The XX Factor

Yes, Sue McDonald’s

KJ , thanks a lot for posting on a topic that centers on what I think is a very American debate, culturally speaking. A mom is suing McDonald’s “to force them to either offer lower-calorie meals or get rid of the enticing trinkets” in their Happy Meals. The question of who’s to blame for kids consuming bad food-fast food restaurants or parents-is, I believe, somewhat beside the point. Yes, we all think parents should exercise discretion. Yes, we tend to get up in arms over theoretical parents being theoretically neglectful in their children’s eating habits, to the point where parent-blaming is a national sport.

But the fight isn’t fair. If you line the parents up against McD’s, McD’s will almost always be victorious. Sure, many parents will say No, you can’t have that Happy Meal , but on a broader cultural level, the notion that McD’s should be able to sell whatever it wants has clearly won and has been winning for years in the court of public opinion.

That’s because as a nation we’re obsessed with the notion of personal responsibility, with assessing risk solely from the perspective of the individual’s role in the battle. To really understand fast food as a force you have to consider the prevalence of its restaurants (particularly in certain poorer neighborhoods) and the ubiquity of its message. You have to look at the issue from a public health perspective. To the extent that we restrict the advertising and sale of tobacco and alcohol products, particularly in relation to the young, we should be thinking about how we permit the mass dissemination of a message that promotes the consumption of really bad food, not to mention its sale.

But why can’t parents encourage their kids to eat hamburgers in moderation? They should. But we don’t suggest that parents battle Big Tobacco on their own-we recognize that as a society we have a responsibility to the whole, and that tobacco is a powerful force with a ton of money behind it, and that Mr. and Mrs. Smith can’t and shouldn’t be expected to conquer seductive advertising and clever store placement on their own. Instead, we band together-a whole country full of Mr. and Mrs. Smiths-because a nation full of young people who smoke is going to end up a nation that dies young. In other words, we recognize that we are all to blame if we don’t fix the problem.

Same goes for obesity. I’m not saying there’s only one cause for being fat. But if people consider that the way we eat now is literally killing our kids in terms like rising Type 2 diabetes rates they may reframe the way they think about the issue, and consider it as a national medical crisis. And that, in turn, may make them wonder whether blame-the-parents is the best we can do.

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Getty Images.