Historiann discusses the new “Let’s Move” initiative by Michelle Obama to end obesity in children:
I haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading on “Let’s Move,” but I’m already struck by how rhetoric about obesity today tracks with the same concerns 200 years ago about civilizing American bodies through cleanliness, and children’s bodies in particular. It’s really uncanny.
Brown makes the point that nineteenth-century bourgeois reformers identified the clean body as a site of virtuous citizenship. But of course clean clothing and clean bodies, and the means and ability to achieve them, were above all a marker of one’s class status, since it was only the middle-class who could afford to do laundry weekly (and/or have a “hired girl” in to do it), and only the wealthy who had running water, bathtubs, and the means to travel to fashionable spas for soaking in and drinking up healing mineral waters. Brown also tracks the convergence in the later eighteenth century and early nineteenth century between discourses on spiritual or moral cleanliness, and bodily and household cleanliness. Early in the nineteenth century particular attention was paid first to children’s bodies as an index of their mother’s moral worth, and then later in the century as the bodies of poor and/or immigrant children came into contact on a regular basis with the bodies of middle-class and even elite children in public schools.
If we replace the words “unclean” with “fat,” and “cleanliness” with “thinness,” we’ll come very close to the rhetoric and language of the “Let’s Move” campaign.
Standards of beauty and fashion tend to reflect the the things the distinguish the upper classes from the rest of us. Once upon a time being overweight was synonymous with wealth and “Reubenesque” was the standard of beauty. There was also a time when being tanned identified a person as someone who performed manual labor outdoors so the upper classes considered pale skin attractive.
Melissa McEwan has more:
I just said in January of another similarly disastrous idea: “Just on the most cursory, simplistic level, this has the I assume every fat, disabled person I see is disabled because they’re fat, and don’t consider the possibility they’re fat because they’re disabled problem about which I’ve written before.” While physically disability that limits movement may be less endemic among children than adults, this is nonetheless a national campaign equating “moving” with “getting thin/healthy,” without regard for an implicitly disablist message.
And, naturally, it also fails wholly to take into consideration that not everyone who “moves” loses weight, anyway. There are fat people who regularly exercise, whose bodies persistently stay “overweight,” laying waste to the “calories in, calories out” meme.
Maybe it’s just me but I detect some snooty elitism in the “Let’s Move” initiative. “We’re going to teach these ignorant poor people how to not be fat.” Since “rich” and “thin” seem to go together these days, why don’t you teach them how to not be poor instead?
It’s not like we live in a society that isn’t already obsessed with how much we weigh. We have a gazillion young women suffering from bulimia and anorexia and now the White House is gonna start harping on fat kids.
Meanwhile schools are cutting athletics from their budgets, cities and states are closing recreational facilities, latchkey kids are locking themselves in their homes after school instead of playing outside and their parents are coming home at night too tired to play with them.
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