The XX Factor

The Problem With Michele Obama’s Anti-Obesity Campaign

In her very interesting piece in Salon about Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, Kate Harding challenges the decision to frame it as a mission to “’solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation,’ rather than to improve health and well-being across the board.” She’s worried about “whipping up fear and disgust of the very fat children you’re supposedly trying to help,” and she cuts some of the panic-inducing statistics down to size. (For example, parse that terrifying phrase about “nearly a third” of American kids being obese or overweight, and you discover that obesity rates are actually much lower: 12.5 percent for preschoolers, 17 percent for 6-11 year olds, and 17.6 percent for adolescents up to 19. Kids’ laziness gets exaggerated, too; according to some studies, inactivity is above all a high school problem.)

Harding’s point, which is well taken, is that alarmist rhetoric may get people off their butts, but it can cloud their heads. The effect can be to undercut a public health cause like this one, which she argues would more constructively focus on fitness for all sizes. There’s just one problem: Clear-headed analysis aimed at a broadly inclusive audience doesn’t so readily get people moving, or generate the kind of targeted strategies that are likely to be helpful. Ever since Eisenhower got worried about American “softness” more than half a century ago, The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports has been tirelessly exhorting citizens to exercise-and see where that’s got us. But if the Obamas’ mission can stir up some vigorous debate about how best to tackle this issue, that’s a good step. As JFK, a real enthusiast in the fitness cause, emphasized, “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”