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I hate having to be an activist

I received an email advertising my town's activities guide and I was
angered to discover an introductory message from the Parks and
Recreation Director labeled "Childhood Obesity - Problem & Solutions".

I send him an email as follows. If anyone is willing to provide me with
references to back up my points or to challenge his statements, I would
welcome them, in case he decides to respond to me. You could also reply
to the email message yourself, using the email address provided, but it
might not mean much if you don't live in San Carlos, California.


Dear Mr Weiss,

I'm disappointed that you uncritically parrot the rhetoric of the
multimillion dollar diet industry in your "Childhood Obesity - Problems
and Solutions" letter in the San Carlos Parks and Recreation Department
Activity Guide. In the future, please familiarize yourself with more of
the research in this controversial field before repeating fear-mongering
statements such as "children born today have a shorter life expectancy
than their parents."

The life expectancy of people in the US has done nothing but rise
throughout the history of our country (just as our height *and* weight
have continued to rise, due to improvements in nutrition and health
care), and it's sheer statistical nonsense to claim that the trend will
suddenly reverse with the next generation.

It's fine to encourage children to engage in physical activity and teach
them about sound nutritional practices, but doing so in the name of
"obesity prevention" sends the wrong message that weight is more
important to health than physical fitness, nutritional choices, and
other elements that make up a healthy lifestyle. It tells our youth that
thin children (and adults) don't have to exercise or eat well to
maximize their health, all they have to do is be thin.

Studies that control for fitness level and not just for body size show
that fitness cannot be determined by a person's body size because
exercise and good nutrition do not automatically make a person thin, and
fitness and activity level is a much better measure of health and
longevity than body size.

Society puts tremendous pressure on children to be thin and one of the
results is that some young people, especially young women and girls,
struggle with dangerous anorexia and bulemia disorders. Why add to this
pressure when you can simply encourage physical activity and good eating
for everyone? Scientists studying body composition, nutrition, and
physical activity probably need to play up the so-called "obesity
epidemic" in order to get funding for their research, but surely San
Carlos taxpayers are more enlightened than that and will fund physical
activity programs and healthy snack programs for the youth center
without the scare-mongering.

*Providing* healthy snacks and opportunities for movement is great.
*Forcing* children, in the name of "obesity prevention," to engage in
competitive cardiovascular activity runs the risk of socially isolating
larger children who may be subject to teasing and rejection in the
context of competitive sports. Social isolation will cut down on these
children's opportunities for physical activity and limit them in other
undesirable ways.

Stef Jones
1372 Rosewood Ave.
San Carlos, CA 94070

The pdf of the activity guide is available here:

This is the introductory message:

Childhood Obesity - Problem & Solutions

For the first time in history, children born today have a shorter life
expectancy than their parents (Dr. Kelly Brownell, Yale University).
Children spend about 44 hours a week on "recreational" media use (Kaiser
Family Foundation Study). Within California, 26.5% of our children are
obese and 39.6% are unfit/overweight. 50% of obese adolescents become
obese adults, putting them at a much higher risk for heart disease,
cancer, stroke and diabetes later in life. Obesity costs California an
estimated $14.2 Billion a year in direct medical costs and lost
productivity (California Center for Public Health Advocacy).

San Carlos Parks & Recreation is excited to be a leader in addressing
this community issue. Your Youth Center is one Parks & Recreation
facility that successfully focuses on health and wellness programming.

* In 2003, the Youth Center embarked on a nutrition and fitness
challenge. All snacks in vending machines were analyzed and those not
meeting our nutrition guidelines were removed and replaced with
healthier options. All snacks now follow the SB 12 and SB 965 standards
for schools. All vendors must now comply with our nutrition guidelines
for healthier options.

* For every hour a Youth Center participant is in attendance and playing
a sedentary game or engaged in the Homework/Computer Lab, he or she must
complete at least 10 minutes of cardiovascular activity. Engaging
cardiovascular activities were identified and implemented including
"Dance Revolution," a cardio building video game, and Dodgeball.

