I received the most ignorant e-mail today from an unenlightened buffoon of a high school physical education teacher in Overland Park, Kansas. She made the decision to call widespread negative attention to one particular slice of her school's student population: the fat kids.
Nancy Hopkins wants to create a "legacy" for herself -- humble soul that she is -- and she's doing it in the context of spreading outdated assumptions about health and the human body, all while further advancing weight stigma. And she wants ME to contribute.
She wants to open a school gym, but she doesn't seem to give a damn about all the thin kids routinely wolfing down those McDonald's two-cheeseburger value meals, or having bags of Fun-Yuns for breakfast. Apparently, as far as Hopkins is concerned, those kids can go to hell. This is about making a big splash, and therein, the skinny kids can't help her.
Hopkins wants to be remembered as the General Patton Phys-Ed teacher who came down hard -- oh, but benevolently so -- on those clearly flawed fatties. Never mind how they got that way, or how their body weight affects them in actuality, or what it does to their tender young psyches to be magnified and branded a capital-p-Problem like a bunch of crooks, or some red-handed old pervs being converged upon by multiple NBC camera men and Chris Hanson.
Meanwhile, the lanky sweet talker with his hand in a bag of Chips Ahoy gets to be teacher's pet. Because at least he looks like the pop culture ideal of pretty.
Never mind it all. Because Hopkins is on a mission to solidify her legacy in Kansas education -- so fast and furious, she can't even think straight.
Hopkins' goal to provide cardio equipment for students and teachers, to the disabled and autistic, and to the injured athlete are all well and good. But I smell plain old-fashioned bigotry here, because she's chosen to frame the whole thing -- in fact, open her entire e-mail plea -- with the proclamation that she, personally, is declaring war on fat kids.
(As a side note, I often wonder if all the fat people in the world successfully got thin, who would people like this turn their hatred on?)
People like Hopkins who are in a position of empowerment and influence over our children, as well as those in positions of even greater influence (like class A-asshole Toby Cosgrove of the Cleveland Clinic who thinks denying fat people employment is a benevolent way to promote wellbeing), need to be held accountable for the ignorant and often prejudiced beliefs by which they operate.
Somebody's got to do it.
So below is Ms. Hopkins' e-mail to me, and my response to her. Enjoy!
From: Nancy Hopkins <email@example.com>
Dear Ms. Brittingham,
I am a Physical Education teacher with 38 years experience and know the value of being physically fit. I’m waging a personal war on Obesity among our teens in my school. I am trying to come up with funds to create a Cardio Fitness Center in my school. Unfortunately, our funding isn’t able to help me accomplish this. So to do this, I am writing to celebrities in all areas of sports, entertainment and politics and asking for donations. This is my plea for a donation of an autographed photo, an autographed book/books, a piece of autographed memorabilia, artwork script, or a donation of your choice to my cause. In summer 2011, I am going to hold a celebrity auction with all the proceeds going to purchase additional equipment for the Cardio Fitness Center at my school. My vision is to have a place where kids can go and get a workout, hopefully generate interest in more students taking a Physical Education class, a place where athletes can speed along their rehabilitation of injuries, and a place for the faculty and staff to exercise after the work day that doesn’t cost them a membership fee. I currently have raised enough money for 19 pieces of equipment, but my goal is to purchase 32 pieces of equipment. (treadmills, rowing machines, ellipticals, Spinning bikes, etc. ) I currently have nineteen pieces of equipment purchased with donations from local citizens.
Free State High School has a pretty good number of handicapped, severely/multiply handicapped students, plus an excellent autism program. I want to provide a place for them to get exercise also and this is my solution. It was my plan to own my own gym upon my retirement, but I went bankrupt helping my sister pay medical bills and that isn’t going to happen. Therefore, I want to leave this as my legacy if I ever get the option to retire and would sincerely appreciate your help. Anything you are willing to offer will be graciously accepted. Thank you in advance. Here is a link to a story in our local paper about my project when I started last year. http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2011/apr/29/free-state-volleyball-coach-collects-memorabilia-p/)
Free State High School
4700 Overland Drive
Lawrence, KS 66049
Dear Ms. Hopkins:
I believe in physical fitness. I engage in exercise on a regular basis, continually improving my cardio health by setting – and surpassing – my goals of longer and longer periods of activity at my maximum target heart rate.
If you’re as purposeful and mindful in your cardio exercise as I am, then you’re already aware of the rewards. In fact, I just had my annual physical yesterday and my physician complimented me on my strong and healthy heart.
However, as one of the “obese” against whom you are waging war, I don’t feel strongly compelled to come to the aid of your cause. It is misguided people like you, all-too-easily lulled into believing the media hype about the evils of fatness (planted there by the multi-billion-dollar weight loss industry) who do the most to make people unhealthy and unhappy – particularly children and teens.
