What better way to kick off the forty days of fasting for Lent than preventing restaurants from serving fat people? Representative W.T. Mayhall, Jr., a retired pharmaceutical salesman with DuPont-Merck, proposed a bill to the Mississippi State Legislature whereby restaurants "shall not be allowed to serve food to any person who is obese." Mississippi's obesity rate — the highest in the nation — costs the state's Medicare and Medicaid budget $444 million annually, or $263 per capita.
How will Mr. Mayhall distinguish between the merely pleasantly plump and the truly "obese?" To sniff out would-be offenders of the proposed bill, scales would be installed at restaurants from Gulfport to Tupelo; those with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher would be refused service. According to a 2007 report from the Trust in America's Health (TFAH), this means over thirty percent of Mississippi residents would have a hard time settling down at the local buffet line.
Furthermore, the choice of BMI as the "illegally fat in a restaurant"-benchmark reflects Mayhall's poor understanding of who is truly a heifer. BMI isn't an accurate indicator of obesity as body compositions vary among individuals. Body-fat percentages, calculated by pinching thicknesses of skinfolds or using a small electrical charge (an, oh so, appetizing amuse-bouche), are only slightly more precise. To truly predict potential risk for disease, waist circumference measurement is the best. Therefore, like the salespeople at Victoria's Secret, should restaurant greeters drape measuring tape around their necks, ready to ask party size and waist size?
Besides the humility of size stipulations, does no one else see Grandma's famous prejudice on the scale? I am appalled that a southern state, infamous for its history of discrimination and regressive social policy, would dare propose such a bill. Institutionalized Fatphobia appears to be the twenty-first century's latest brand of hatred written into law. Obesity does not stem from gluttony or merely eating at too many Denny's, but from real problems like poor education and social isolation. It is a serious health issue with sociological and psychological causes. Like trying to hide cellulite with sunless tanning, banning guests from eating out will not cure obesity.
Returning home to Kentucky — home of Colonel Sanders and fried chicken — reminded me that wider girths are as good an indication of lower latitudes as heavier drawls. Dairy Queen, Popeye's and McDonald's are always less than a fifteen-minute drive, but ask for wheat germ, tofu and organic arugula, and you'll be met with blank stares. Weighing Willie Dean and then withholding wings isn't going to stop him from ordering delivery. Answering the door on Friday night, will you be greeted by a pimply-faced fifteen-year-old with a pizza box and scales?
Rep. Mayhall hopes to trim fat from his state's budget, but his proposed ban is not the recipe for success. He might retort that his proposed bill is Mississippi's version of New York City's ban on trans fats at restaurants, but he puts the responsibility on the customer and not the proprietor. However, neither measure will eradicate obesity. Instead of asking who is obese, we need to ask why.