doritos or put some salt on my fried egg.

        And bullcrap it’s silly to address it at Michelle Obama. She has said and encouraged many anti-obesity things, try googling instead of just laying down some lovely platitude about how she’s only pushing people to eat their veggies.

        Yes to this. I have been food-policed for literally over a half-century, since I could barely walk, and believe me, I am tired of it and it has never done a damn thing to improve my health. First it was actually not eating enough and since I was about four, it was too much.

        It’s not that saying, “vegetables are good for you and yummy; try to eat more of them” is inherently offensive (to me at least, YMMV). But it’s ignoring a context that it can be very hard to do. One of the food documentaries, I think it might be Food, Inc. (I’m not saying that film might not have problematic elements, but it’s pretty interesting), features a low-income Hispanic family, mom and dad and two kids, where the parents both work 2+ FTE jobs. They end up stopping every day at fast-food windows to get things from the dollar menu. They want to eat vegetables, but literally can’t afford to. A bunch of broccoli costs maybe $1.99 or more and is nutritious but provides almost zero needed calories (and not even a serving each for four people) whereas the $1 hamburger will fill at least a major portion of the calories needed to stay alive. The camera follows them around a supermarket — at one point the little girl looks longingly at some fresh pears and seems to be asking if they can have some, but they are prohibitively expensive for this family. Michelle Obama may mean well with her magazine-photo-ready White House kitchen garden, but that might as well be on another planet for a lot of people.

      4. Barnacle, I realize that it’s your right to refuse to do a damn thing. It’s your right to refuse to eat as healthy as you can, it’s your right to sit on your butt all day, just like it’s your right to refuse medicine or stick yourself with rusty nails for fun. I’m fine with that, honest.

        But if you do that, then I’m also fine with people saying “um, rusty-nail-piercings are a terrible, unhealthy idea” — that’s not, like, tetanus shaming or anything, that’s basic hygiene. Promotion of health behaviors isn’t mind-control; no one’s trying to steal your right to do silly things, they’re trying to educate people who aren’t you about what healthy choices look like.

        1. While in theory I get what you’re saying, i practice it can be shaming when such “advice” is always given to the same people regardless of whether it actually helps them. There is this assumption that people just “don’t know any better”. And oddly enough it’s always the same sort of people pinpointed.

          I’m fat. FAT fat. I happen to be fortunate that, living in the UK, being poor doesn’t restrict my access to food anywhere NEAR as badly as it would if I was poor in the US. I’m also fortunate that I live by the coast and therefore have access to some free exercise. I still have a lot of limits on my access to food and exercise – my house has no heating so I can only safely swim in the Summer, for example.

          And yet, somehow, people are always assuming I’ve never heard of carrots before. Apparently it’s impossible that I eat well, exercise, don’t smoke and barely drink, because fat. If I dare to consume a single piece of chocolate in public it’s apparently proof that this is all I eat, and any areas where my food and exercise is less than perfect is entirely down to me just not having been introduced to the concept of health, rather than me making an informed choice like a rational adult.

          The sort of “health advice” that gets doled out to fat people and poor people isn’t equivalent to warning someone that the rusty nail in their ear might give them tetanus.

          At best it’s seeing a drowning person and being one of thirty other people “helpfully” telling said person to watch out for the strong tides while watching them sink below the waves. Sometimes it’s seeing someone capably making their way through the water and warning them that they’ll get wet. At worst, it’s pointing the drowning person in the direction of a “helpful dolphin” that can help them, and accusing them of being difficult when they point out said dolphin is actually a shark.

  5. No one can calculate to any reliable degree the number of calories a person burns while walking a certain distance, even if you know that person’s weight and the speed at which they walk.

    Not only that, but (I say this as a longtime middle-distance hiker) nobody ever lost weight just walking. That is not a thing and doesn’t happen. If what you want out of hiking is weight loss per se you’re better off staying home and not eating snacks. (Which sounds oppressive, but is true.) Walking will improve your ability to oxygenate and it will tone your whole body, somewhat, overall. If you are the kind of person who grows muscle tissue it will add some muscles to the ones you’ve already got. But hiking doesn’t cause the pounds to melt. Sorry. Never did, never will.

    I get so annoyed when people, women especially, are told to do x in order to achieve goal y when the path they are told to follow does not lead to the destination they are told to seek So annoyed.

    1. Weird, because I’ve lost weight with a combination of walking and snack-skipping. It’s almost like exercise + diet = weight loss for some people… even lady people.

      1. That’s great, but even so I suspect you were doing more than just walking.* (Even with the snack-skipping.) Especially if you’re a lady-person. I don’t want to get into a rant about the full size of my mad-on about this calorie-counting stuff, other than to say that one of my bigger beefs about it is that it’s propagated by people who have to know it’s not 100% reliable, especially in the form in which they present it.

        What these pamphlets and leaflets are like is the chum which some fishers cast into rivers and streams so they can scoop up the fishes which float to the surface. It’s bait. I don’t like bait.

        *Because, as I know and know very well, even long, hard, heavy-duty walking will not chisel the pounds off you unless you are already predisposed to drop them. I’m a hiker and I love to walk , but walking alone is one of the worser tactics you could take up if weight loss alone is your goal.