* In 2004, the Sequoia Hospital Health and Wellness Department provided
a Certified Nutritionist to train Youth Center staff in dietary
guidelines, portion sizes, balanced diet, fat intake, the importance of
protein, and fruit and vegetable intake. Through a generous grant from
the Gellert Foundation, staff and participants created a cookbook for
teens utilizing the knowledge gained.

* A list of healthy snacks and lunch options is provided to Day Camp
participants and parents. We make a similar list available to any camp
providers who desire a copy. Classes are offered in nutrition, physical
activities, and community programs.

We have fascinating nutrition and engaging physical activity programs
for all ages -- tots, youth, adults, seniors -- everyone! Please take a
look through this Activity Guide and select a health and wellness
program for yourself and your entire family.

Creating Community through People, Parks & Programs,
Barry E. Weiss, Director
San Carlos Parks & Recreation

The part where I hate being an activist is the part about how I now feel
like [insert all sorts of negative things here] because I sent that.
Even though I know it's needed. I don't know why I feel that way.


( 62 comments — Leave a comment )
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Nov. 30th, 2006 09:29 pm (UTC)
You, of course, rock.

My own personal [negative thing] is that when I fight fat-hatred, I assume (perhaps wrongly) that the person on the receiving end of my correction will just assume (wrongly) that I'm only grasping for rationalization for my being fat/lazy/whatever, and that if I were thin, I wouldn't be dinging them for their bigotry.
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:45 pm (UTC)

That's part of it, but I feel almost equally uncomfortable about other kinds of activism, including activism about bigotries that aren't about me at all, so it's not all of it.
(no subject) - ex_serenejo - Nov. 30th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - adrian_turtle - Dec. 1st, 2006 04:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Dec. 1st, 2006 07:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - necturus - Dec. 1st, 2006 12:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - leback - Dec. 2nd, 2006 01:00 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - starcat_jewel - Dec. 8th, 2006 01:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:46 pm (UTC)
So glad you sent that letter. I will tell you from the inside of a Parks and Recreation department, everything is about kids, kids, kids and the last few years every meeting makes some comment about the obesity issue and how "we" are helping children to get thin. When it has been mentioned in a forum that allows for responses, I try to insert corrections to keep the discuss more focused on "all children" instead of "obese children", but that doesn't feel like enough. I know it's more my imagination, but during these times I feel like I'm under a spotlight, even if I haven't said anything yet. I guess this is one more reason why getting out of parks and rec. (in this I mean the larger organization and not the little section of the arts I worked in) and going over to the geek side of the city in the IT department will be a good thing - at least for me.
Keep up the good work, we never know who might "hear" what we say and take another look at how they're doing business.
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much. I'm glad to see that inside perspective.
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:48 pm (UTC)
The part where I hate being an activist is the part about how I now feel
like [insert all sorts of negative things here] because I sent that.
Even though I know it's needed. I don't know why I feel that way.

Seems that a large part of why you feel that way is likely to be because it's needed. The whole oppressive concept you're fighting against has made it not-okay to stand up for "being fat", and one of the things about wrestling a pig -- about facing something like this seriously and engaging with it enough to make a reasonable reply that has a chance of being listened to -- is that you get the mud on you.
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I guess it's the "fighting against" that's problematic for me. I don't feel [negative things] when I do forms of activism involving talking to open-minded people or providing information on the web, for example.
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:54 pm (UTC)
Is it because you feel you're being strident, and "good girls" shouldn't be forceful and assertive? Because some people might call those women "bitches"?
Nov. 30th, 2006 09:58 pm (UTC)
Yes, I have a strong discomfort about being strident. Not always, but it comes out more among people I don't know very well. I'm sure it has something to do with gendered upbringing. It seems more extreme for me than for a lot of people I know, and I'm not sure why that is.
(no subject) - sagittaria - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - brooksmoses - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - selki - Dec. 1st, 2006 03:08 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 30th, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC)
Yeesh. I'm glad you do the activism even when it's uncomfortable.

