Obsession with obesity drives judgements

(U-WIRE) LOS ANGELES — As the world counts down to the approaching millennium, most people are still comparing New Year’s resolutions and planning how they will live 1998 better.
I should stop eating french fries. My friend plans to hit the gym early and more than once a month. And somewhere in Los Angeles, someone has made a secret resolution to save up for that liposuction they’ve always “needed.”
Obesity is an American obsession. Say “fat,” and you can turn almost as many heads as when you say “sex.”
But what about including an attempt to accept obesity in your goals for 1998?
Society’s obsession over obesity is over-hyped and unnecessary. Those of us who have made a decision to worry about our body-fat percentage should be looking instead at why we worry, and whether it’s worthwhile.
In the largest study ever conducted on the health risks of obesity, The New England Journal of Medicine found that obesity does make premature death more likely, but not as much as experts have predicted.
Tracking 423,135 white adults for 12 years, the study refuted a widespread belief that obese people who lose weight will reduce their risk of dying young. Instead, the risk of dying due to being fat is relatively modest and declines as people grow older. By the age of 65 increased risk of death is slight. By age 74 it disappears.
What does this tell the rest of us who order grilled chicken instead of pizza? These numbers should alleviate the anxiety people have about gaining weight. A long and equally satisfying life will be just as likely for people weighing 100 or 500 pounds — or anywhere in between.
So we should stop looking at the mirror so closely. Whether or not people consciously realize it, there is a morbid curiosity about people who are more than just overweight. Something about it titillates conversation. Extreme obesity in American society makes us look at ourselves after criticizing someone else. We feel good for a while by looking at them, and then we wonder if losing a little isn’t such a bad idea.
Why do we give such curious looks to the grossly overweight? And why is the word “gross” so closely associated with the word “overweight?”
The recent trial of Marlene Corrigan of El Cerritos, Calif., is an interesting example of this phenomenon. There was nothing different about this trial except the public’s fascination with someone on the other end of the spectrum of human appearances — an obese girl.
Corrigan’s 13-year-old daughter, Christina, died of heart failure — at 680 pounds. The teenager had not been moved from her bed until days after her death. Covered in only a bed sheet, Christina had more than 100 bed sores, as well as feces found in the folds of her skin.
Rather than simply being appalled at the alleged neglect and child abuse which the mother was charged with, however, the coverage of the trial highlighted the girl’s physical stature.
It is a sad day when people are more shocked by a child’s appearance than the abusive conditions to which she was subjected. As unfortunate as it is, people are concerned with judging others as well as themselves.
And it is doubtful that we can look toward our culture for improvement. As long as there are ideals in the entertainment and marketing industry that tell us what is desirable, obese people will be living in a society that subjects them to gawks, stares and whispers.
Open any fashion magazine full of sexy men and women. Is it any wonder that the public is obsessed with obesity and catching up with models who are beautiful yet have ribs we can count?
It’s about control. It’s about insecurity. It’s about letting go of a goal that we say we have reached but still haven’t given up. Will 1998 be the year you lose some weight, or will you change your individual perception of beauty and happiness instead?
My advice runs along the lines of the marketing advertisement that Calvin Klein uses for its scent, CK Be. Just be. Don’t watch the CK commercials, of course, or you’ll be fooled into adding words onto the end of the corporate phrase: “Be” thin. “Be” moody. “Be” sexy and leer at the camera. Don’t bother with all that stuff. Instead, just “be” yourself, and have a happy new year.

Angie Chen’s column originally appeared in Monday’s edition of the University of Southern California’s Daily Trojan.