Ship Out, Koop
A reaction to the "Shape Up America!" program

by Daniel Davis

Admirable people are a rare and precious commodity in this world. They are particularly scarce in public life. My own feelings toward public figures begin on a solid foundation of suspicion and then generally range from negative to neutral. When a person in public life behaves with honor, I am always surprised and pleased.

I believed former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was a man of honor. As surgeon general, he refused to compromise his principles, even when his positions contradicted those of the administration that appointed him. I did not always agree with Dr. Koop, but I respected him. Most reasonably aware people felt pretty much the same way, regardless of politics.

So when Dr. Koop announced the details of his "Shape Up America!" program, I felt not only angry but betrayed. Public figures sell out all the time, for money or power or fame, but I believed Dr. Koop was different. Either I was wrong, or Dr. Koop's mental faculties are beginning to slip. I hope it's just the latter.

I'm disappointed in Hillary Clinton, too. I never have understood the visceral hatred she generates in so many conservatives. Up until recently, I regarded her as an intelligent, capable woman who just might make a better president than her husband. But now that I've seen her jumping onto the bandwagon of the exploiters and disseminators of fat misery, scrambling for whatever political points she can gain by promoting Koop's "Shape Up America!" program, I believe my earlier high regard may have been misplaced.

What is the "Shape Up America!" program, and why has it inspired universal condemnation from the size acceptance community? According to a press release distributed by the C. Everett Koop Foundation, the campaign will enlist a "broad-based coalition of industry, medical/health, nutrition, physical fitness, and related organizations and experts" which will "focus on the health benefits of weight control as opposed to physical appearance alone, stressing those simple changes in dietary choices and exercise habits that are readily achievable." In other words, "Shape Up America!" will further organize and legitimize the same wretched conglomerate of snake-oil salesmen that has been peddling bigotry, self-hatred, and sorrow to the world in general and American women in particular for the last half-century: the diet/weight-loss industry. The "simple changes in dietary choices and exercise habits" the program will emphasize are already known to be so effective that only 95 percent of the millions who try them are unsuccessful.

Koop's foundation provides a five-point "national action plan to elevate healthy weight as a national priority," calling for:

The last point actually could be beneficial, if the research were honest, but it won't happen in today's tight-fisted political climate. What will happen is that a variety of diet/weight loss industry vultures will cheerfully fund Koop's foundation, just for the chance to use "Shape Up America!" to legitimize their advertising claims and enhance their reputations.

Koop repeatedly refers to obesity as a "disease" which has become "epidemic in America." This mindset threatens the increasing, if grudging, acknowledgement by the medical community that fatness often has a genetic and/or metabolic basis and is not the outward manifestation of a weak character. By suggesting the "disease" can be cured by making "simple changes in dietary choices and exercise habits that are readily achievable," Koop places the blame squarely back on the vast majority of fat people who will be, as they always have been, unable to maintain the "cure" prescribed for them.

This return to the "blame the patient" mentality will have effects far beyond the medical community. It will threaten the few small gains made by the size acceptance movement to date. It will further enhance anti-fat sentiment in the general population. Even worse, it will provide excuses for legislators to vote against anti-size discrimination laws. For all these reasons, fat people and their supporters must fight the "Shape Up America!" program in any way they can.

In my last column, I said our place within the size acceptance movement is dwindling, and I still believe that. But opposing fat bigotry is not only the business of the size acceptance community; it is the business of all people who are fat, or who are attracted to fat people, or who care for someone who is fat, or who just believe everyone among us is entitled to a full measure of human dignity.

You can start by writing Dr. Koop at Shape Up America!, 901 31st Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. You can reach Hillary Rodham Clinton at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20500. Please help wherever you can. We can't afford to sit this battle out. ß