The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that students at Lincoln U. in Pennsylvania can now be required to take a physical exercise course (“Fitness for Life”) if they have a body-mass index above 30. The chairman of the college’s Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation pointed out that he sees a responsibility to address the “obesity epidemic.”
Nutty, but not so terrible, perhaps. The policy is a transparent attempt by a not-so-wealthy university to seem au courant and curry favor with donors, who might like the idea that the school is addressing obesity — which the public health industry keeps insisting is a terrible problem facing young people.
Really, the obese-student policy at Lincoln doesn’t demand much. Some students have to work out for a few hours a week (it’s a 1-credit course). Not how they want to spend their time, probably pointless in terms of their health, but not the end of the world.
But pay attention to the commentary.
The director of another university’s center on higher-education law and policy voices concern — not over Lincoln’s feeble gesture at controlling fatness , but over medical confidentiality. “Being put in a class with other ‘at-risk’ BMI’s walks a little close to disclosure,” he told the Chronicle.
The implication here is that obesity is an illness, and therefore only a physician should be allowed to know that you have it. Certainly, your classmates shouldn’t.
How can obesity, of all things, be thought of as a secret that would only be revealed if you got into gym shorts and showed up on the treadmill in the fat-students’ class?
There’s a clue in the use of the term “at risk”: obesity is like sleeping around without using condoms, driving drunk, or smoking near your kids — it’s supposed to be both dangerous and shameful. You would only admit being “at risk” to your doctor (who would, we have to assume, dutifully dissuade you from following your naughty instincts).
At the NYT blog The Choice, Rebecca Ruiz notes that the Lincoln faculty will be discussing the problem tomorrow. So far, there’s been plenty of skepticism there, but a few defenders of the fat-class policy. And most of the comments responding to Ruiz have been supportive of the idea that a university might require physical exercise.
What isn’t getting mentioned is race. Is the policy popular because Lincoln is one of only two HBCUs in Pennsylvania, and some of the much-discussed “adverse outcomes” of obesity are conditions that are common among African Americans? Do people feel relieved that a predominantly African-American university is addressing a problem that seems somehow racial? Do we feel reassured that a college that doesn’t serve America’s traditional wealthy elite is taking on a problem that seems to be a threat to the elite — and a threat that seems born of the bad habits of the poor, especially the dark-and-poor?
Doesn’t obesity’s taint stem, at least partly, from the way it reminds Americans of poor people — and the dark-skinned poor in particular?
This entry was posted on Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 at 8:18 am and is filed under Behavior, epidemics, obesity, public health, Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.