The part about *forcing* kids who come to the rec centre for sedentary pursuits to do active stuff too is particularly insidious. Basically, it means that they're driving kids away from the rec centre and making the rec centre a sports-only place. When in fact, it's probably socially better to have kids at the same place doing a whole range of activities.

Do you think the staff abides by that "10-minutes-cardio" thing? Is it actually healthy for someone to leap out of a chair and play DDR for 10 minutes without warmup/cooldown?

Also, how can credible research predict life expectancy for a child born today?

Nov. 30th, 2006 10:04 pm (UTC)
Eek. I hadn't noticed that. I agree, that does seem rather insidious.
(no subject) - hobbitbabe - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hobbitbabe - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Nov. 30th, 2006 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mistdog - Nov. 30th, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Nov. 30th, 2006 10:11 pm (UTC)
And this is why I admire the hell out of you. This kind of stuff makes you feel icky, and _you do it anyway_, because it needs to be done.

That's true courage, and I salute you.
Nov. 30th, 2006 10:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you. If it felt less icky I might do it more often, and sometimes I feel bad about that, but it's true that I do do it sometimes.
Nov. 30th, 2006 11:14 pm (UTC)
That's a great letter. I just linked to a study in a comment in my most recent post about Linda Bacon's study about how self acceptance is much more effective for long term health outcomes than dieting, and the books of Glenn Gaesser and Paul Campos like a good source for back up on the mortality stats you cite -- or google should find you those studies, too.

And, seriously: fat kids and dodgeball? I can sure remember that getting awfully mean...

Praise, for sure, for moving on this despite your hard feelings about doing it. It's a gift that you took action, no matter what happens next.
Dec. 1st, 2006 12:53 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Dec. 1st, 2006 12:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for this.

I've been meaning to make a long post about how early the weight obsession starts - how many people make approving comments when they find out that Alex is underweight, and how much fatphobia contaminates advice given to parents of underweight kids. It makes me so furious.
Dec. 1st, 2006 12:54 am (UTC)
My parents had the opposite problem; the medical folks were tutting about my weight and eating when I was hours out of the incubator.
Dec. 1st, 2006 03:33 am (UTC)
I am proud to be your friend.

I wonder what voice in you is telling you not to be "strident." I wouldn't mind having an argument with that voice someday.
Dec. 2nd, 2006 06:43 pm (UTC)

I don't know that the voice has a name, but yes, I'd like to have a discussion about that sometime.
Dec. 1st, 2006 04:51 am (UTC)
I was having a discussion with a friend one day about bi activism and she commented on how wanting to avoid being shunned by our peers is such a strong human theme. In NonViolent Communication, acceptance is listed as one of the basic common human needs. Maybe that feeds a bit into your negative feelings about sending it. Any time we go against the popular trend, we risk being shunned.

You rock and I'm proud to know you. Thanks for sending that letter.
Dec. 1st, 2006 07:54 am (UTC)
Thank you. I think fear of being shunned is at work, but I'm not sure exactly what's driving the fear, because I have plenty of evidence that speaking out about a number of things gets me more positive attention than keeping quiet.
Dec. 1st, 2006 05:16 am (UTC)
Good letter. I would add that physically awkward kids are likely to have trouble playing team sports as well, even if they're not fat, and DDR isn't that much fun for the uncoordinated either. The staff definitely needs to take a more individually tailored approach than that letter sounds like.
Dec. 1st, 2006 06:25 am (UTC)
I would say that MAKING people play DDR would be cruel and unusual -- but having a DDR machine in a video arcade is a good thing. I've seen several friends use DDR to improve their fitness -- by accident. Oh, they were aware it was happening, and they weren't upset by it -- but they were playing DDR because they liked it, not "to get fit".

But, yeah. Like Stef said -- making opportunities available -- like having DDR games around -- is a good thing. Forcing people to use them in specified ways is much, much less good. . .
(no subject) - firecat - Dec. 1st, 2006 07:58 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Dec. 1st, 2006 07:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 1st, 2006 06:27 am (UTC)
Oh, good for you!

