I Am That Girl Now

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Poor folks clearly want to be fat, say wealthier idiots

I am utterly fuming over some of the responses to yesterday's post at the Skinny Daily. Apparently, many people find it obvious that poor people just don't think that eating healthy and exercising should be a priority, and that rich folk do.

Excuse me while my class rage spirals out of control. Christ on a pogo stick, what exactly are people thinking here? In case they missed it, obesity in the United States is in part an economic issue. Anyone who has spent time in the lower half of the economic spectrum knows this. What's cheaper per serving: a gallon of ice cream or a pint of berries? A bag of chips or a bag of apples? What keeps longer, fresh vegetables or a can of soup? Oh, and when you're working two jobs to put that crappy food on the table, you better believe that prep time is a major concern. Crap food doesn't take prep time. Fresh food does. Crap food doesn't spoil. Fresh food does. And crap food is cheaper than fresh food, particularly in the winter.

Yes, there are ways to do this. Of course there are. But we know better than anybody else that it takes a lot of concentration, work, and committed time to learn how to cook healthy, period; healthy, fast, and on a budget is triple the challenge. When you're eating crap food and not getting exercise, you have less energy-- add in long, discouraging work hours and you're lucky to have enough oomph to feed your family at all.

Yes, we all know that it can be done. But pointing fingers and saying "Clearly, these people don't want to be healthy" is just plain mean and hypocritical. Don't any of us remember the steep learning curve at the beginning of our weight loss journeys? The frustration of having to learn how to cook all over again, of fighting with grocery lists and struggling to learn how to properly stock the cabinet, of having to come home night after night and having this extra burden of health on top of the cooking? I don't know about y'all, but I found this to be a giant pain in the ass. Worth it, yes, but if I hadn't had my Hub doing the lion's share of the cooking I would have spent so, so many nights just curled in a ball saying "It's too much, it's just too damn much."

I have relatives who work two jobs and live the life that these folks replying to the SDP are describing. They do like beer. They do like nice TVs. They drive pick-up trucks or SUVs. I know them well and love them to death. They get home in the evening looking for a quick fix, some kind of release from the drudgery and from the underlying constant panic of the fact that there's a limit to how much a person can work in a day and there's just not enough money. Some of their purchases are not smart. When your income is limited, you tend to go for quick fixes there, too; things that you know will make you feel better. Hell, I do this, and I'm living extremely well by their standards. When you're in a cage of any kind, there's a caveman rage and panic that builds up until you batter yourself unconscious against the bars-- not so much in an attempt to get out as a desperate need to move.

Yes, they could probably feed themselves better, and find the time for exercise. The sad fact of starting any diet and exercise program, though, is that money makes it easier. The more leisure time you have available, the more time you have to read up on nutrition and lifestyle tips, to experiment with cooking, to exercise, to prepare for the next day. The more money you have available, the more of a safety net you have-- money to pay for the fresh fruits and vegetables, money to restock after those fruits and vegetables go bad before you thought they would, money to stock up on Lean Cuisines for as long as it takes to get the lunch-packing thing figured out, money to pay for a gym membership that's convenient for you, money to pay for proper running shoes, money to buy a sports bra and a pair of dumbbells. Like it or not, money and leisure time make this journey a lot easier. That's not to say that it's easy for anyone, rich or poor or middle class-- but damn, the rich folks got a bad-ass safety net. In my opinion, it's a lot harder to get started on this hard journey if you just can't get the time to take a running start at it or buy the crutches to hold you up for those first few desperately hard months.

Oh, and let's not forget the wonder of peer pressure. Aside from all the studies done on this sort of thing by people who know what they're doing, my own experiments in these matters indicate that even when people in your life mean no harm by unconsciously supporting unhealthy habits with the group dynamic, it's still deeply weird to try to go against the social norms within your group. There's a certain sense that trying to eat healthy and exercise is a rich person's game, it's "fancy" and a waste of time and effort. My family is much more likely to roll out the barbeque and chips and chocolate cake and cola and beer than to ever dream of serving a fresh fruit platter. There's a sense that it's just not our style, particularly from the older generations.

