Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How cliches hurt us

What do the obesity epidemic, anorexia nation, and healthy eating all have in common?

They're all cliches, code phrases created by the media. And by "the media" I mean not only the Gray Lady and the Sly Network but small local newspapers, big national magazines, and--oh, yeah--those of us who write and blog about these subjects.

Each of these code phrases contains layers and levels of meaning that never get unpacked. They're like cue balls careening around a pool table, knocking all the other balls out of their way.

When you read the words "the obesity epidemic," you are, in essence, being told what to think and how to think it when it comes to the issue of overweight in America. The phrase itself shapes the way you think about it. If the language were different--if the issue was framed in another way--you might think about it differently.

And this is where I hold the media, and all of us, accountable for the superficial and slick way these deeply important subjects are framed and discarded. Each time yo say the words "the obesity epidemic," you're validating the notion that the nation is in the grip of a contagious pandemic of overweight. If that's what you truly think, you're all set. (I'd like to argue the point. But that's another post.)

But chances are it's not really what you think or what you mean to say. But each time you use that code phrase, you're buying in to someone else's conception of the dialogue. You're letting yourself be co-opted.

It's hard to unpack these code phrases. It's even harder to go against the mainstream, to question the conventional wisdom, to challenge the status quo. But more and more, I think it's crucial that we do exactly that. So next time you find one of these cliches or code phrases flying out of your mouth or tripping off your fingers, take a minute, or five, to consider what you really think. Then say it in your own words.

I'll start: I think the idea of an obesity epidemic is a sadly unimaginative construct that has little or nothing to do with reality. It's a cover for institutionalized prejudice against overweight people, a trigger for eating disorders, and a big waste of our collective time and energy.

Your turn.