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Open Letter to Michelle Obama: Cutting Calories at the Women’s History Museum

Debbie says:

Dear Mrs. Obama,

I wrote to you several years ago when you first announced your anti-childhood-obesity campaign, stating my opinion that opposition to childhood obesity both focuses on a red herring instead of a problem and encourages low self-esteem in all children (and people) who perceive themselves to be fat. I was sorry never to get an answer.

Last week, I was lucky enough to get to visit the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, NY. I was struck by the opening of the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the first U.S. Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848. The Declaration begins:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

I thoroughly enjoyed the museum, though I was sorry to see that it has apparently run out of money. Many of the computerized exhibits were not working, and the display of women’s history from 1993 onward was ironically blank. As a person concerned with body image, I was especially pleased to note some mentions of the way in which focus on appearance has been a hurdle for women trying to find our own strength.

One of my companions, a recovering anorexic, was triggered as well as horrified when she was buying something in the shop and found a handout from the museum entitled in large letters Burn While You Learn (.pdf at the link). I found its focus on calories disturbing and its presence in a women’s rights museum offensive. My friend, on the other hand, experienced it as a direct criticism of herself for having escaped from the near-death state that obsessively counting calories in and calories out caused her some decades passed.

When I challenged the flyer’s presence in a woman’s-rights museum, the woman behind the counter basically shifted the responsibility onto you, which seems fair since the flyer credits your  “Let’s Move Outside!” program. I was able to find at least one other flyer in an identical design on the Internet, which supports her claim. The Let’s Move Outside website, on the other hand, while it mentions calories and obesity in a few places, seems much more focused on what I believe to be the real issues: exercise for every body, healthy food for every body, and positive self image for every body.

Just to be clear about my objections:

1)  No one can calculate to any reliable degree the number of calories a person burns while walking a certain distance, even if you know that person’s weight and the speed at which they walk.

2) To the very limited extent that calorie burning is correlated to weight loss (if you haven’t already, please read the incomparably useful David Berreby article on this topic) these numbers are absolutely trivial, which anyone who has ever counted calorie intake is completely aware of.

3) As my friend’s reaction shows, this campaign is basically shaming; it’s designed to hit people’s–usually women’s–internalized oppression buttons and make us feel like we aren’t moving enough, walking enough, burning enough calories, paying enough attention. Basically, there’s no way this kind of message makes anyone feel better, stronger, or more capable, all of which are markers of both emotional and physical health.

4) It is a travesty to put this kind of message in front of women in one of the few places where focusing on our rights and our power is supposed to take center stage.

A body image rights convention would be well justified in “refusing allegiance to” a campaign with the goal of making us hate ourselves.Please rethink the entire “Burn While You Learn” campaign, and while you are doing so, please have your staff remove the flyer from the Seneca Falls and Waterloo sites.

Thank you for your consideration.

2 Responses to “Open Letter to Michelle Obama: Cutting Calories at the Women’s History Museum”

  1. Lizzie Says:

    I think the museum deferring the responsibity to Michelle Obama and her program is a cop out. They produced the flyer, they chose to post it. The responsibility is theirs. I hope you’ll contact the powers that be at the museum rather than only the woman behind the counter.

    I agree that posting the calorie counts is useless and making the focus “Burn while you learn!” feels shaming. However, if the flyer was simply a map of the park and its trails, including their distances, I think that would have been fine. I would have found it useful.

    We were at a minor league ballpark on Friday night where there were some signs, sponsored by a local hospital, saying that three laps around the field’s walkway is a mile. They had the word “health” somewhere on there but no mention of calories or weight loss.

  2. Debbie Says:

    I agree with everything you say here; I’m happy with distances (in fact, I find them useful). And I think that even if the museum had this forced on them, they could have done something interesting with it if they had cared to do so. Thanks for the suggestion that I send something to the museum, as well as to the First Lady.

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