Again, that's not to say that it can't be overcome, and I'm not saying that there aren't families out there who either have a natural high level of activity and tendency toward healthy eating or are badass enough to make the transition. I'm just saying, this is another problem. I don't know about anybody else, but a strong sense of tradition is sometimes all that holds my extended family together and food is one of the highest-held traditions. Leave home and what do you do when you're homesick? You make family recipes and eat them. (I do, anyway, which is hysterical because my immediate family utterly sucks at cooking.) Changing those sorts of deeply held traditions can throw a whole family for a loop and get you looked at funny when you bring different food to the church potluck.

There's a certain pride in being on the just-scraping-by end of the economic spectrum-- pride in doing the best you can with what you've got, pride in not living above your means, pride in community and teamwork and family. There's scorn of the upper classes that goes along with that (oh, there always is), and part of the things that are the most scorn-worthy are the personal trainers, the gym memberships, and above all the picky little healthy eating habits. There's a strong feeling that these are silly things that rich people can afford to worry about and that po' folks don't need to bother with.

This is just another one of those cases of people not respecting the difficulty of this endeavor-- and it stings more because it's coming from people who should know better, people who've been through or are currently going through the transition into healthy living. This shit is hard. It's harder still if you're trying to do it without a safety net. Possible, yes. Easy, no. Pointing at po' folks and saying "They just don't want it enough, they don't put a priority on their own health" is no good for anybody. Don't forget, the vast majority of people that attempt to lose weight-- regardless of class-- fail at it. I respect that it's going to be hard for anyone, but I can't help but assume that there are certain parts of it that get a lot easier when you have more money. Working fifteen hours a day out of dire, desperate necessity is a lot different than choosing to do so out of ambition-- in both cases, you'd make less money, but in one case making less money would cause you to lose your home and starve. Different circumstances.

Now, personally, I make a respectable wage. It's not great, but it's livable. Same goes for my Hub. Thing is, we're also saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans to pay off, and because we don't like having to depend on our credit cards during emergencies, we also tuck as much money as possible into our savings accounts. (Which is, I admit, a downright pitiful amount when compared to the amount sent to the debtmongers every month.) Between debt and savings and normal living expenses, we each get a small allowance on every paycheck to spend as we like.

Once upon a time, when we first moved in together and were living as unhealthily as you please, we spent $100 every two weeks on groceries, and the only food expense out of our allowance money was money spent on take-out and restaurants. These days, I'm spending half of my allowance every damn time on grocery shopping, because the amount that the pre-planned $100 buys has just plummeted. I've beaten my brains out trying to bring this amount under control. I try. I try very hard. And I'm still spending an absurd amount of money. And spending money on food means that I'm trapped in a situation where I don't spend a lot of money on clothes, or activities, or entertainment-- a situation which makes me fairly stressed out and which, if I didn't have the constant balanced fuelling going on, would have me binging on chocolate again. I can't even imagine having this tight a budget WITHOUT the money going to debt payment and savings, and to have to choose between debt, savings, food, and entertainment. I would lose my mind.

Okay. Rant over. I need to go get some water and do some work. Sigh.


  • Meg, this is so, so true. How and why and what we eat is absolutely impacted by cultural and social and economic factors. It's not a simple equation at all. I work in the social service field, and when a family is poor and struggling, the food budget is the first thing people look to cut, and unfortunately, going cheaper often means buying processed, low-nutrition foods. I also see that fitness is certainly something pursued mostly by the class of society that has disposable income and leisure time.

    Health and fitness, the way I see it, is a preoccupation of the middle and upper class, not the lower class. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but until something in the system changes, I think it will remain that way.

    Why be mean about it? We all have our struggles and challenges.

