American right-winger Rush Limbaugh recently suggested on his radio show that Michelle Obama is not only hypocritical but fat. Hypocritical because while lecturing Americans to eat more veggies, she apparently ate ribs (well, it turns out, one short rib) on a ski vacation with her children.
And fat because, as Mr. Limbaugh absurdly put it about the woman with the kind of chiselled upper arms that most of us would kill for, "the problem is - and dare I say this - it doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice." Huh?
However ridiculous and politically bankrupt Mr. Limbaugh's words were - attacking a powerful woman on her looks means not that you're at the bottom of the barrel, but that you've fallen right through it - it is clear that the American first lady's vigorous anti-obesity campaign, aimed at improving children's nutrition in one of the fattest nations on earth, is getting up more than a few noses.
Elsewhere, a nasty cartoon depicted a hefty Ms. Obama scarfing down burgers, and telling her husband to "shut up and pass the bacon."
The truth is that people of all political persuasions don't like to be told to do what's good for them, especially when they yearn to do the opposite. Or, as my husband says, "people like to eat crap."
Yet these days, food nannies are everywhere. As statistics confirm we are just getting bigger, we now receive daily bulletins from multiple anti-obesity fronts, government-directed and otherwise, ruining our movie popcorn fix, making us feel guilty about every French fry or sweet-potato chip we put in our mouths.
Sometimes, our dearest friends go all healthy and superior on us. One of mine, who just lost 20 pounds after going on a vegan diet to lower her cholesterol, keeps regaling me with her adventures in kale. Since we are going to be side by side in bathing suits this summer, I enthusiastically write kale on my shopping list. But I never seem to buy it.
For many of us, how and what we eat has become a fully internalized struggle. I can't remember the last time I sat in a restaurant and didn't mull over the calorie count of what was on the menu. Occasionally I look over at the next table and think, "They don't seem worried about what they are eating. Why am I?"
My dinner plate at home looks the way experts say it should, with three quarters of the plate covered in vegetables. Apart from the occasional splurge, I don't eat cheese, and a croissant hasn't crossed my lips in a year.
But I haven't lost those 10 pounds I need to, not even close. So is all this anti-obesity information even aimed at someone like me? I doubt it, and yet I'm the one who feels the moral smackdown, the sense of failure if I give in to the few vices I have left. (That would be chocolate, or any artisanal bread.)
In light of this, I wonder how someone who eats fast food three times a week or chugalugs soft drinks must react to the news that they are nutritional criminals. The obvious answer is they don't listen and they don't care. One of the more telling undercurrents of this food fight is the socio-economic element - the poorer people are, the poorer food choices they make. Cheap fast eats are almost never nutritionally sound.
And fast-food empires are, in Orwellian ways, continuing to convince the public that eating their terrible food is good for them. As food expert Mark Bittman bitingly pointed out this week in The New York Times, that "bowl full of wholesome" oatmeal you can now buy at McDonald's is such a nutritional sham, that if you opt instead for a sausage biscuit (as they expect you will), "you won't be much worse off."
That is where the outrage should be directed. Nothing is sadder to me than the proliferation of overweight kids I see on the streets. It used to be that most kids looked the same - wiry and fidgety, with bony knees peeking out from shorts in the summer, and snowsuits making them look adorably padded in the winter. Now you can see padded kids in summer and it's not adorable. And in every mall, kids sit in the food court, shovelling in junk.
So Michelle Obama's campaign to change children's eating habits is such a worthy no-brainer that it shouldn't be challenged by anyone, let alone an unsvelte loudmouth like Mr. Limbaugh. She has never said you can't indulge yourself occasionally and have a rib or two.
Whether she succeeds in making a difference is another matter. But I will say this: There isn't anyone I know who isn't at least aware of how they could improve their diets, and most have, in some way, improved the way they eat.
In fact, we may be at the tipping point of a long incremental battle, not dissimilar to the anti-smoking campaigns that took years to convince people to give up nicotine.
In other words, hectoring works. Shut up and pass the kale.