Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cutting the waist

It all started with stopping the gravy train, the centrepiece of his election campaign to become mayor of Toronto. He wanted the city government shrunk to as little involvement in the lives of the people as possible. If this were an American city, Toronto could have been every Republican Party or Tea Party stalwart’s favourite target – big government and too much government spending.

Upon his election as Toronto mayor, Rob Ford began his crusade against wasteful spending. With his brother Doug Ford on his side as a city councillor representing his old bailiwick, they trained their magnifying glass on every bit of public spending that could be reduced, cut, or eliminated. From privatizing garbage disposal to cutting public library hours, the Ford brothers never relented on their zeal to cut waste.
Toronto's twin mayor Rob Ford and his brother councillor Doug Ford launch their
battle of the bulge. Photo courtesy of Andrew Francis Wallace of theToronto Star.
Click link to view "Toronto mayor steps on the scale."
Not everything went smoothly according to the Ford brothers’ script. Naturally, there was widespread disenchantment. What could you expect from Toronto, we also had our own version of Occupy Wall Street last October 2011.

Eventually, Toronto mayor Rob Ford came out with his first city budget this year. Not only did he cut waste, he also produced a big surplus. Everyone was not surprised or delighted by the budget surplus. Instead, the budget was criticized as being irresponsible. For how can the city cut library hours or reduce streetcar schedules if there was to be surplus money in the end? Was his worship simply interested in cutting waste as he sees fit just to look good in the end with a big surplus?

But it wasn’t the mayor’s efforts to cut waste that really raised the hackles of the city folks. The mayor is a big man, weighs over 300 pounds. His twin evil brother, councillor Doug Ford who is not that far behind in bulk and size, weighs about 229 pounds.

So when the brothers Ford jointly announced they will cut the waist, meaning their waistlines, they were warmly applauded not just by weight-watchers and dieters, but by almost everyone who thought there should be more concrete measures from government to tackle the obesity issue among children and adults. This time, everybody was unanimous in saying this is a waist-reduction program that deserves to be supported. In fact, reducing their waistlines could have a greater impact on the city more than their appetite to look for fat and gravy in the government that they could cut and eliminate. If successful, the Ford brothers might be mostly remembered in the history of Toronto’s city politics for cutting the waist rather than their vicious agenda of cutting waste.

Obesity today is largely considered an epidemic of rising proportions in America. From over-indulging in junk and comfort foods to lack of physical exercise, the number of people being overweight and becoming obese has ballooned to raise serious concern from family doctors, educators, and policy makers. Virtual reality TV has taken advantage of obesity as a social problem as programs like “The Biggest Loser” poke fun at men and women competing against each other in trying to reduce their weight. Talk shows featuring exercise gurus, diet doctors and heart specialists have joined the commercialization of the overweight issue and its impact on a person’s health and well-being. Over time, products and treatments offering the easiest and fastest way to shed pounds have experienced a sales boom.

Obesity has also been recognized as a leading cause of death, mostly prevalent among adults and children. Public health authorities view obesity as one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century.
The obesity epidemic. Photo courtesy of flickr. Click link to view "Obesity in
While it has stigmatized others, obesity was widely perceived as symbolic of wealth and fertility at other times in history. U.S. President William Howard Taft was often ridiculed for being overweight. The popular wise-cracking governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, could have been a shoo-in for the Republican Party presidential primary but for his incredible hulk.

In the realm of art, women were portrayed in the past with heavy and plump bodies but nobody raised objections to whatever negative connotations these implied. Perhaps, in the subjective sense, big and beautiful women were considered pretty during those times. Venus of Urbino, for instance, had been depicted with lightly wider hips and an enlarged midriff suggesting pregnancy, hence fertility and sexual allure. Rubens' notoriously corpulent nudes were women of ample figures that very well symbolized wealth and beauty, as well as fertility. Only today’s fat fetishists would regard such images as beautiful and more desirable.

Not to be accused of having an obsession for fat women, the neo-figurative Colombian artist Fernando Botero has been successful in capitalizing on inflated and flabby images of his subjects. His paintings depict exaggerated proportions and corpulence of human and animal figures. Critics have often thought that Botero was satirizing fat people, which was far from Botero’s intention. According to him, “an artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it."

Be that as it may, today’s standards have changed and society now seems to attach not only the ideal of beauty to a slim figure but more of a health desideratum. However, there is growing criticism that some might have gone to the extreme and even regard fat people as the enemy. Two Canadian studies have shown that we shouldn’t consider just how big someone is but also how well someone takes care of himself or herself. There are morbidly obese people who stay in pretty good shape even if they don’t look like it.

As Dr. Arya Sharma of the University of Alberta observed: “They eat healthily. They’re physically fit. They feel good about themselves. They don’t have high blood pressure. They don’t have high cholesterol levels. They don’t have diabetes. They have none of those health problems and so the question is: Why would you treat these people? Why don’t you ask them to just stay as healthy as they are?”

But this type observation may be criticized as often rooted on a strong culture of individualism, that private behaviour such as overeating or improper food consumption should be off-limits to governmental interference. How many times have we heard that the government should stay out of personal choices we make?

Although governments have long relied upon the liberty of individuals to regulate their private behaviour such as overeating or improper food consumption, experience drawn from consumption of alcohol, illegal drugs, tobacco and even sex indicates the willingness of governments to intervene in citizens’ private habits that might have disastrous consequences. While obesity arises largely from private behaviour, its harmful consequences can easily tip off the balance unless the government takes a proactive role in fighting obesity as a public policy.

Social disapproval is a positive step to winning the war on obesity, just like when the temperance movements of the early nineteenth century stirred up public condemnations of the disruptive effects of alcoholism. Private activities like illegal drugs and smoking have already been controlled due to public disapprobation. With medical evidence proving obesity may be harmful to health and to life in particular, social disapproval could be turned into political regulation.

Of course, there are still doubters. For example, if sanctions were to be placed against the food industry for catering unhealthy food choices as a start, we would expect howls of protests from libertarians and the food industry itself. The last thing we hate to see is far more government regulation of fatty foods.

Perhaps, Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s Body Mass Index (BMI) may not be the most accurate way of determining someone’s fitness. The mayor is a fit man and can throw a nasty spiral, even if his middle belies excessive body fat. This is not to say we shouldn’t endorse healthy eating and regular physical exercise. What seems befuddling is why there are still so many among us, including the Toronto mayor, who are bodily flawed yet can still function as normal and healthy human beings. Maybe, this suggests that health and girth are two very different things.

While the Ford brothers of Toronto might have struck a sensitive chord among health conscious citizens, other groups are not buying into their charity-weight loss campaign. Toronto’s citizenry is much more interested in policies and programs that would take the best interests and needs of the people at heart rather than a public campaign to boost the mayor and his brother’s egos – or their desire to look more masculine and fit.

The Toronto mayor said he plans to walk more, jog, hit the gym, and cut out the late-night ice cream he loves. Eventually, he said, he wants to lose 105 pounds. That’s a tall order for a big man who also loves to talk big every time. Whether he achieves his target the next time he steps on the the scale, he should console himself that this might be the only goal he could achieve during his tenure as mayor without assistance from his growingly recalcitrant council. And if the mayor really wants to be the poster boy against obesity, he should re-channel his charity campaign into a more effective public policy that ties in weight reduction to alternative healthier lifestyles.

1 comment:

  1. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and waist reduction is a corollary to one's fodder.