Let’s talk about a taboo topic

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In my younger days it was considered rude to ask a person their age or weight unless you were a clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nowadays, mentioning a person’s excess weight is a social no-no that can earn you a bushel of reprobation or outright condemnation.

I’m not one of those people who feel that the world has become too politically correct (PC), but I do think that in the case of obesity we have allowed our reluctance to offend to blind us to a major problem—at least here in the United States we have. I might also add that this issue is also an example of hypocrisy of the highest order. We are condemned if we mention that a person is overweight, but completely free to criticize skinny people.

Let’s put that one aside for now, though, and look at why we need to be more open to discussions of obesity. First, let’s define the term. Obesity is defined as being grossly fat or overweight; of weighing more than what is healthy for a given height or body type. Doctors consider a person obese if they are more than 20 percent over their ideal weight, which is determined in relation to height, age, gender, and build. More precisely, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines obesity as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 and above.

Obesity, or the presence of excessive body fat, is not just a matter of appearance. It is a medical problem that increases a person’s risk of other health issues, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. Not every obese person is at fault for being fat. Heredity plays a role, but so does environment, diet, and exercise choices. With nearly 80 million adults and over 10 million children in the US classified as obese, it’s accurate to say that we are a ‘fat’ nation. I mean, we’re talking here about a third of adults and nearly twenty percent of the young people.

To put it another way, during the period 1999 to 2000 30 percent of Americans were obese, but during 2017-2018, the number increased to over 42 percent. Obesity-related medical costs in the US are estimated to be $147 billion annually in 2008 US dollars. That’s a lot of fast food. Sadly, our fat problem didn’t start in 1999 either. I spent from 1962 to 2012 working mostly abroad, and every time I returned to the US from an overseas tour I was struck by the number of ‘large’ people compared to what I saw in other countries.

In addition to the health problems, overweight creates problems in other areas of life. We had a raging debate several years ago, for instance, about whether seriously overweight people who fly, and who, because of their girth take up more than a single seat, should be required to pay for the extra seat or pay more simply because they are heavy. There was even a case of a woman being removed from a flight because she fat-shamed the two heavy women she had been seated between.

I don’t condone shaming people, but if you’ve ever had to endure an eight-hour flight sandwiched between two people who take up their seat and part of yours, your sympathy would be with the woman removed from the flight. I once suffered my own public encounter with an obese person. I broke my femur in 2013 and had to use crutches for nearly nine months while I recovered from surgery. It was a long time before I could comfortably sit with my knees together.

One day, while riding the DC subway, I was in one of the inward facing seats reserved for elderly and handicapped passengers. A young but extremely heavy young woman boarded and decided to sit next to me. Needless to say, it was crowded, but I squeezed against the plastic barrier and tried to make the best of it. That wasn’t enough for her. In a voice dripping with disapproval, she said, “If you would sit with your legs together, it wouldn’t be so crowded.” That wasn’t exactly true. Her hips were at least two inches wider than half the width of the seat, and if I could have clapped my knees together we would still have been packed into that seat as tight as sardines.

I chose, however, to avoid confrontation. Balancing on my crutches, I stood and let her have the chair to herself. As soon as I stood, she spread her legs. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing or saying something that would have only started an argument.

Not every obese person can control their weight, but a lot of them could if they would pass on the second helping, snack less and healthier, and push back from the table earlier. Oh, yeah, and exercise regularly. The ones who refuse to do this only make it hard on the ones who can’t help their condition, and they increase the financial burden on all of us.

If I have insulted or offended anyone by the foregoing, I apologized, but this was a weight I had to get off my chest. – NWI