One issue I don’t think gets enough attention as a political challenge is prioritizing. We like to think of social progress as a series of repairs to be made, but really it’s a series of tradeoffs.
I was listening to a podcast the other day on the debate between obesity advocates and eating disorder advocates. Both groups want kids to be in a healthy weight range, but each attacks from a different end of the spectrum.
In the podcast they mention BMI report cards. Schools have apparently been experimenting with reports for parents that include health info alongside educational info. Johnny has an A in math, a B in science and a C in weight control.
Obesity advocates like BMI report cards because they give parents and students information they can use to address warning signs before they become problems. Eating disorder advocates hate BMI report cards because they give parents and students ammunition for bullying. What if one of those report cards falls out of your backpack and the other kids see it?
If you’re a school principal, you can’t win. You don’t institute the report cards, you get a call from the the obesity folks. You institute them, you get a call from the eating disorder folks.
The podcast frames it like eating disorders and obesity are equally severe problems. In reality, 5 percent of 13-18 year olds will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives (the number currently suffering from one would be much smaller). Meanwhile, 18 percent of children 12-19 are obese.
No politician would ever say ‘Dropping the obesity rate by 5 percent means increasing the rate of eating disorders by 1 percent, and we’re prepared to do that.’ But that may very well be part of the calculus.
This is where everyone goes ‘Can’t we just reduce one without increasing the other?!’
Maybe. But no matter what, there are going to be consequences. Making sports mandatory in elementary schools would probably reduce obesity, but it would also probably result in further marginalization of disabled or otherwise un-sporty kids. Improving school lunches might draw attention to the kids who can’t afford them.
And so on. I’m not arguing that we should say ‘Fuck the anorexics, full speed ahead!’ or anything, just that there’s no such thing as social change that doesn’t have consequences.
Luckily, it sounds from this podcast like BMI report cards aren’t such a great idea anyway. Most parents already know if their kids are overweight, and telling them that in writing doesn’t magically give them the skills or inclination to do anything about it. But someday, we’re going to find a solution to this. And right afterwards, every principal’s phone is going to start ringing.