American Slender

When did freedom become just another word for 10 pounds left to lose?


"We're just too darn fat, ladies and gentleman, and we're going to do something about it," proclaimed the formerly plus-sized, multiple-chinned Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson last spring while announcing a new government ad campaign designed to help citizens shape up.(Thompson has shed an undisclosed number of pounds while on a public diet.)

"We've got so many people who are fat," declared the slender Michigan governor—and former beauty queen—Jennifer Granholm at the National Governors Association meeting in March. "And that is really contributing significantly to our health care costs."

Along with more than a dozen of her peers, Granholm strapped on a pedometer to see who walked the farthest during a 16-week period. Other gubernatorial fat fighters include South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (undertaking a 300-mile bike trek), Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (publicly forswearing Snickers), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (sponsoring a 10-kilometer walk/fun run).

Thus the United States turns from nation building abroad to nation bodybuilding at home. In a world beset by terrorism, poverty, and malnutrition, who could have imagined that being fat would become the subject not simply of the derision and scorn it has long inspired but a political topic every bit as heartburn-inducing as a Tabasco-flavored Slim Jim?

If history is any guide, it's safe to assume that a hot topic of political discussion will quickly transform into a hot topic of legislation, ranging from Twinkie taxes to mandatory high school exit exams administered by the President's Council on Physical Fitness (which one assumes is now part of the Department of Homeland Security). Can the federal Leave No Chubby Child Behind Act be far away in a country in which 15 percent of kids are officially considered "overweight"? The corresponding figure for adults is about 65 percent, which simply pours more fat on this particular political fire.

If being overweight contributes "significantly to our health care costs," the best way to reduce our dangerous dependency on imported stretch fabrics is to make individuals internalize those costs the same way they scarf down the Big Macs and (formerly) supersized fries. That means reducing the publicly funded elements of health care. An added benefit of that would be to deny politicians—and your taxpaying neighbors—any right to shape your personal lifestyle.

Indeed, there is something creepy and deranged when politicians start calculating versions of a Body Mass Grave Index and flap their gums about the dire need to create a Body Politic by Jake. The current political fixation on fat is as distinctly un-American as Alger Hiss' side job as a Kremlin copyboy. The United States is the most tolerant nation on the planet—as long as you look good in a tight pair of Levi's. So when exactly did freedom become just another word for 10 pounds left to lose?

My immigrant grandparents didn't come to this country so that their children, and their children's children, wouldn't have enough to eat. In fact, they left the Old World, with its regular famines and emaciated lower classes, for almost precisely the opposite reason: They dreamed of living in a country where even the masses struggled to squeeze into relaxed fit jeans and size 18 housecoats.

Even as they went to their graves still possessing the lean and hungry peasant bodies they arrived with at Ellis Island, my grandparents must have looked upon the ever larger and fatter bodies of their descendants as the very incarnation of the American Dream.

By injecting politics into diet like so much Bavarian Kreme filling into a Dunkin' Donut, we may well accomplish little more than hardening the arteries of the greatest political experiment of modern times. A skinnier America may well be a healthier America. It will certainly be a more attractive America. But if it comes into existence through politics rather than individual initiative, choice, and restraint, it will diminish the land of the free and the home of the brave in ways that no bathroom scale could ever fully measure.