Comedian Bill Maher recently used his “New Rules” segment to call attention to American health, stating, “New Rule: at next Thursday’s debate, one of the candidates has to say the problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat (crap) and too much of it.” He went on to demonstrate just how pervasive the health epidemic has gotten in America while inviting the ardor of millions with his blunt snark. The seven-minute segment was funny and well-argued, but a great deal of criticism followed one statement in particular:
“In August, 53 Americans died from mass shootings. Terrible, right? You know how many died from obesity? 40,000. Fat-shaming doesn’t need to end. It needs to make a comeback.”
His point is clear—we wouldn’t make statements about shooter-shaming, but we seem to have a problem identifying just how destructive modern eating norms have become. These numbers are staggering and demand public concern, but the focus revolved around the last part of Maher’s statement. As you might expect, the internet exploded with outrage as the pundits weighed in.
The most notable response came from CBS’s James Corden on his own late-night show. Corden, who has struggled with his weight for years, made the case that fat-shaming has been proven to make things worse, not better. He then argued that overweight people are well aware of their weight and they would like to change it, so they don’t need any more social reminders.
It appeared that there was a line in the sand and people were left to pick their sides. But, what struck me was how often Maher and Corden seemed to genuinely agree. They are comedians, prone to exaggerate and use hyperbolic language, so it is easy to focus on soundbites, but what came from both of them was that:
More people than ever are struggling with their weight.
Public health has never been worse and it is killing people.
You should not bully or call people fat. (Maher actually makes this point a few times.)
Maher was speaking honestly about the insane norms characterizing American eating habits. Corden responded with his own honest comedy, basically saying, “You think I haven’t tried to lose weight!?! This is hard! I keep trying and my efforts aren’t working for me and millions like me.”
And those are two very important perspectives to move the dialogue forward. The beauty of comedy is that it is a mouthpiece for people to speak honestly (even though often in very exaggerated tones). We can all agree that people would prefer not to be overweight and unhealthy. I don’t care how “body-positive” you are.
If given the choice between being a pre-diabetic who is 30 pounds overweight or healthy, you’d choose healthy every time. Self-consciousness won’t be eliminated by body-positive campaigns. Outside of brainwashing by a totalitarian regime, most people are going to wish they weren’t overweight. That is reality.
So the obvious next question is what do we do to actually improve public health? Our eating norms are killing people and setting our children up for limited lives of weight struggles, health concerns, sluggishness, and self-consciousness.
The most frustrating part of the exchange came from James Corden when he expresses an all too common sentiment: “I know I will struggle with this for the rest of my life.” That mentality and its pervasive normality is just the problem.
How Do We Change This Toxic Ocean?
What Corden never concedes is that the modern environment is completely crazy. What we’ve been indoctrinated to see as a normal diet is beyond insane. I can’t go to the bank, the barber, or the doctor without my kid being offered candy.
Every daycare option I looked at serves breakfast and lunch each day and it was always sugar-covered fried waffle sticks and then pizza and chocolate milk for lunch. Every event in their lives from their youth sports games to using the potty centers around normalizing garbage food.
Treats are wonderful, but only when they are deviations from the normal. Today, we normalize processed sugar-infused foods at every meal and we can hardly conceive of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack items that don’t come from a package.
These norms happened quite honestly. Just like today’s technology designers, the Food Giants spent enormously to hack our minds and normalize destructive eating patterns. Before we knew it everyone had bowls of M&M’s around the house, pantries full of chips and Pop-Tarts, and fridges full of Coke and “healthy options” like orange juice, “fruit infused” Capri-Sun, and sugar-filled Go-Gurt.
This is the source of our issues and far more than his tongue in cheek remark about fat-shaming needing to make a comeback, this is the point Maher was harping on. The solution lies in changing our environmental norms and that means we have to talk about why most people are overweight and how to fix it. How else do we steer ourselves away from the Wall-E dystopia we seem to be headed towards?
“We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”
– Alan Watts
Nothing influences our behavior like the environment we are saturated with. In a different environment, James Corden might dig coal, drink bourbon, and use the word “kin.” Had he grown up in the Ancient Spartan world, he would be in peak physical condition holding a shield in front of his comrade’s body with one hand and a hoplite spear in the other.
My point is, the contexts we live in drastically change the way think and act. Therefore we should be going to great lengths to create an environment where social norms pull people toward more fruitful behaviors.
There are modern environments where far fewer people live their lives constantly struggling with their weight. They embrace different norms and respond very differently to the ploys of the processed Food Giants.
Vending machines are less common and kids are more likely to see their friends eating fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods. This, in turn, makes it far easier for people to naturally adopt healthy eating patterns.
We should be asking ourselves how do we change our public values so people like James Corden don’t feel resigned to struggle with their weight for the rest of their lives? How do we nudge people towards healthier decisions and create friction in our current unhealthy norms?
You could point out that the reason Corden believes it will be a lifelong struggle is because he has an addiction. We don’t like to call it that, but what James Corden and most Americans are dealing with is an addiction as real and powerful as any other. His experience living in this sweets-saturated environment has created a powerful addiction that makes it very hard for him to control what he eats.
So, how do we make people less likely to develop this addiction? Since when is it standard practice to normalize addiction and demonize anyone who would try to open people’s eyes about how much addiction has grown?
Excessive sugar may kill more people than smoking, but we give children candy for every mundane moment of their lives while teaching them to “shame” Uncle Sterling about how smoking will kill him. We have no problem pointing out that drinking alone or early in the morning is not a very healthy habit.
Yet, we’d be aghast if someone mentioned that eating sweets alone or early in the morning was similarly indicative of a problem. This inability to talk is the greatest barrier to helping the next generation avoid a lifetime of food addiction. And if current trends continue, projections indicate that over 57% of today’s youth will be obese by the time they are 35.
The Uncomfortable Conversation
We have to have this conversation whether it is uncomfortable or not. And that’s why the other half of IHD, Justin Lind, and I sat down to discuss the public health issues and the role shame plays in behavior modification.
There is a distinction between shame and shaming that should be made. Shame is an innate feeling that can be very useful in our maturation. Society has always used social norms and expectations to modify behavior for the better. This does not mean bullying or meanspirited verbal assaults. Yet, we must be able to talk about our challenges and discuss how the environment can be improved.
The most important takeaway is that this is an issue that demands everyone’s attention. Parents have to start seeing the insanity for what it is and demanding better from schools. Schools have to start turning down Coca-Cola contracts and begin cleaning up their cafeteria offerings. Society needs to bring this issue to the forefront of its public concerns.
After all, when you aren’t healthy, everything else suffers. As John F. Kennedy said, “Intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong.”
Public health is a national concern that we have to be able to discuss in order to improve.