By Lance Tapley
The Anti-Fan Blogger

The corporate subversion of the body

When our twin boys were teenagers in the 1990s, and when our youngest boy was a teenager in the 2000s, they strongly protested walking the mile to and from school. Walkers were “losers,” one of them told me. Their peers had induced this raw expression of the anxious sexual competition of adolescence amplified by the anxious materialism of American society.

I reminded our sons that they were competitive runners, mentioning the Kenyans who rout Americans in distance running; they don’t ride, they run to school. Against the status mythology of my sons’ peer group, however, my arguments went nowhere.

In last month’s blog, I posed a question: How can we reverse the damage wrought by the American sports system on mass participation in sports? I suggested how difficult this reversal would be to bring about when the commercialism of sports, including the promotion of the creature known as the fan, is part of a profound commercialization of the entire society.

A question about how to increase mass participation in sports, however, is subsidiary to another question: How can we have a more physically fit population? To answer it, once again we have to look at the immense power of marketing over our lives. Those with their hands on the levers of this power, of course, are the big corporations. They have subverted not only our minds but also our bodies.

This subversion includes the reorganization of daily life on an enormous scale. The automobile has been a principal instrument of this reorganization.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, the auto already drove much of personal life, but it was far less important than it is now. Then, for example, it was culturally expected that kids would walk to school or walk around the small Maine town where I grew up. Rich kids had cars, but most young people never thought of using the family car on a daily basis or of asking to be driven here and there — a Maine winter notwithstanding.

Even as recent as the 1980s, our oldest son never thought of asking to be driven to school in the morning — even when he was going to be late. And my wife and I never thought of taking him!

Two decades brought big changes. When our youngest son was a senior in high school we had a discussion about why we wouldn’t let him have a car. In our kitchen-table “research” on the subject, we asked him to make a list of his 20 closest friends. Then we asked who had a car. To my surprise, every one of them did. Most of these kids came from families far from rich. Even the poor kids had a car; they worked 20 to 30 hours a week at fast-food joints to pay for them.

The automobile has reorganized society so much that many, if not most, people live where they must use a car to go to a job, to shop, or to see friends. The car is not just a vehicle, it’s a way of life. This is not news, and most of us have been willing accomplices. But some of the serious consequences of this way of life have only recently become widespread and recognized.

When I arrive at the supermarket parking lot in the winter, the teenagers’ pick-ups, SUVs, and scabby sedans are idling in a small pack. While outside it may be five degrees Fahrenheit, inside the vehicles the heaters blast away, allowing the kids to dress only in jeans and T-shirts, which constitute the winter teenage uniform even in Maine.

The kids bounce to the radio, drink cola, eat potato chips, perhaps smoke. A metal, glass, and plastic capsule separates them from the natural world, as if they were in a spaceship, and it will help separate them from a healthy, strong body. In 2011 a University of Illinois study found that the stupendous growth in obesity in America tightly tracked the growth in passenger automobile use.

Automobiles are physical technological capsules. These kids are also in a mental technological capsule, the television world. And the TV and the car are related. As I look at the kids in their cars, TV commercials for fast cars and fast food flicker in my imagination. TV watching also strongly correlates with obesity. These young people will spend their lives in cars and in front of screens — getting fat.

As for younger kids, no longer do they play much outdoors with their friends, according to the surveys. Free, shared, outdoor play, including free outdoor sports, has lost the battle to TV and to other forms of market-driven entertainment — especially, now, to a seeming infinity of other electronic devices.

These developments are not a corporate cabal’s devilish plot hatched in a Madison Avenue boardroom in 1945. They are parts of a complex commercial system in which there are, not incidentally, attractive public benefits such as an abundance of entertainment, great access to information, and instantly available transportation.

But the benefits come at tremendous costs. Many social costs of the automobile and TV have long been described, but the replacement of children’s shared outdoor play by the purchase of elaborate toys for increasingly isolated indoor play is a very recent, poorly appreciated change in American life. It is not merely historic. It occurs on the biological scale.

This particular development may have many consequences. For one, it already is contributing enormously to the obesity epidemic. By 2030, according to a Duke University study, 42 percent of the population will be obese (it’s 36 percent for adults now), not counting those who will be merely overweight (traditionally, about as many as are obese). I won’t go into the frightening predicted growth in health-care costs — or of the sheer human misery involved.

So what should we do? We are told: Eat less! Exercise more! Idealistically and from the perspective of elementary physics, the transformation appears simple: fewer calories in, more calories out. To consider only the exercise factor in this equation, Americans receive constant exhortations to walk, run, bike, go to the gym, and otherwise exercise.

But these exhortations have been made for decades, and our increasing poundage demonstrates that they don’t work. This conclusion is backed up by social science. A 2011 Cochrane Collaboration review of studies on “community wide interventions for increasing physical activity” found it wasn’t possible to determine what might work. Some of the better studies “showed no improvement in measures of physical activity.”

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed initiative to reduce obesity in the Bronx through exhortation, education, and access to healthy foods is just the latest failed campaign. The campaigns seem pathetic against the power of the market society.

For sure, exhortations work with some people, especially if they have the money to buy what amounts to intensive coaching. Still, many individuals who regularly exercise often engage in ironies that demonstrate our economic system’s comprehensiveness: They drive long distances in order to run or bike. They buy expensive equipment to get in modest shape. To take off pounds, they pay high fees to fitness clubs and weight-reduction programs.

The irrational idea that you have to pay money to lose weight and be fit, though, is now widely accepted. But when buying too much food and paying for the use of a car make you fat (the average American pays, roughly, 60 cents a mile to drive), it should be obvious that it’s less expensive to be thin!

Against this totalitarianism subverting our bodies — close to $200 billion a year is spent in the U.S. in direct advertising alone — is there any hope? Well, the predicament is even worse than what I’ve described in two blogs. I’ll hit an ultimate low note in my next blog. Finally, though, I’ll also suggest a way out of this mess.

Email me at [email protected].

Lance Tapley is a guest blogger for League of Fans and a freelance reporter based in Maine.


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