Sunday, June 14, 2009

social issues: obesity and air conditioning

Obesity may have once been an individual trouble (to use C. Wright Mills' terminology), that was the consequence of individual decision-making and behavior, but today it is a complex social issue that is the result of patterns of modern economic and social life. Mills distinguished between troubles (which were purely individual or interpersonal in origin) and social issues which were created by the structure of society.

The media (as well as the government) has recognized obesity as a social "problem" largely because the many of the costs of obesity in medical expenses and lost work days are born by society. There has also been some recognition of social factors contributing to obesity -- such as the pervasiveness of candy and soda machines in schools. However, for the most part, while recognizing the social consequences, government decision-makers and the media are blind to the social causes of obesity, focusing perversely on individual behavior and individual decisions about food and exercise.

Each semester I use the topic of obesity as a way to engage students in SOC 101 in the sociological imagination (C. Wright Mills); getting them to move beyond individualistic thinking to sociological thinking. Asking them to explore questions about how work, school, transportation, community design, and many other aspects of social life contribute to the problem of obesity. We talk about things such as how the occupational structure of society has changed (away from active blue collar to sedentary white collar work), how the cost of living has changed (from the family wage earned by men, to the dual pay-check family), how the layout of communities have changed(from walking friendly to car-essential designs), and so forth.

This summer term (today in fact) one of my students mentioned something, that caused a proverbial light bulb to go on in my mind. She said that kids today don't want to go out in the heat during the summer. She didn't realize that she was bringing up something that represented a change. Indeed she pronounced this as if it were an unchanging element in American life: indoors was always cooler than outdoors during the summer. I immediately recognized that the relative comfort of indoors and outdoors during the summer months is something that has changed drastically in the past 50 years, and could be an important missing piece of the puzzle for understanding the development of the obesity epidemic during that time.

Practical home air conditioners were developed in the late 1920's, but until forty ago, air conditioning was extraordinarily rare in homes. It wasn't until the early 1970's that air conditioning reached more than fifty percent of American homes (by 1978, only 45 percent of American homes did not have air conditioning). In the 1950's only the most affluent had air conditioning. Even fans, which were made of metal and relatively more expensive were not within the reach of many people.

The need for air conditioning of course varies geographically, but in much of the U.S., sweltering summer heat and humidity forced people, and especially children, out of doors, to seek summer breezes and shade and cooling sources of water. I spent part of many childhood summers in Virginia and a vivid part of those childhood memories is smothering damp heat, and the various ways we attempted to stay cool, with cool drinks and splashing in water (lawn sprinklers, wading pools, creeks and streams). Riding bicycles, roller skating, even running around in the shade of the back yard was cooler than sitting still inside.

The heat and humidity affected how we cooked and ate. Few people wanted to heat up the house even more by using their ovens for extended periods. One also felt less like eating a heavy meal on the hottest days. Of course, in addition to air conditioning, the microwave has changed how we view summer cooking.

Air conditioning has made the indoors far more attractive than the outdoors during the summer for scores of Americans. Coupled with an explosion in fun things to do indoors (computers, video games, Tivo, DVD's) and with the ability to easily microwave highly processed meals and snacks, it is not surprising that there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of obesity in America.