        1. That’s not exactly true. You can burn about a sandwich worth of calories by hiking for about half an hour. (As a rough rule of thumb).

          Combine that with snack-skipping (ie actually eating less than before as well as adding some activity), and it will typically lead to weight loss.

        2. Most of what I did was diet-related, not exercise related, but walking does burn calories and is a type of exercise I’m more likely to maintain than harder gym workouts. My main concern is actually cardio, not fat, which walking isn’t great for, but for weight loss it did alright.

          My biggest change was stopping overeating; I’d had no idea what kind of calorie intake I had on a day-to-day basis, and when I found out that I was eating 2000+ calories (based on my size and shape and activity level I need more like 1800) then I just cut down to the correct amount (minus a few) and that plus the slight increase in exercise did the trick, albeit slowly and steadily.

        3. Erm, every single time I’ve been on a long distance solo trek, I lose at least ten pounds. Now, I’m not saying that’s a *good* thing–I’m relatively small, so I can’t carry as many calories, particularly carb-based ones, as I would like–but it is what happens to serious trekkers after you’re out for about a week.

          Seriously, look at pre- and post- PCT people and tell me they haven’t lost twenty to thirty pounds, sometimes more.

  6. @ matlun:

    A typical 150-pound person, walking at the typical 4-hour-per-mile rate, will burn about 171 calories during a 2-mile walk (which will last half an hour). An average ham-and-cheese sandwich, OTOH, contains about 352 calories. So walk about twice the distance (or about twice as long) and you’re in business. You will have achieved so far as calorie intake is concerned what you would have achieved by staying home and not eating the sandwich.

    Walk twelve or thirteen miles and you can burn off a sub.

    1. That’s not exactly true. You can burn about a sandwich worth of calories by hiking for about half an hour. (As a rough rule of thumb).

      A typical 150-pound person, walking at the typical 4-hour-per-mile rate, will burn about 171 calories during a 2-mile walk (which will last half an hour).

      Hiking is significantly different than walking. Apples and oranges.

    2. It depends on
      – type and size of sandwich
      – how fast you are walking and over what terrain
      – your weight

      I purposefully used very imprecise figures since getting an exact calculation was not the point. If you use your figures and end up with one hour of walking instead of half an hour, then it changes little.

      The point is that we are not talking about a totally insignificant amount of calories, and starting to walk plus cutting down on snacks can very plausibly be enough to lose weight.

      Losing weight is not really that complicated. It may not be easy due to psychological factors, but if you cut down enough on food that will work.

      Achieving better health and quality of life is a more complex issue that may or may not be associated with weight loss depending on your personal circumstances.

    3. Woah, with that math the sub has 171 x 6 = 1026… Over one thousand calories. Unless you only eat two meals a day, that’s a huge number for a single meal (even assuming you only eat a sub and nothing else.) That’s something I think people don’t viscerally get; calories in can be a lot larger than you’d think just by eyeballing the food. I had to start counting before I knew what my intake was, and my initial guess turned out to be off by several hundred calories a day.

      Yeah, walking won’t do much if you’re eating 1000-calorie sandwiches! I had to trim down my eating to get any results; I was eating more like 500 calories in a sitting, and eating 3 meals + beverages.

      1. Woah, with that math the sub has 171 x 6 = 1026… Over one thousand calories. Unless you only eat two meals a day, that’s a huge number for a single meal (even assuming you only eat a sub and nothing else.)

        1026? It depends. If you are cooking at home, that might be a high number. However, your average takeout meal can easily reach that number (even at the alleged “healthier” spots). Take bread, cheese, a less-then-lean cut of meat – yeah, I’ve seen plenty of sandwhiches hit that 1000 calorie mark. I don’t think such high calories amounts can be discarded when you have such a high number of people regularly eating take-out either.

        1. Sure, it’s of course possible to eat more than half your daily calories in one sandwich, and not even necessarily unhealthy, but I don’t think everyone knows that they’re doing that. I’m not big on telling people what they should eat (prescriptive) but I absolutely think they should know what they are eating (descriptive.) I’m a well-educated biology major in a nursing program, and I have trouble keeping track of how many calories I put into my body; I’m not surprised that, especially with the plethora of calorie-dense fast food available, other people put a lot more calories in their bodies than they think they do.

        2. I’d agree with you ideally, but wasn’t there copius amount of research that showed that posting calorie information doesn’t actually change eating habits in any meaningful way? I think the problems are far too vast and complex to reduce it down to a simple “people need to know what they’re eating.” I think the issue is that many people do know, but lack the ability (for some reason) to actually make a different choice.

  7. @Drahill

    We are talking about the government actively playing both sides.

    TBH, I don’t just think we can just blame it on government(s). It’s whole societies engaged in decades of pursuing incompatible opposites. Individualizing calorie restriction (CR) whilst having little issue with industrial food giants taking over the (food) environment. That doesn’t make sense, before you trouble the effectiveness of CR as a weight loss strategy.

    As well as the crop subsidies, there’s economic change. Regression of manufacturing jobs and their replacement with service sector jobs, including fast food.

    Roughing up fat people has just been a way of continuing this fiction, a diversion so people can continue to get what they want, unimpeded by the result of agreed dictates.

    Though city/communal gardens/farms are great. I tend to feel advice to “eat veg” is more about cake. Having it and eating it too.

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