Opinion | Jennifer Graham

Obesity: America’s deepest shame

The fatter we get, the more we fear and loathe fat people. Go, Nathan, go.

Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” ad features an obese boy jogging down a country road.
Youtube screen grab
Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” ad features an obese boy jogging down a country road.

When I was 12, my mother sent me into a convenience store to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola for a party. Taking the money, the cashier looked at me critically and said, “Do you know how many calories are in that?”

Most days, I can’t remember where I put my glasses or the car keys, but that small exchange is seared into my memory forever. As are the times I jumped into a pool and heard someone yell, “Thar she blows.” It’s why I support the death penalty in only one instance: for people who make fun of fat kids. Make all the Chris Christie jokes you want, but the moral law within me, born of a childhood of small torments, says hands off the Nathan Sorrells of the world.

Nathan is the obese boy jogging down a country road in a controversial Nike ad called “Find Your Greatness.” At 5-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he looks terribly uncomfortable, which is how some of us feel watching him. As a country, we don’t know what to do about fat people, particularly when they’re exercising, casting shadows that look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering after Bill Murray.


Our inner bullies want to mock them, to speak of the importance of self-control and discipline. Our inner nurturers want to hand them a cookie. In its famous marshmallow experiment, Stanford University showed that our willingness to withstand temptation has more to do with our prefrontal lobes than the portions on our plates. But Al Franken, in his 1999 book “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” showed there’s always a market for fat jokes, and you’re never too old to be a playground bully.

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Even as America has gotten fatter, so has its fear and loathing of fatness ironically grown. It’s why Romney couldn’t have picked the New Jersey governor as a running mate. Four years of fat jokes wouldn’t do a presidency good. Oprah Winfrey is allowed to be 50 shades of fat, but only because hers is beautifully concealed, and she’s always trying to get rid of it. Our fatness is America’s deepest shame, more troubling than our ballooning debt. Everyone, it seems, knows how to fix Social Security. No one, save Mike Huckabee, seems to know how to fix fat.

They’re trying in Georgia, but the ads running in the Peach State make Nike’s look benign. In a campaign called “Stop sugarcoating it, Georgia,” four children talk to the camera about being overweight. “I don’t like going to school because all the other kids pick on me,” one says. Another faces his corpulent mother and asks, somewhat accusingly, “Mom, why am I fat?” The ads have outraged not only the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, but the mothers of anorexic teens who’re counting calories even more aggressively these days. There are seven words you can’t say on TV, but only one image you can’t show.

On paper, weight loss looks simple. One pound equals 3,500 calories; expend 3,500 calories and lose a pound. What’s so hard about that?

Beats me, and about 12.5 million overweight kids. And the scientists, marketers, dieticians, and shoe makers who desperately want us thin so they can get rich.


The future redeems the past, they say, and if Nathan pulls himself up by his shoelaces and gets fit, he will be another American success story, like Jared Fogel, the Subway guy. Jared lost a lot of weight, and then gained a lot of it back, but, like Oprah, he lost it again. That makes him, in the nation’s eyes, a hero, not unlike the Olympian with the artificial legs. We’re a people of second helpings and second chances, finding our greatness, one marshmallow at a time. Of Nathan and his exploits, give us s’more.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton and the author of “Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner.”