It’s obvious that obesity is a problem facing the United States, but when did it become seen as an epidemic? It’s not obesity that actually causes deaths, but is a cause of the many diseases that do: diabetes mellitus and vascular disease, for example. Medicare, however, announced obesity a disease in 2004, and as a result, we have access to many treatments, including diets, surgery, exercise programs and psychotherapy. We’ve really been thinking about obesity an epidemic much earlier than the year 2004, and we now talk about obesity as a global epidemic in many countries, including the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and China. We think of obesity as the major public health problem of the twenty-first Century.
Some argue that we are panicking about obesity in a moral sense, not simply a wellness sense, whereas obesity is a condition that threatens our social values and norms. We’ve been defining it as a national problem, not an individual health problem. We are concerned about the implications on us as a society. Despite the fact that we’ve been concerned about obesity for a very long time, it wasn’t until the 1980s that obesity as an epidemic was identified for Americans. From the 1990s on, society has been on a quest to ascertain causes of obesity related to diesase; in 1997, researchers thought that obesity could be caused by a virus that mimics AIDS in the manner in which it spreads. In 2007, another group theorized that obesity might be caused by what they called a “social infection,” meaning that obese family and friends influence individuals to overeat, causing obesity.
Our social worry over obesity isn’t new. In literature, authors like Charles Dickens write about character types whose considerable physical characteristics represent stupidity, laziness, and general moral lacking. In the 1930s and 40s, doctors found a pituitary tumor in a young boy, and linked it directly to his obesity. We were obsessed with attempts to find specific causes for obesity because we were so afraid of it. Suddenly, obesity became inextricably connected to physical disease.
Obese people have long felt stigmatized by their weight. In Shakespeare, his character Falstaff searched for a cure for his weight because of his anxiety over it. Nineteenth-century doctors actually labeled Jews the “diabetic race,” supposedly because of their likelihood to overindulge. In the 1950s, a German-Jewish doctor named Hilde Bruch theorized that obesity truly sprang from family dysfunction and bad mothering.
Today, doctors point to American fast food and global financial progress as the cause of obesity instead of nodding toward racial causes. Perhaps obesity and its treatments are simply part of a system of modernization. We are obsessed with global health, leading to our anxiety about the obesity epidemic. Truly, it’s not bad to be worried about obesity numbers in the world; the number of obese people in this country is steadily climbing. We know that obesity leads to other, more inherently dangerous illnesses, ranging from diabetes to heart disease. Obesity, then, really does kill, albeit indirectly. There have always been obese people, just not so many. Now, the question is how to help them.