    By Blogger Megan, at 9:08 AM  

  • There was a very interesting article about just this topic in the Washington Post Sunday magazine a few months ago. One of the things the article brought up was that in our culture people are trained to want, want, want by advertising and social pressure. A single mom said that even though she doesn't make a lot of money and can't always get her child the Playstation or iPod he wants, she can get him the ice cream bar and sugary cereal he saw on TV. So in some cases it even goes back to an emotional pattern, in this case, that of a mother wanting to provide what her child desires. Add on the fact that she works three jobs and can see four fast food restaurants from her window and well, it's easy to see how being less wealthy can harm your chance at health.

    By Anonymous Alison, at 9:36 AM  

  • My girlfriend and I were discussing this yesterday. For one, for someone who can't afford a vacation, things like tv and "treat" food become an affordable entertainment. You can't take your kids to the amusement park, but You can get ice cream or nachos.

    Also, this whole money / obesity dynamic leaves out a lot of other variables that may be even more important. Like education for one. Who probably spends more time reading about nutrition - someone with a college education or not?

    As a statistician, I despise these articles that blur the entire line between causation and correlation....

    By Blogger neca, at 9:46 AM  

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you Meg! As an avid reader of several of the fitness blogs out there, I was so disappointed at some of the comments left on this topic over at Skinny Daily. I was elated to see your post today - you've really captured how I felt, and I'm sure many others as well. Again, thanks for the rant!

    By Blogger Stacy, at 11:17 AM  

  • It's funny how different people react to seeing something. I live in the general area that Jonathan describes, and I've probably been in the town he's talking about. My reaction, every time I find myself in these wealthy enclaves, is one of irritation. Of *course* I'd be gorgeous and slim if I had access to world-class medical care, some of the best fitness options out there, and could afford to pay for quality fresh food without a pause, not to mention the lack of stress that being financially secure brings and the peer pressure of others in my group.

    Thank you for your post - I think you hit the nail on the head about a lot of the 'hidden triggers' that affect how we all think about food, exercise, and fitness. Lots of people seem to prefer thinking that it's all up to us - but there are a lot of social influences that influence who we are and what we do with our lives. They're not immutable, but if we pretend they're not there we're fooling ourselves.

    By Anonymous Laura, at 11:28 AM  

  • Hey, when you don't have much money, you do what you can. We can have mac & cheese, spaghetti, and misc. boxed meals that will feed our family for a moderate price. However, if I take what little I have to the store and buy fresh fruits, fresh veggies, and leaner and more desireable cuts of meat- I could buy a third of what I need to feed my family. So, which one of us gets to eat?

    I think that it is ridiculous that folks would make such broad statements about those who are poor, to say that we all choose to eat poorly because we want other "things". For some reason, or oft-broken car and half-dead-garage-sale-bought lawn mower says otherwise. lol

    For our family, there are times when we eat very healthy foods. It's a real blessing when we have enough money to splurge on fresh fruits, salads, and vegetables. However, there are also times when we have to do whatever we can, just to make sure that we are all fed. There are processed food that we end up eating, that are crap for our bodies, but I'd choose that over having my child cry to me that she is hungry.

    As far as education goes, maybe our situation is a little more unique, being that our state has the highest unemployment rate right now. No matter someone's education, folks are losing their jobs. Now it doesn't matter if you were a college educated CEO, or someone working on the factory line. We're all eating mac & cheese now........ lol

    By Anonymous Itty Bitty Me, at 11:34 AM  

  • Meg, this was the best post I've read in a long, long time. You really nailed it with this one. It shouldn't take a huge leap of imagination or rational thought to see that poverty and being boxed into making poor choices are tightly braided together, but some folks seem almost wilfully blind to the economic factors underpinning obesity. Maybe they think if they can put enough distance between themselves and the "less worthy" fat folks, that they won't be tarred with the same brush. Its always easier to point fingers than to admit that changing your lifestyle is tough for everyone, but some poeple have the odds more stacked against them than others. You articulated it so well - a great post!

    By Anonymous Fatslayer, at 3:27 PM  

  • First, I think pointing at anyone, poor, rich, fat, skinny, whatever, is completely uncalled for. Everyone has their own set of issues and problems around food, and their income or lack of income should not give other people a license to hold them up to ridicule.

    Second, I may be an anomaly, but I find that as I am getting fitter I am spending far less on food than I have ever spent. I am living off plain oatmeal, canned tuna, cottage cheese, eggs, beans, seasonal fruit, seasonal veggies... and very very rarely, meat. I don't buy food that comes in colourful boxes (no LC or other prepackaged meals). I don't cook beyond hard-boiling eggs or making omelettes. I pack my lunch, I don't buy lattes... Granted, this is made easier by the fact that I am single, so no one else is impacted by my choices.

    So now my curiousity is piqued. Is no one else having a similar (fitness up, food budget down) experience?

    By Blogger Mich, at 4:30 PM  

  • great topic. but I want to shift gears a little, and move the attention OFF the obese poor, and ONTO the thin, judgmental rich. I think what you're seeing here is a blame-the-victim mentality. It's easy to justify because obviously people do choose what they eat. Defending these choices is one important response, but targeting the judgmentalness and the blame is another important step, imho.

    We live in a culture of blame, I have thought on more than one occasion. It seems that if we can justify blaming someone for their problems, that goes hand in hand with justifying walking away from that person and problems - without feeling any sense of obligation to help, or any sense of guilt at leaving a poor fool standing there with their problems. Blame is key to extinguishing any sense of responsibility for our fellow humans, I think. And I think it's much more rampant in the US.

    We have to take a step back and realize, we are living in a society here, people! The problems of one are to some extent the problems of all. We need to "get that" as a culture, and get out of the every-person-for themselves mentality that breeds this isolation (both against "them" and for "me") and blame.

    We can all be for ourselves, but also for an improved community, too. What's that saying, a rising tide lifts all boats?

    By Blogger Wendy, at 5:34 PM  

  • Wendy, I think half the thing is that I'm already painfully aware of the tendency for people who are successful in weight-loss to blame still-fat people (or relapsed people) for their own problems, and to see it as a failing in those people rather than having to admit that it's a case of there but for the grace of God... There's this crazed need to distance ourselves from Them, to prove that we're not One Of Them, that we're different, and proof of our difference is that we succeeded and They failed or never got in the game.

    I mean, damn. I'm used to people who have never had weight problems making blanket assumptions about why people don't lose weight; it's the self-righteousness of the formerly fat that truly stings. The "I did it walking uphill both ways in a snowstorm, you're just being a pussy!" mentality pushes my buttons like nothing else. I mean, for God's sake, we all know how hard this is, right? We don't have ignorance as an excuse for prejudice. I guess it's just plain old fear, but it still stinks.

    There are a LOT of things in the good ol' USA that operate along these lines. I really think that's 80% of what keeps us from instituting programs that would help out people who get in a bind-- whether through drugs, food, poverty, health problems, you name it. We don't want to admit that it could be us, so it's ever so much more convenient to blame the victim instead of making things better for society in general.

    Er... I'm kind of verging into political territory, and I swore I wouldn't do that in this blog, so I'm going to duck out.

    By Blogger Meg, at 6:07 PM  

  • Heyla,
    I guess I'm going to jump on the (to my mind minority) bandwagon that every story is different. It's easy to create stereotypes; but hard to force people to live within them.

    I've seen people who make quite a lot of money who place no emphasis on being healthy; and people who amaze me for how they can stretch a penny innovatively dealing with how to make the little money they have go a long way towards an amazingly healthy lifestyle.

    Does this make any of them an anomaly? I don't think so. I DO believe that we are missing the drive for a sense of community to help EVERYONE get better; and I feel that it's a great loss not to have that. On the other hand however, I can see how people who have felt oppressed (and yes, skinny people can indeed feel opressed) can overcome the odds against sustained fat loss, and in the process become so confident in themselves that they BECOME the oppressor they are back lashing against.
    I'd hate to think that the desire to make an "us vs. them" mentality would so override the reality that we're all in this together, and on this trip called life - none of us will get out alive.

    By Anonymous Shawna, at 7:11 PM  

  • That was so well put that you should send it in to a paper somewhere and have it published. It would be even greater to make a tape and have it shown on television. Anyway, my point is that you said it well and I agree with you. You Go Girl! ;)

    By Blogger DD, at 12:48 AM  

  • Great post, and great discussion. The "logic" of blaming poor people for being fat is very similar to the so-called logic behind blaming the poor for their poverty--for being lazy, or making bad choices, or inherent stupidity, etc. My family background sounds similar to yours, Meg, except that some have taken the leap to middle-classdom. And in my experience, no one is more critical of those who come from a poor or working class background than those who grew up the same but have moved up the class ladder. I'm not at all surprised that the formerly overweight would have the same reaction toward the obese, compounded by class bias against the poor. By constantly reminding yourself and others that you are no longer a member of the dispised group (poor/working class or obese), you gain a modicum of advantage. This is how historians explain why poor whites sided with rich slaveowners instead of African American slaves and freedmen in the South--racial distinction was a way of getting an advantage. If poor whites sided with African Americans to push for better wages, they feared they would be pushed to the bottom rung of the social, economic, and political ladder too, so they clung to the false distinction of race as a privelege, even though it effectively kept them as poor and powerless as the despised other group.

    Sorry if this comment is too political for your site, but the politics of weight loss are definitely connected to other kinds of politics.

    By Anonymous J., at 10:24 AM  

  • Although now I have an adequate amount of expendable income, even when I didn't have much money I always found a way to get my comfort, binge foods. And I suspect that if I ever strike it rich, I will still buy my comfort binge foods. UNLESS, I consistently do the work required to overcome this pattern and develop better self-care habits. I guess my point is rich people don't automatically have a free pass when it comes to fitness and well-being. I can think of several wealthy public figures who, by their own admissions, have an unhealthy relationship with food.

    By Blogger Michelle, at 3:40 PM  

  • I have just linked to your awesome ramblings via DietGirl and am so glad I did. I was only just yesterday spouting forth, in my own blog, about the fact that I wanted to shop for heaps of veges etc to follow a certain eating plan. On doing up a fortnight's worth of menus (fail to plan, plan to fail), I priced up the shopping list and was looking at almost twice my normal shopping bill. I have 3 children, one partner working a relatively good job, no job myself as child number 3 is 11 weeks old, and our rent is just about half of our income a week. As you say, add the debt and other bills and you soon have SFA left. This is not so much even a class thing but, a government thing. Why the hell should petrol be taxed so heavily?? Why not tax coke, fastfoods etc?? Why is it that here in New Zealand (not sure about the rest of the world) you can buy a 2.25L of softdrink for 89c but it costs you $3.50 for a 2L of milk?? Yet they spend millions on little slogan advertising campaigns (eg 5+ a day, promoting 5 or more servings a day of veges and fruit). That money would be better utilised in supporting the fresh fruit and vegetable industries in lowering there prices. As for organics, why does it cost so much more for something to be grown minus all the sprays etc?? Go figure!!

    By Blogger Jules, at 5:33 PM  

  • Meg
    I also found your post from Dietgirl's site and all I can say is 'You go girl'.
    I'm not poor but I have a shitload of debt and paying those bills each month takes a huge whack out of the income. It's payday today and I've added everything up and my partner and I have £60 left after the mortgage and insurance and everything else. So somehow two of us have to survive on £15 a week this month. I don't know how we'll do it.
    In the UK, the TV channels are packed with healthy eating programs with people trying to lose weight and the news and magazine shows often talk about the growing obesity problem but fresh food is so expensive here. Jamie Oliver is promoting asparagus as the moment (which i love) but a small bunch but is £1.50. Our £15 a week budget means we have to make meals for less than £1. Guess I'm not going to bother with the asparagus.
    If the government is really concerned about this (they often quote how much obesity costs the health service), they need to start making fresh healthy food affordable.

