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Obesity as an Epidemic of Social Networks

21 Apr Obestiy Scale

Today I attended Slate’s conversation on the fight to end childhood obesity.  (I know, I know, not really a normal thing to do with your vacation…)  The event featured a number of doctors, policy makers, and other experts concerned with the obesity epidemic, each of whom presented their own thoughts on the subject and then joined a panel discussion.  The first session focused on the causes of childhood obesity, the second on the solutions.

Although all of the panelists presented different ideas and statistics, they all came back to the same thing: it’s about culture.  It’s about what we value and what we consider socially acceptable.  Dr. Ezekial J. Emanuel (brother of Rohm and Ari — seriously, were they genetically engineered or something), Chair of Bioethics at the National Institute of Health, spoke about obesity as an infectious disease, saying that research on social networks shows that once someone becomes obese, their friends and relatives are more likely to become obese.

All of the speakers seemed to be good liberal soldiers fighting the good fight, so I was surprised to hear the idea that social stigma could be a useful tool in the fight against obesity.  One of the panelists, David L. Katz, Director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center, talked specifically about stigmatizing behavior instead of stigmatizing outcomes.  The panelists also made sure to say that stigmatization should only be applied to adults, not children.  But, still it seemed wrong…

They talked about the cultural shift to end smoking and how curbing the way that it was viewed as “cool” was a big part in getting people to quit.  But, obesity has never been viewed as cool…  Okay, I guess it has been viewed as a sign of success, though.    Mr. Katz discussed phrases that link food to the ideas of success and money:  “bread winner”, “bringing home the bacon”, “making dough”.  In our culture, the ability to provide food signifies success, protection, and love.  He also said that for most of human history, physical activity was unavoidable and calories were scarce and hard to get and that recently this has been reversed.  In light of this reversal, until we stop associating food with success, we’re going to have a problem.

Back to the idea of stopping the spread of a disease across a social network through stigma…  This reminds me of quarantine and isolation, how we’ve dealt with leprosy (which was I guess effective, but terrible).  And, it’s the exact opposite of how we’re dealing with AIDS (many groups are working to end the stigma against being HIV positive).  This difference in approach to dealing with the threats of obesity and AIDS strikes me as strange, especially as I would argue that AIDS is a much more dangerous disease.

So, is social stigma an okay tool?  I guess it’s effective.  But is it acceptable?  Can we harness the power of our social networks to stop obesity before it starts and prevent it from spreading along those very networks?


MaggieCakes is a blog about culture, social media, and what’s new in the world of Internet culture. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. MaggieCakes is hosted by WordPress and often draws upon Slate, Jezebel, The Hair Pin, and SocialTimes for links and inspiration. My post Social Media and the Art of Storytelling was featured on Freshly Pressed, bringing a while new readership to my blog. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at 2maggieotoole@gmail.com.

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