A recent post of mine at i eat marmalade to pester the ear fairies. outlines my basic distaste for the idea of, as they call it, an “obesity epidemic.” There are a few reasons why this is so, and I will list them here:
- The use of the word ‘epidemic’ bothers me. Something being an epidemic implies there’s some sort disease, spreading from person to person. Alright, I suppose one could argue that obesity is in fact a disease, and, perhaps less convincingly, argue that it is transferable, or passed from person to person (i.e. genetics). But is it an epidemic? Can something be an epidemic that is, for the most part, a volitional decision. People choose to eat too much, or drink too much, or not exercise enough. They choose to do these things. Some children may be affected negatively because they have parents that choose to ignore the signs, or are just too complacent to care, or to prioritize to include healthy eating, exercise and the like. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it is a choice the parents make.And yet, we hear everywhere (for decades), on the television, on the radio and in the newspaper, that we need to stop this epidemic. Aren’t we then, at that point, making judgments that hold no grounding? Aren’t we then deciding to “tackle the problem” of obesity by infringing upon the rights of others? And what is next after that? If that doesn’t work, should we ban fast food? Do we mandate voice-encoded, password-protected refrigerators only Big Brother can unlock? Not government, or anyone else but the individual deciding to overeat/overdrink should have any say in the matter (Read Radley Balko’s article on that particular subject here).
- People are going to do what they want to do, what makes them feel good, what brings them happiness. Who I am to tell someone they should cut back on McDonald’s hamburgers? They have every right to be overweight. If that’s something they want, or I want, that’s up to them. I mean hell, people do things everyday that aren’t necessarily “good” for them. That is their prerogative.
- Ultimately, this is a gross exaggeration. And one that doesn’t really work. The means to exaggerate is often widely accessible. Perhaps that is in part due to the exaggeration itself. Are there fat people out there? Sure. Do I care? Of course not. Is it an epidemic, one that necessitates further prodding by the long arm of the collective- in government, medical community, parenting community? No.
So, to my point. I think that exaggeration can be a useful writing tool. But you may ask, how is this any different from the term “obesity epidemic”? Is that not a tool to create a strong impression, but not to be taking literally, like hyperbole? One difference is that an obesity epidemic collectivizes, it generalizes, it vilifies those who are happy with their BMI; those that are content to be overweight. In that sense, it infringes upon the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about their bodies. Also, it infringes upon everyone else. A business or restaurant will, for the most part, make choices that will benefit the consumer- that will in turn benefit the business. If the consumer demand for fast food declines and the demand for tofu burgers rises, then the business and restaurant will accommodate accordingly. But not until then. No government, or medical group, or concerned citizen should be creating artificial demand.
In stories, exaggeration can be incredibly useful. Think of all of the stories within children’s literature, and the playful poetics and heightened rhythms of those narratives. Think of the humorists, like Dr. Seuss, Jonathan Swift, H.L. Mencken and Mark Twain. These folks used exaggeration within their poetry, stories and novels quite brilliantly.
I enjoy using exaggeration from time to time. It can be fun. It can also denote insincerity, distaste or anger.
Do you use exaggeration as a writing tool, or otherwise? And why?
If a spectacle is going to be particularly imposing I prefer to see it through somebody else’s eyes, because that man will always exaggerate. Then I can exaggerate his exaggeration, and my account of the thing will be the most impressive.
– “O’Shah,” Europe and Elsewhere- Mark Twain
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Updates: recent op-ed at The Global Post outlines a new law that fines people for being “too fat.”