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Jewish World Review Nov. 14, 2003 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Hang in there, tubby America, your day in the sun will come | Last week the obesity debate picked up again. Because so many Americans are overweight, some scientists, government leaders and advocacy groups say there is an obesity epidemic. They want obesity to be classified as a disease.

Obesity is a leading cause of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, after all, and these diseases do cost the country billions every year in medical costs. If obesity was classified a disease, you see, then insurance coverage would cover its treatment, which would prevent other diseases from occurring.

Well, other scientists, government leaders and advocacy groups had a hearty laugh at that one. Disease? Hey, cancer is a disease, but overeating? Don't most people become big one Snickers at a time?

What most interests me about this debate is how, in these highly sensitive times, obese people get so little sympathy and respect.

Take the airline situation a year and a half ago. Southwest Airlines demanded that larger passengers ("people of size") must purchase tickets for two seats instead of one. Their action was prompted by complaints by other passengers whose space was overwhelmed by large people sitting next to them.

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The obesity advocates went berserk. They said morbidly obese people had bad genes. They said the airline's policy was outrageous, discriminatory and mean-spirited. They said it was proof that there is a prejudice and a stigma against people of size in America.

And they have a point.

How often do you see fat people portrayed well on television? In Seinfeld, Newman the tubby mailman is menacing and deceitful. In the Drew Carey Show, Mimi is obnoxious, loud and overbearing. Rosie, Roseanne and Oprah are the frequent butt of jokes due to their size. You can't joke about most anything or anybody these days, but fat folks are still fair game.

But with a good strategy, that could change.

Hey, it wasn't long ago that cigarette smokers were considered cool and debonair, whereas marijuana smokers were reviled. Now cigarette smokers are banished from homes and restaurants at the same time marijuana smokers are lauded as heroes.

It used to be that alcohol was considered bad for us, but now even the American Heart Association promotes moderate drinking. It used to be that people who drank too much simply couldn't hold their liquor, now we say they have a disease.

So, even in a country that idolizes the thin and the beautiful, it's just a matter of time before obesity is greeted with similar sympathy. To be sure, there is already some evidence that the transformation is occurring.

The American Obesity Association says more than 61% of Americans are overweight. Other studies suggest that three out of five Americans are obese. The more Americans become tubby, the more everyone will sympathize with people of size.

Just last year the Internal Revenue Service bowed to pressure by obesity groups and declared obesity a disease. Obesity treatment may not be covered by insurance policies, but it is now tax deductible.

Just last week an AP article described a host of large-people products: "Scales that go up to 1,000 lbs., steering wheels for drivers who can't fit behind standard wheels, a device to help people who can't bend over to put on their socks, and super-size towels."

A few months ago a story aired about a deceased woman who was so big her family members had to sit on her casket lid to get it to close. Thankfully the Goliath Casket company now offers a 52-inch-wide casket to accommodate such situations.

As for television, a new reality show introduces overweight brides who struggle to get themselves into shape for the big day. The show encourages sympathy for their plight, which is a turning point for women of size. Though there's a reason the bride is the first one to hit the buffet table at the wedding reception.

In any event, cheer up, tubby America. It's hard to keep up with which victims are in and which are out in these confusing times. But with a little luck and a lot of hard work, fat will become PHAT.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell