Tuesday, March 16, 2010

why i am obsessed with obesity


Infographic from the original BBC article entitled "Slimming Sixties Not a Myth."

Charts like the one above fill my eyes with the wonder + curiosity that comes when facing the massive ironies of life. It makes me feel like I'm standing at a weird point in the timeline of humanity, a historical blip people will later snicker at with incredulity — much like we currently do when (say) looking at old cigarette ads featuring doctors. I argue that each of the lifestyle shifts above can be traced down to one common factor: a world increasingly designed around cars.

Sure, it's not the only factor, but hear me out. TVs obviate the need to walk to the theatre, which is now usually located deep within a shopping mall, accessible only by car. Longer, more frequent auto commutes mean less time for household chores. The death of the corner store by the hand of big box retail (always surrounded by a vast moat of parking) has transformed grocery shopping into weekly stockpiling affairs instead of the more manageable daily microchore it once was. The abundance of auto-driven takeout, drive-thrus, and food delivery makes it that much easier to skip cooking altogether.

Auto-centrism itself isn't just a Big Oil conspiracy. It's made up of many tiny, seemingly inconsequential ironies that work to enable our collective inactivity: garage remotes, power windows/steering/doors, controlled lefts, right turns on red, mother-may-I buttons for pedestrians at crosswalks, and so on. All of these "conveniences" (I call them "constraints") share a single obsessive common purpose: to help move as many cars as quickly as possible. Obesity is merely one wave in the fat-ripple effect caused by the car's impact.

I say "ironies" because the factors making up our car conundrum are so small, so arbitrary. We park as close as we can to an entrance. We park underground and take the escalator. We hop into the car upon the slightest hint of rain. It feels very Idiocracy, and I just want to shake people and tell them that just as they shouldn't water crops with Brawndo, they shouldn't reach for the car for every single task. I want to dare them to not use the car for 24 hours, to break the bizarre, daily habit of hurtling oneself along at 50mph in a 3-ton mobile living room.

My friend Ren would tell me this parable about a guy who would put a pebble in his shoe every morning and remove it every night. "No matter how shitty my life is," he reasoned, "I always have control over one thing: removing that pebble at the end of the day." The car feels like that pebble to me — but the difference is that everyone's walking around with pebbles in their shoes, the absurdity of the situation lost to them.

The problem of obesity wasn't caused long ago. It is a problem we fastidiously maintain each and every day, using all the advanced technology we can muster.And yet we behave as if it were some kind of spontaneous curse arising from nothing but the whim of god — an attitude that reveals a kind of egotism on our part, one that declares our problems too vast and mysterious to be broken down into clear design patterns.

But we've cracked more complicated codes than this. We're smart monkeys! We know, for the most part, exactly how we're causing obesity: how we're ignoring the good habits of our slimmer ancestors and are deliberately choosing to be addicted to and enchanted by our own technological complexity, even as we create nostalgic mementoes to simplicity in needlepoint. In other words, we seem to be very impressed with our own drama — distracted and unable to fully see the gravity of our potential tragedy. As a result, we wind up not letting ourselves have as much fun as we could during our short stints here on Earth.

And that is why I'm obsessed with obesity.

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