The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

By Michael Gard; Jan Wright | Go to book overview

5

Fat or fiction

Weighing the 'obesity epidemic'

Bruce Ross

A caricature of a post 2000 AD male appeared in Playboy magazine sometime in the mid-1960s alongside an article by a prominent physical education academic. It depicted a pot-bellied, skinny-legged male primate with a large head, huge genitals and an overdeveloped index finger. He was called something like homo inertis and represented the writer's projection of what men would look like in the third millennium if they continued to sit around watching television, drinking beer and being preoccupied with sex (large genitals reflecting male belief that size matters and an overdeveloped index finger to change channels so must have been before the advent of remote controls). Presumably women would still look like the centrefolds.

The article was intended to shock young men into physical activity by arguing that twentieth-century male humans were degenerating physically because they were not as physically active as their pre-industrial counterparts. Consequently, they were getting fat bellies, their legs were atrophying from disuse but their sexual organs and dominant index fingers were growing, presumably from overuse. Apparently, future generations would inherit these acquired characteristics. Apart from misrepresenting the process of evolution, the article presumed that humans were naturally physically active so that before the advent of machines and sedentary entertainment men worked hard all day every day.

In 2004 we still take for granted the notion that early women and men were always physically active in order to survive and that our typical urban dweller is a slothful, mobile-phone toting, car driving, lift riding, TV watching greedy guts, surfing the knowledge wave to wealth, fatness and ill health. Belief in the fictional homo inertis is apparently still alive and well among physical education academics, work physiologists and health policy makers (Boreham and Riddoch 2003; Bouchard 2000; Ministry of Health 2003).

Recent evidence suggests that modern city folk are not much less active, if at all, than our distant ancestors or our recent ancestors as demonstrated by existing forager communities, or our foraging cousin primates (Panter-Brick 2003). So why do obesity scientists, physical educators, health educators, fitness gurus and many policy makers still believe this science fiction of indolent, physically degenerating Westerners? Are we really getting fatter and sicker?

This chapter discusses the evidence most commonly used to support notions of national populations getting fatter and that this weight gain is a major community health risk.

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