    By Anonymous Sandra, at 5:48 AM  

  • Meg, Finally I found my way over here. I too caught the Diet Girl web train to your house.

    What a fantastic subject. I have fought this same argument since July last year. With people from all walks of life.

    Let me preface this by saying I live in Australia. I have noticed a difference in different countries I have travelled to. But I can only speak from what I know in my own backyard. So I wont presume to know the politics of other countries.

    Secondly I used to live in Outback Australia where petrol prices are double that of people in capital cities and the prices of natural fruits, vegetables, seafood etc were astronomical.

    I used to spend money daily on 'Meal deals' because I thought the $5.95 option was a 'cheap' meal.

    In July last year I started a weight loss challenge and part of that wasn't just weight loss, but cutting out the crap and preservatives.

    (stick with me, there is a point coming)

    I decided to only eat fresh, to cut down on my meat intake, to stop guzzling milk and many other thing that caused me to loose weight - the weight started falling off me. But the biggest thing I noticed was my weekly expenditure went from over $100 week on food & drinks to $25-$30/week.

    My sister at that stage had two little girls (3&5) and cried poor every day of the week. When health related problems constantly remained in their lives I suggested cutting all the processed foods and having fresh vegetables and fruit for the children and her.

    Her reaction - "No way, no one can afford to eat healthy, its too bloody expensive!"

    I took her shopping and bought a weeks worth of groceries (a fridge full of food) for $52. That covered everyones meals. Gave them all slow release energy foods (not big sugar hits!)

    In one week their girls behaviour and health improved dramatically and in that same week my sister changed her views on 'eating healthy'.

    Since then I have had the opportunity of speaking to many families and mothers who are struggling to make ends meet AND eat healthy AND lose weight AND keep the family happy.

    From my point of view, I now wonder how much of this conditioning my sister (a welfare mother) had was due to education regarding food preparation as well as her economic status? For example, she didn't realise that her children and her could have their daily snacks (fruit) for less than $2.

    For the record, my sister grew some amazing passion for cooking since then and in less than 8 months has become an amazing passionate little cook. I'm amazed at her transformation. Even to watch her in a heated discussion with our other (wealthy) sister who complains that its so much easier & cheaper to buy convenience foods.

    I believe there should be education on a national level for 'getting back to basics' cooking.

    I also believe junk foods need to be taxed (like cigarettes in Australia) because they are ultimately contributing to the country's health problems.

    It is evident that we have so many passionate people involved in this subject already. If only we could harness this power and make a change......

    By Blogger Beckie, at 3:30 AM  

  • heres an artical about this very subject. Also touching on the related subject of "food deserts" http://www.detnews.com/2004/fitness/0405/26/h06-163928.htm

    By Anonymous Kelly, at 12:57 AM  

  • Just linked here by accident and read this essay. It is SO good and SO true. Thank you for putting what I feel out there in writing - and so eloquently.

    As a struggling single mom it is so hard to eat right, feed my picky-eater son right and meet my budget. And I relate to the idea that I CAN buy my son the ice-cream that he wants but not summer science camp he also wants (not that he could go anyway since the camp hours are designed only for stay-at-home moms!) grrrrrr.

    Anyway, your essay should be published on the front page of someplace. Well done!

    By Anonymous Lynette, at 9:08 AM  

  • Coming from a third-world country, the cries of "eating healthy is too expensive" seems... odd. A diet composed of beans/rice and in-season fruits and veggies is very cheap and not particularly time-consuming. And if you have a freezer and shop for sales, it seems easy enough to add meats on sale, eggs... On the other hand, OF COURSE the poor view food differently - there is a proximity to having actually been hungry, of actually having to portion out food, which means that if you don't have to you appreciate it. If you've experienced a war or depression I think you're more likely to want to pack on pounds. If you've grown up with thin=starving, then you want to put on weight because you can.

    To suggest that the food choices we make are not culturally entwined and changeable seems short-sighted. I hope you don't read that as "blaming the poor".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:49 AM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:43 PM  

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