Monday, January 16, 2006

Resolute We Are . . . Some Thoughts on New Year's Resolutions

Resolute we are, usually from January 1st, until just about now, right around Martin Luther King Day. Perhaps it is no coincidence that our individual, personal resolve founders just as we're celebrating a holiday commemorating one of America's great heroes—a man who was committed to combating the systemic forces at the heart of so many individual troubles.

Take weight loss. According to 43 Things, the online home of lists and resolutions, losing weight is the all-time top goal of all resolution makers visiting their site. Apparently we are more desperate than ever to fight the putative battle against obesity, a war that supposedly begins at home. But let's think about it. Even if there is an obesity epidemic—an idea which is thoughtfully disputed by fellow-OUP author J. Eric Oliver in his recent book Fat Politics—why would it be that Americans would suddenly be so hefty?

There are social and economic forces at work here. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, for many Americans weight gain is an occupational hazard. Confined as they are to their cubicles for 8 to 10 hours a day, and then in automotive or mass transit commutes of another couple of hours, white collar workers are hard-pressed to fit in the 10,000 steps each day that fitness experts urge we take for maintaining a healthy level of functioning. While some of us are fortunate to live in urban areas like New York City, where shoe leather is still among the commuting options, in most American cities the rise of the automobile, fueled not only by gasoline, but also by state supports for the automotive industry in the form of highway subsidies, has made walking not only difficult, but dangerous.

Then consider our national food supply, laced as it is, with corn syrup, a diabetes- and obesity-inducing additive that is a consequence of the glut of corn on the market. Why the corn glut? Because the USDA subsidizes the cultivation of corn.

Finally there is the matter of sleep deprivation. American working people, in particular mothers (and occasionally fathers) who are working second shifts at home, are chronically sleep deprived. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild (1989:10) writes of working mothers who "talk about sleep the way hungry people talk about food." And interestingly enough, recent research suggests that sleep deprivation can interfere with weight-loss because the adrenal glands in the bodies of the chronically-stressed and sleep-deprived churn out too much cortisol, a hormone that encourages the body to hold onto fat, in case of impending famine.

In reality, the famine is already upon us. On the average American workers are earning less today than in 1972. Don't just take it from me. [To read more, visit Oxford UP's blog . . .]


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why Believe "Self-help's Big Lie"?

Steve Salerno got himself a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed piece on New Year's Day, denouncing self-help culture as a big lie. While he and I agree on some things, we don't agree on others.

Here's my Letter to the Editor that the Times elected not to include in their line-up of responses . . . I guess no one likes to think about the economic underpinnings of the anxiety that sends folks to read self-help books . . .

To the Editor:

Steve Salerno rightly points out that much of American self-help culture is a mass deception. ("Self-help's Big Lie," 1/1/06). But his analysis begs the question of why Americans are hooked on self-help. If Americans aren't just gullible or plain stupid, why are they turning to the likes of Tony Robbins, Stephen R. Covey, and the good doctors Phil and Laura?

The answer is simple: faced with declining earning power (real wages are about 20 percent less now than they were in 1972) and unstable, unpredictable employment opportunities—not to mentioning destabilized families and soaring divorce rates—Americans are searching for answers. Contemporary Americans are not just overworked, they're belabored: they're at work on themselves, struggling to remain not just employed, but ever re-employable; not just married, but also re-marriageable.

Americans turn to self-help culture for advice on how to minimize their economic and interpersonal risks in an increasingly competitive global context. Helping Americans actually minimize these risks is the important work of the sociology, social activism, and social policy that Mr. Salerno so blithely dismisses as "sociological junk food and a culture of victimization."

Micki McGee