Kenneth Cooper, the godfather of “aerobics” and the frontrunner to become the next Surgeon General, has pitched to the Bush administration the idea of a $1,000 tax deduction for “staying healthy.” Just how this would work we can only imagine: Different tax brackets for different cholesterol levels? Itemized deductions for healthy food? Extra exemptions for dependents who make the traveling soccer team?
In an age when people identify themselves by their health and diet program–and when government has become a national baby-sitter for our well-being–the prospect of a federal war on fat should come as little surprise. The baby boomers, of course, have led this latest crusade, but their sons and daughters have obediently followed suit.
Different diets have become like different religions, each one appealing to the varied needs of the American self: There’s the Barry Sears “Zone Diet”, the Atkins “Protein Diet,” the Richard Simmons “Food Movers Diet,” the Andrew Weil “Spontaneous Healing Program,” the “Sugar Busters Diet,” and, of course, the Monica Lewinsky-endorsed “Jenny Craig Program.” As David Brooks has aptly put it, we are living lives “in the name of our bodies instead of the name of our souls.”
Fighting back are activists groups like “Pretty, Porky, and Pissed Off,” who try to make being fat acceptable, even desirable. They rebel against our health obsession, affirming their equally beautiful, full-bodied selves. Advocates for “size diversity” swarm the streets, the schools, and the courts–pressing most recently to make obesity a disability protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
All the worst elements of the American hyper-culture are here: narcissistic self- affirmation, dependency on the nanny state, and unreasonable claims for the virtue of obesity. On one side, the Health Gestapo wants to ban fast food ads, tax junkfood, and turn Big Brother into our personal trainers. On the other, fat-is-good advocates push for special government assistance, under the questionable guise of furthering equality and ending discrimination.
I do not doubt the wisdom of the move to stay healthy–heck I own a copy of “Enter the Zone” and enjoy an occasional nutrition bar. The focus on health is indeed a welcoming change from the 54 percent of Americans who are overweight. But this quest for health and safety should not come at the expense of higher virtues. Nor is using government to fight Ronald McDonald the wisest use of our resources. Tax cuts should be for people who work, not people who work out. And with many far more pressing questions and crises on the horizon–from human cloning to the AIDS epidemic–President Bush could do better for surgeon general than a national fitness instructor.