Dec. 1st, 2006 07:58 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Dec. 1st, 2006 07:01 am (UTC)
Beautifully written, and I commend you for getting past your discomfort to face off against this stuff.
Dec. 1st, 2006 07:58 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Dec. 1st, 2006 09:23 am (UTC)
I agree with the letter (both the factual content and the sentiment).

There's nothing really wrong with it, but be aware that it carries a fair amount of emotion. If you wanted the letter to pack a punch, you've done that well. However, if you were writing it for a different person (for example, explaining to a friend why you were upset about something) you might rewrite it to be less strident and less accusatory.

You obviously feel strongly about the topic, and yet the only bit that mentions your own feelings at all is "I'm disappointed". There's plenty of other emotionally loaded statements, though. Reading between the lines just a bit, I get:
Your research is sloppy/careless/incomplete
You are using fear-mongering statements
You believe (and repeat) nonsense
Those are pretty important challenges, bordering on name-calling but not quite, and yet they're presented pretty passively.

Interestingly, it looks like only the first two paragraphs are emotionally loaded and the rest of the letter looks like "just the facts ma'am." (Well, except a minor flare-up in paragraph 5 where you refer to certain scientists as scare-mongering but it's not clear whether it's pointed at the original author).

In my opinion, there's nothing at all wrong with having emotion play a role; in fact it should. Personally I feel I have better luck when I state my own emotions clearly (such as saying I think, I feel, I believe statements) rather than attributing my feelings and opinions to anonymous others. You're certainly not alone in feeling what you feel, but saying "I feel" can often be much more powerful than describing how the article might make others feel. Think of it as "full disclosure" in journalism jargon.

In other words, if you really want to accuse someone of fear-mongering, sensationalism, sloppy research, etc. you may get better results by just coming out and saying that, rather than implying it. That sometimes makes the difference between sounding strident and sounding like you're being matter-of-fact and cool about a fairly hot topic.

I'm not sure if this "indirect emotion" has to do with the "icky" feeling. You also mentioned in comments that you feel uncomfortable with (what I read as) telling people off, but you feel much more comfortable talking to someone who is open-minded and with providing information for those who are curious. In that case, maybe it would help to *imagine* that someone really is open-minded and just address them that way. It may in fact be that they're just repeating what they've heard and haven't taken the time to even check whether there's an alternate viewpoint. In which case they're still misleading others, but not doing so intentionally, so they may be more receptive to a correction than we'd initially assume. (It's always hard to accurately judge someone's intent, which is another reason I like to avoid accusing people of having bad intentions until it's nearly incontrovertible :)

Anyway, please do keep up the good work. If the above opinion (and unsolicited advice, mostly implied :) helps you to stick up for yourself and be active and vocal without as much feeling icky, then even better.
Dec. 1st, 2006 10:03 am (UTC)
My experience differs from yours over the value of directly sharing emotions as part of public activism (as opposed to private conversation among people who know each other). In my observation, public statements based on "I feel angry/hurt/whatever" are not taken seriously, especially when they come from women.

I realize, responding to your comment, that a large part of what I feel icky about is the situation of having to communicate to someone potentially not on my side when I am angry. Unfortunately I am not able to pretend that someone is on my side if I don't know they are. If I'm only slightly angry, I can write in a neutral way that doesn't express any anger, but I still have an icky feeling in that situation, albeit a slightly different one.
(no subject) - gconnor - Dec. 2nd, 2006 10:12 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Dec. 2nd, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beaq - Dec. 1st, 2006 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Dec. 1st, 2006 08:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gconnor - Dec. 2nd, 2006 09:38 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beaq - Dec. 2nd, 2006 03:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gconnor - Dec. 2nd, 2006 09:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 2nd, 2006 01:08 am (UTC)
It's a great letter. I think even someone diametrically opposed to your position would be hard-pressed to avoid taking it seriously.
Dec. 2nd, 2006 02:10 am (UTC)
Thank you. I hope you're right.
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