Lighten Up, America!

Do fat people belong in public parks?


Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry offers several rationales for her ban on smoking in city parks. People leave cigarette butts in sandboxes, she says, and smoking causes air pollution.

But L.A. already has a law against littering, and tobacco smoke in the open air hardly seems like a pressing environmental concern. Unless Perry plans to shut down all automobile traffic and industrial activity in Los Angeles, her zero-tolerance approach to pollution is strangely selective.

Still, Perry does have at least one compelling justification for her ban, which received preliminary approval from a unanimous city council earlier this month. "When kids see adults smoking in a family-friendly place like a park," she said, "it normalizes smoking and causes it to be approved behavior."

In other words, people smoking in public are a bad influence on children, who may be encouraged to follow their unhealthy example. Perry's observation can be extended to other areas of public health.

The day before the Los Angeles City Council voted on the smoking ban, Surgeon General David Satcher released a "Call to Action" warning that Americans are way too fat and getting fatter every day. "Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," he said, estimating that 300,000 people die each year because they weigh too much.

Satcher said corpulence-related disease and disability cost the country $117 billion last year. And the odds are that you are part of this problem: Three-fifths of American adults are overweight, less than a third get the exercise the federal government says they should, and almost no one complies with the dietary recommendations of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid.

Given the huge social cost, how much you eat and exercise can no longer be seen as purely private choices. "People tend to think of overweight and obesity as strictly a personal matter," Satcher said, "but there is much that communities can and should do to address these problems."

Banning fat people from public parks, where they set a bad example for the kids, is an obvious first step. Ideally, though, we should be moving toward a world in which no child is exposed to potential role models who normalize obesity and cause overeating to be approved behavior.

I'm not talking about a complete ban on obesity. People would still be free to be fat in the privacy of their own homes (provided they have no children); they would just not be allowed to go out in public until they slimmed down.

Perhaps that solution strikes you as extreme. But surely it's not too much to expect that officials charged with protecting the public health exemplify the good habits we are trying to inculcate in our youth.

"Overweight and obesity are among the most pressing new health challenges we face today," says Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, who could stand to lose a few pounds himself. At least Joe Califano, when he held a similar position in the Carter administration, had the decency to stop smoking before he started campaigning against cigarettes.

The entertainment industry also has a role to play. Just as it is considered socially irresponsible to project positive images of smokers, the creators of the movies and TV shows our children watch should think twice before portraying fat characters who are smart, cool, popular, or otherwise admirable.

To be fair, Hollywood generally has done a pretty good job on this score, bringing us leading actors who (unlike the general population) are overwhelmingly thin. But there are exceptions.

What sort of message does it send to our young people that a parade of slim characters leaves NYPD Blue under unfavorable circumstances, while the chunky Andy Sipowicz remains at the center of the show? And what was Fox thinking when it released Shallow Hal, which sends the dangerous message that fat women can be happy and loved?

The positive portrayal of portly people in cartoon comedies, a genre favored by children, is especially unconscionable. Immune to the biological forces that affect flesh-and blood people, long-running, lovable cartoon characters such as Homer Simpson and South Park's Chef remain healthy despite their obesity.

At this time of year, one other baneful role model inevitably springs to mind. I just hope you didn't leave out a plate of cookies for him. That's the last thing he needs.