Last Thursday, I appeared on Jane Velez-Mitchell’s show on HLN to talk about the public policy hullabaloo of the moment. My sleepy little hometown of NYC made the news when our Mayor for life, Michael Bloomberg, had another brilliant idea for the public shaming of fat people public health — outlawing the sale of sodas in excess of 16 oz. Of course, the rhetoric from the mayor’s office is all about how soda leads to obesity, and obesity is the scourge of our age, worse than the bubonic plague and alien robots put together. (Or something like that.)
The lawyer part of me thinks that this ban is completely idiotic from a public policy standpoint and the fat activist side of me agrees and thinks that the obesity rhetoric surrounding all of this is wrong and also completely idiotic.
So let’s think about the actual effects of the proposed ban. What are the actual effects vs. the supposed, heralded effects?
First of all, I think people will find a way around it. If you really want a lot of soda, and you have the money, you’ll probably just buy a bunch of 16 oz bottles or cups, or maybe you’ll drive over the border into the free counties of Nassau or Bergen and stock up on contraband 2 liter bottles. So if you think about it, the people who will be most affected by the ban are poorer people living in NYC.
Years back, because of wonderful things like rent control, people with not a lot of money rubbed elbows with wealthier New Yorkers. But in Giuliani/Bloomberg NYC, poorer New Yorkers have continually been pushed to the margins of the city, both geographically and figuratively. And when I listen to the rhetoric around obesity here in New York and all over the country, being fat is always conflated with being poor and/or being uneducated. And there’s this concept in the background that people in these categories don’t know what’s good for them and need the government to come in and make rules about how they live their lives. Personally, I think this is a dangerous precedent for a local government to set.
Also, there’s a slope here that feels inherently slippery. What might be banned next? So much of our food has high fructose corn syrup in it. I’m not particularly happy about that, as there’s a lot of evidence that it impacts blood sugar more deleteriously than plain ole table sugar, but Mayor Bloomberg would have to ban most of the food in our grocery stores for it to be avoided.
I also wonder if this ban will lead people to drink more water, which, as I understand it, is the goal of the program (other than this amorphous idea that it will stem the tide of obesity). But why would it lead people to drink more water? If people still want a big soda, they’ll just drink diet soda, right? According to the completely baseless calories in/calories out model touted by diet companies, diet soda is not a bad choice. But some evidence suggests that our bodies have the same insulin response to fake sugars as to real sugars, except that fake sugars make us more hungry. In other words, fake sugars are less satisfying and may lead us to eat more than we would otherwise eat, thereby cancelling out any calorie lowering effect of the fake-sugar-laden diet soda.
My final question is, what is the cost of all this? Will we need a Department Of Soda Inspection to make sure that the right sizes are being sold at C Town? Will we need the refill police to come in and arrest perps who refill with regular soda? The last time I went to my local park, the grass hadn’t been cut in months and part of the sidewalk was all broken up. It would be so lovely for some of that soda ban money to go to cleaning up this wonderful and historic park so that kids, fat and thin alike, would have more room to play this summer. There’s a huge, beautiful pool there too that’s only open in July and August. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the city paid for lifeguards so that the pool could be open now through mid-September, so that kids, fat and thin alike (and grown ups too), could go there after school or work and cool down and swim?
I and my fellow fat activists and Health At Every Size friends and researchers have said it again and again — the stress of stigma is unhealthy. So when governments set public health policies based on ending obesity, what they’re really saying is, “there is a group of people that are making us look bad by being fat, and we want to have them look different.” Public officials can say that when they talk about obesity they’re really talking about health, but then why not just talk about health? Thin people get heart disease and cancer and arthritis and diabetes. There are more and more studies coming out that healthy lifestyles (eating well and exercising and essentially enjoying your life) are more indicative of health and lifespan than fatness. So the continued focus on obesity is just a big, fat red herring.
If we really care about public health, let’s focus on health for all of us, and get the most bang for our collective buck, by focusing on what really makes people healthy — access to fresh food, safe places to move and play, and a society that doesn’t stigmatize people’s bodies.
Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. Go to http://www.bodylovewellness.com/free to get her NEW free gift — Golda’s Top 5 Tips For Consistently Feeling Great In Your Body!