Over at Aeon Magazine, a tremendously insightful essay was published a couple of weeks ago on the rising obesity trend – one that’s gone way beyond America, and one whose potential solutions are fast becoming a major policy issue for governments, as well as a booming industry (soon to become a trillion-dollar one, McKinsey & Co reported). And at The New York Times, Stephanie Clifford chimes in on how little impact health-related labeling and advertising actually has. Of course, people unhelpfully tend to define the problems in terms of a deficiency in willpower, and so attempts to address it cluster around education or motivation, the perennial Greek idea that failed willpower is just a function of ignorance – if only we knew the facts! But this paradigm is, as always, a misguided one:
We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society? [talk about law!]
Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice….
And so we appear to have a public consensus that excess body weight… What we don’t know is whether the theory is actually correct…. As Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the International Journal of Obesity, put it in 2005: ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.’
And science does a beautiful job of deconstructing the willpower myth: lighting, indoor temperature regulation, bacteria, chemicals, or subtle changes in gene expression are all put forth as potential contributors to something more, well, bodily (and less mental) than we’d like to admit – and more environmental, more historical, etc:
This is the theme of perhaps the most epic of the alternative theories of obesity, put forward by Jonathan C K Wells. As I understand his view, obesity is like poverty, or financial booms and busts, or war — a large-scale development that no one deliberately intends, but which emerges out of the millions of separate acts that together make human history. His model suggests that the best Russian novelist to invoke when thinking about obesity isn’t Dostoyevsky, with his self-punishing anguish, but Leo Tolstoy, with his vast perspective on the forces of history.
Of course we’re biased toward playing up individual choice or our control of situations – overestimating our agency is a major theme throughout history, the Bible, neuroscience articles, etc, etc. But while Aeon’s article closes on an admirably open-ended, wait-til-all-the-facts-are-in note, it still implies some note of determinism as the alternative to individual choice.
And one of the constant themes in neuroscience-y, you-have-less-control-than-you-think articles is determinism, that we’re simply a sum of surroundings. So overestimated agency on the one hand, no free will on the other.
One problem with determinism is that it denies free will on material, not spiritual grounds. A bigger problem with determinism is that it’s a poor substitute for grace. No mistake, no absolution – and the governments and corporations are partially right to ascribe obesity, or any other addiction, in terms of lack of willpower, but they fail to realize that this lack is irremediable (to us human beings, that is).
Christianity offers two different strands of comfort: the first in defining morality and the second in trumping it. To be clear, in Christianity, physical fitness has no moral dimension whatsoever. There’s all sorts of debates between different interpretations of Christianity’s ethics and the ethics of American society, but this tension is usually approached in an attempt to make the government or ‘secular’ world adhere to Christian ideas (like Augustine’s critique of Rome in City of God), but the opposite movement is equally important: Christians can find consolation in the fact that the Law of Upward Mobility or the Law of the Perfect Body, to name a couple, are fictions, that there is no religious or moral value in their fulfillment.
And the second consolation is that we fail real moral standards every single day – including our failure to suppress guilt about superficial, nonmoral failings like those listed above. And our imagined guilt in career or image failures points us to guilt over things that actually matter: pride, envy – the usual list. And it’s here that Christianity doesn’t fully embrace the tendency to blame (real) failings on external factors, but assumes a real responsibility: and only in being known in responsibility is love possible (“not for the healthy, but the sick”).
There’s a few things here that could be added: first, that the will is just as bound in any self-improvement schemes as it is in living up to the moral Law (see Romans 7), so the answer isn’t motivation. And government PSAs (or the Japanese listserv from the article) will work about as well as NYCs cigarette tax, or anything else that tries to control complex behavior through incentives or education. Christianity’s ethical system itself excludes some imperatives that our culture may endorse, like body image, and finally, that even for real (as opposed to perceived) shortcomings, there is the potential to be known and loved, and maybe (just maybe!) positive change, because of the only PSA that ever mattered, or ever did much good.