Ten years ago, then-First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity. With a White House Task Force, a music video by Beyonce, and endorsements by celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray, her hope was to see childhood obesity drop to its 1970s-era rate of 5 percent by 2030.
It was an ambitious goal. The First Lady endured a fair amount of criticism from those who thought her plans to improve school lunch programs were nanny-state meddling and from food producers who didn’t want to change the quality of school lunches or eliminate school vending machines.
But the toughest group to convince? Kids and their families, whose eating and exercise habits didn’t appreciably change. Despite its celebrity-infused launch and Obama’s personal popularity, the Let’s Move campaign wasn’t wildly successful in decreasing childhood obesity. The childhood obesity rate, which remained steady at 16.9 percent during the Obama years, is now at 18.5 percent.
Those most at risk? Black and Hispanic children. In an address to the NAACP in 2010, the First Lady was pointed about the urgent need to improve children’s health in communities of color. “We are living today in a time where we are decades beyond slavery, we are decades beyond Jim Crow [former segregationist laws] when one of the greatest risks to our children’s future is their own health,” she said.
She was right. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Hispanics (25.8 percent) and non-Hispanic blacks (22.0 percent) had higher obesity prevalence than non-Hispanic whites (14.1 percent).” And childhood obesity creates life-long health challenges. That same year, commenting on Obama’s initiative, progressive publication ThinkProgress had no compunction about stating the facts: “Obesity puts people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, mental health problems, and bone and joint disorders.”
A report by the Department of Health and Human Services went into much greater detail about the risks:
“Being overweight during childhood and adolescence increases the risk of developing high cholesterol, hypertension, respiratory ailments, orthopedic problems, depression and type 2 diabetes as a youth. . . Looking at the long-term consequences, overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults, which increases to 80 percent if one or more parent is overweight or obese. Obesity in adulthood increases the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, arthritis, and a general poor health status.”
How times have changed.
The current pandemic has politicized obesity. Sabrina Strings, a sociologist whose previous work was a book about “the racial origins of fat phobia,” argued in The New York Times this week that slavery, not underlying health conditions, is to blame for much higher death rates from COVID-19 among African-Americans.
“The era of slavery was when white Americans determined that black Americans needed only the bare necessities, not enough to keep them optimally safe and healthy,” Strings argued. “This message is particularly important in a moment when African-Americans have experienced the highest rates of severe complications and death from the coronavirus and ‘obesity’ has surfaced as an explanation.”
She writes dismissively of the evidence (in reports such as this one from the CDC) that African-Americans are suffering disproportionally because they suffer in greater numbers from underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk, such as obesity. “The cultural narrative that black people’s weight is a harbinger of disease and death has long served as a dangerous distraction from the real sources of inequality,” she contended.
And with the pandemic, it’s happening again: “The idea that black people are unduly obese (currently defined as a body mass index greater than 30) which is seen as a driver of other chronic illnesses and is believed to put black people at high risk for serious complications from Covid-19,” Strings continued.
But this isn’t “an idea.” It’s a fact (one that also affects people of all races; should overweight Jews blame anti-Semitism for their health issues? Or men blame misandry for their higher COVID death rates compared to women?). It’s not just obesity; African-Americans also have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. All of these conditions place a person at a much higher risk of complications and death from COVID-19. Many African-Americans who have become ill or died from COVID-19 had a combination of preexisting conditions.
Reports on the ground during the pandemic confirm this. In Florida, a study of some of the youngest, earliest victims of the pandemic found, “Of the 25 deaths, 17 were men and eight were women. Most suffered from asthma, chronic bronchitis, morbid obesity, and hypertension—or some combination of all the above . . . Of the 25 youngest to die, 12 were black, almost half the deaths. For eight of the 25, the medical examiner noted obesity among their health issues. Eight also had diabetes — among the biggest risk factors for dying from the new coronavirus,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity has measurable, significant effects on people’s health. Four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese, according to the HHS’s Office of Minority Health, and this puts them at increased risk for many health problems. For a prominent African-American female scholar to suggest that this fact is racist, and put the word obesity in scare quotes, and cite dubious claims from the New York Times “1619 Project” to explain away this reality, as Strings does, won’t change that, and won’t help the people who need it.
What will change it is a more honest discussion of the many factors that lead to chronic health conditions in all races. As the HHS report notes about childhood obesity and holds true for adult obesity as well, the causes are “multi-factorial,” including genetics, socioeconomic status, and environment. Individuals’ own poor food choices also play a rule. “Most factors of overweight and obesity do not work in isolation and solely targeting one factor may not going to make a significant impact on the growing problem,” the HHS notes.
There’s a great deal we don’t know about how COVID kills, but we do know a lot about obesity and its associated health risks. Educating the public about those risks isn’t racist, or fat-phobic, or any other intersectional indictment that activists can conjure. Like washing one’s hands and wearing a mask during a pandemic, it’s simply good public health policy. Americans still have much to do to fully confront the legacy of slavery in this country. Reflexively and simplistically blaming slavery for our current health crises isn’t the path forward.