Waging “war” on obesity drives millions of people unnecessarily into weight loss centers, where they think they’re engaging in some high-minded form of preventive maintenance. The ten pounds they might shed this summer will bounce back next year, bringing an additional ten pounds with it. In twenty years, they will be one of your obese casualties.
Declaring “war” on body fat sends young girls to their mirrors (not to their homework, not to the soccer field) where they scrutinize their normal, healthy bodies and develop psychological distractions that too often result in eating disorders that kill.
In fact, creating any kind of “war” in the world does nothing to put anyone at peace. And inner chaos is far more deadly than a fat ass.
You’d be doing more to advance the health of your unfortunate students by encouraging physical activity in all teens across the board, regardless of body size or shape. Regardless of how that activity may or may not affect one’s body size or shape.
One thing you’ve clearly failed to understand is that obese people can be quite strong and healthy underneath their fat, and slender people can be walking time bombs of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more.
When you send out an e-mail to hundreds of people declaring “war on obesity”, you are spreading outdated assumptions that have more to do with the bubblegum messages of beauty magazines and sleazy commercials for Lipozene, than with legitimate science and impartial studies not funded by Jenny Craig. You really should correct that before your reputation as an educator takes an irreversible hit.
Very truly yours,
Now. Have you all seen "Witness"? I love that movie. Remember the scene where one of the bad guys gets corned to death in old man Lapp's grain silo?
If some rotten kid flicked a piece of dry corn at you some fine autumn day, you might sound like a real wimp running to your mommy and crying that "Joey Blackheart threw a KERNEL at me!" When your mother stopped wondering where she went wrong, she might send you for psychotherapy. If she was hip like that.
But as lessons from the Amish have taught us, many little kernels all piled together can have a devastating effect.
So it is with words and the convenient social memes they're used to spread.
Words are powerful things. Used in reckless repetition, they can create waves of dramatic change within a generation. They can spawn campaigns of genocide. They can turn us into Kool-Aid guzzling cultists.
I heard back from Ms. Hopkins. She wanted me to know that she has a PhD in Biomechanics, and that "you seem to be hung up on the wording of my proposal ("waging war on obesity"). So be it."
Why am I picking on Nancy Hopkins?
I'm picking on Nancy Hopkins because she's a kernel in the education system who's teaching our kids to discriminate against people with certain kinds of bodies -- my kind, actually, which is where it gets personal. And she's decided to go public with her message and is even using it to collect money. (For her legacy.)
Her e-mail was unsolicited and personally offensive, and all's fair in love and war. You remember "war", don't you Ms. Hopkins?
Ah, but words are just words. "So be it," she writes dismissively.
There were times in the not-so-distant past when Americans said things about specific groups of people that were based on hatred and ignorance. To join in on the nasty jokes was considered sporting, even good manners. And those same jokesters, when it came down to brass tacks, made decisions that made it difficult for some of those people to feel safe, make friends, get jobs, or even love openly. The beliefs gained popularity through words, and cute lil' catchphrases like "war on obesity" -- which delivers the inherent message that to pit the thin "us" against the fat "them" is the morally correct thing to do.
Men in handlebar moustaches used to stand around well-appointed drawing rooms in sophisticated Eastern cities, swirling brandy and accepting as fact that black men and women were closer to beasts than humans. (Some men in deep woods aluminum shacks and C Street townhouses still do.) But thank God most reasonable people rejected that idea, so the popular belief today is that among all shades of human beings, there are both animals and visionaries. Just as among all people there are those who are fit and healthy, and those who are not -- and the unfit don't dwell exclusively among the fatties.
Whether or not Ms. Hopkins wants to own up to it, she is part of the problem of size discrimination in this country. She contributes to it and perpetuates it. Like so many other tiny kernels of all-American corn, she has conveniently dismissed herself from any responsibility in the spreading of bias and ill-will. Like so many other foot soldiers in the war on population X, she isn't doing anything wrong. If there's any real damage happening here, the blame is on somebody else. Not her. All she did was throw some words around. The same words that all the other cornballs are using. Because it's easier than stopping to think. She'll comfort herself in the belief that her greater mission cancels out any careless use of language of which she may be guilty. Surely, it's over-sensitive nuts like me who are the problem, getting all hung up on words. So be it.
And meanwhile, the war rages on. Millions of people made to feel like outsiders in their own homes. In their own schools. Millions coerced into diets that are destined to fail, and onto operating room tables where their criminal bellies are butchered, their health permanently ruined -- and for the part of the fat person, it's all in a heartbreaking attempt to outrun the searchlights of the Gym Teacher Hopskinses of the world.
And so, to anyone who's thinking of volunteering for the war on obesity, and arrogantly suggests that exclusion, or ostracism, or negative attention, or forced marching, or casual insults, or psychological torment are kind things to do for anyone else's good, you need to think before you speak. Because every kernel you spit from between your teeth is ballistic. And some people don't like the way you're throwing that thing around.
When you declare war, you shouldn't be surprised when your chosen enemy defends itself.
Author of Read My Hips (May 2011, Random House)