Resolute we are, usually from January 1st, until just about now, right around Martin Luther King Day. Perhaps it is no coincidence that our individual, personal resolve founders just as we’re celebrating a holiday commemorating one of America’s great heroes—a man who was committed to combating the systemic forces at the heart of so many individual troubles.
Take weight loss. According to 43 Things, the online home of lists and resolutions, losing weight is the all-time top goal of all resolution makers visiting their site. Apparently we are more desperate than ever to fight the putative battle against obesity, a war that supposedly begins at home. But let’s think about it. Even if there is an obesity epidemic—an idea which is thoughtfully disputed by fellow-OUP author J. Eric Oliver in his recent book Fat Politics—why would it be that Americans would suddenly be so hefty?
There are social and economic forces at work here. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, for many Americans weight gain is an occupational hazard. Confined as they are to their cubicles for 8 to 10 hours a day, and then in automotive or mass transit commutes of another couple of hours, white collar workers are hard-pressed to fit in the 10,000 steps each day that fitness experts urge we take for maintaining a healthy level of functioning. While some of us are fortunate to live in urban areas like New York City, where shoe leather is still among the commuting options, in most American cities the rise of the automobile, fueled not only by gasoline, but also by state supports for the automotive industry in the form of highway subsidies, has made walking not only difficult, but dangerous.
Then consider our national food supply, laced as it is, with corn syrup, a diabetes- and obesity-inducing additive that is a consequence of the glut of corn on the market. Why the corn glut? Because the USDA subsidizes the cultivation of corn.
Finally there is the matter of sleep deprivation. American working people, in particular mothers (and occasionally fathers) who are working second shifts at home, are chronically sleep deprived. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1989:10) writes of working mothers who “talk about sleep the way hungry people talk about food.” And interestingly enough, recent research suggests that sleep deprivation can interfere with weight-loss because the adrenal glands in the bodies of the chronically-stressed and sleep-deprived churn out too much cortisol, a hormone that encourages the body to hold onto fat, in case of impending famine.
In reality, the famine is already upon us. On the average American workers are earning less today than in 1972. Don’t just take it from me. Check out even the rosiest economic report: The Economic Report of the President (2005). Zero in on Table B-47, on page 266. There it is: average weekly wages of $331.59 in 1972, compared with a paltry $278.33 at the end of 2004 (in dollars adjusted for inflation). The figures for 2005 aren’t in yet, but don’t hold your breath. It’s highly doubtful that we will have regained this lost ground in the last year.
In a painful irony, some of those who are already suffering in this financial famine are earning even less than those who have managed to avoid the weight gains associated with these social conditions.
Last week’s People Magazine (9 January 2005, p. 106) reported that “People who lowered their body-mass indexes upped their wealth by between $4,480 and $12,720.” Of course body-mass-index wage discrimination won’t be news to fat women, who know from years of discriminatory practices that being fat carries with it all sorts of costs. But what People failed to report is that it is not fat people in general, but white women with higher body mass indices, who are disproportionately affected by the fat bias. The Ohio State University study that People cited so loosely found that white women, followed by black women, and then by white men, are most significantly impacted by body-mass discrimination. Rotund black men don’t seem to encounter additional wage discrimination, perhaps because they already take such a huge income hit based on racial discrimination—a painful reality on this anniversary honoring Dr. King’s accomplishments.
If you find your diet resolve is flagging even further after reading this list of social forces at work in your thickening middle—and declining wages—you’re probably not alone.
Looking at the social forces at work in our “personal problems”—engaging in the work of what sociologist C. Wright Mill’s called “the sociological imagination”—has a ridden risk. Attributing one’s problems to social forces, rather than individual shortcomings or excesses, can contribute to a decline in what psychologists call “self-efficacy” —the sense that you have some power to control your destiny. Declining self-efficacy is to be avoided, as it’s associated with a wholesale lack of enthusiasm for anything, otherwise known as depression. To counter this, consider pursuing both personal action and social activism.
If you’re concerned with weight (and income) loss, don’t (just) go on a diet. Get out there and demand:
• a living wage for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, fatness, or other personal characteristics
• reduced work hours, allowing time for rest and recreation
• changes in urban planning that allow for pedestrians and bike paths, as well as affordable housing in mixed-use zones
• support for nutritious food crops, and for small, local farmers engaged in healthful production methods
And last, but not certainly not least,
• guaranteed national health insurance, ensuring that the 45 million uninsured Americans gain access to reliable healthcare—and that all of us are free from the coritsol-upping stress of worrying about keeping our coverage.
You may find this new approach, that links personal action with social activism, may be just what you need to remain resolute.
Headline image credit: Fireworks. CC0 via Pixabay.