Crime and Punishment

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Michael Felger, a sports radio host in Boston, received national attention last week for his extended rant in reaction to the death of Roy Halladay, the former pitcher who was killed when the plane he was piloting crashed into the Gulf of Mexico.

“It just sort of angers me,” Felger said. “You care that little about your life? About the life of your family? Your little joyride is that important to you that you’re going to risk just dying. You’re a multimillionaire with a loving family, and to you, you have to go get that thing where you can dive-bomb from 100 feet to five above the water with your single-engine plane with your hand out the window. ‘Wheee! Wheee! Yeah, man, look at the G-force on this! I’m Maverick! Pew pew pew! Yeah, man, look at this, this is so cool.’ And you die! Splat! If I die helicopter skiing, you have the right to do the exact same thing I’m doing to Roy Halladay. He got what he deserved.’’

Felger took it too far and he knows it. “In a nutshell, I would say that I feel bad about what happened on a lot of levels,” he said the next day in his on-air apology. “I feel bad about what I said and how I conducted myself. To say it was over the top and insensitive is really stating the obvious.”

However, Felger limited his contrition to the poor timing and distasteful nature in which he communicated his points, but he held firm to his core arguments. “I believe what I believe,” he noted, a sentiment to which he returned over the course of the four-hour show to emphasize that he was not apologizing for his feelings, but only for how he conveyed them.

That is unfortunate, for as much credit as I give Felger for taking responsibility for his tone and tactlessness, going out of his way to double down on his stated beliefs suggests a failure to understand the inherent dangers of condemning someone else for making a choice or engaging in an activity that subjectively feels too risky to the person passing judgment.

Stunt flying, as Halladay was reportedly doing at the time of his crash, is inherently dangerous, but all choices exist on a risk continuum that never quite reaches zero. Every single one of us makes decisions on a daily basis that someone else might deem too risky, but we weigh the pros and cons and ultimately take the risks that in balance feel worth it. Some of us cross busy streets, gather in crowds, work stressful jobs, play contact sports, get behind the wheel, mount bicycles, undergo elective medical procedures, attend protests, testify against violent defendants, and yes, some of us stunt fly. We all draw a line somewhere regarding what we, personally, feel is too risky, but who is to say that our placement is any more right or wrong than where someone else draws their own?

For another example of a choice that could be considered too risky, Felger need not look any farther than the chair next to him. His co-host, Tony Massarotti, elected to pursue a weight-loss treatment plan at a local diet center and pitches the program via radio spots every afternoon. Hopefully he knew going into it that he is unlikely to sustain his lower weight and that weight cycling, regardless of one’s baseline weight, is associated with a higher overall death rate and twice the normal risk of dying from heart disease.

Hopefully, nobody will claim, “He got what he deserved,” if Massarotti dies of a heart attack, yet some do just that. A fervent raw vegan that I used to run against once suggested that we should treat omnivores who die of myocardial infarctions as suicide victims because, in his eyes, their deaths were self-induced by years of consuming cooked foods and animal products. They are shooting themselves, he explained metaphorically, they are just pulling the trigger really, really slowly.

To suggest that people who follow a diet other than his own are killing themselves is to pass quite a judgment, one that is particularly curious since other restrictive diets have their own staunch followers who similarly believe that raw vegans are bringing about their own demise. Ours is the path to salvation, extremists believe, while others are deservedly damned for worshiping another dietary God.

Across the street from the radio station, a related story of crime and punishment is apparently unfolding at New Balance, where, according to someone I know who works there, the company has started measuring employee body mass index (BMI) annually and now charges fat workers more for health insurance than their leaner colleagues.

Perhaps New Balance’s intent is to encourage employee engagement in behaviors subjectively considered healthy and/or to financially demand more of the individuals who are seen as the greatest burden on the healthcare system. In either case, the company is erroneously conflating behaviors, health, and anthropometrics. To charge heavier people more for health insurance is to issue a stiff sentence after an unjust conviction.

The policy is a clear case of discrimination that exacerbates weight stigma and risks worsening the health of fat people, in part by encouraging them to pursue weight loss, sometimes by very dangerous means, in order to be treated, both financially and otherwise, like everyone else. Such a policy also negatively impacts thinner people. One of my patients, the child of a New Balance employee, is working to recover from a restrictive eating disorder and exercise bulimia that were triggered by – get this – a fear of becoming fat. Given how heavier people are treated, including by New Balance, who can blame this kid for wanting to avoid such torment?

The accumulation of insurance payouts for this patient to attend regular and ongoing appointments with me and the rest of the treatment team is certainly expensive. With this child representing just one small twig on the tree that survives on the light that is New Balance’s insurance coverage, perhaps this reprehensible policy will increase, not decrease, the totality of the company’s financial healthcare burden. If that possibility comes to fruition, I will borrow a line from Felger and decree:

They got what they deserved.

David Bowie

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David Bowie and Duran Duran are the only two artists I have been listening to virtually my entire life, and somewhere in an unpacked moving box in our basement sits my tape copy of the former’s Let’s Dance album that I got in kindergarten.

Although I do not care for everything Bowie released, I greatly respected his ability to oscillate between styles so drastically that I was left enjoying only parts of his catalog, as opposed to those of artists whose sound is so consistent that I can accurately base my impression of their body of work on a single song.

His versatility, I expected, would form the basis of the numerous tributes that poured in via social media yesterday as the shocking news of his illness and death became public. While some of them certainly did, several centered around the profound impact Bowie had on many individuals and our culture as a whole in terms of empowerment, self-acceptance, and tolerance for diversity and differences.

Nobody said it better than Richey Rose, a guitarist living in New York City, in the following tribute he posted yesterday:

“I had my Bowie phase a little over 10 years ago, when I was a sophomore in college. I had just gotten my first record player and found Hunky Dory at Pop’s (best used record store in my hometown of Lexington, KY). Of course I’d always known Bowie, especially because I’d just gone through a massive Velvets/Warhol/60’s & 70’s NYC discovery the year before… but that record was my first effort into becoming properly acquainted with him as an artist. Needless to say it opened Pandora’s box. I became obsessed and fully engrossed in everything he’d done. A friend gifted me an original pressing of Ziggy and I promptly wore it out; teaching myself all the guitar parts along the way. YouTube was just starting and there were interviews, videos, concert footage – it was my own personal archive into David’s creations and contributions to the world. I was beyond inspired. I’d always been self-conscious about being too skinny, too ‘pretty’ if you will, and had grown up being mercilessly teased because of it. Bowie was literally the first artist/person/thing to make me feel strong and powerful because of my body instead of feeling the total opposite, which I’d done for so many years before. I thought he was a total fucking badass; I thought he was God. Reading everyone’s stories today I realize that Bowie touched EVERY one of us on so many different levels… but not just musically. Sure his records taught me an invaluable amount about songwriting, melody, production, etc. but furthermore Bowie inspired and forever changed my perspective on life. For that I am eternally indebted and grateful. There’s certainly a bit of Bowie inside us all… RIP.

The bold face used above was my own doing in order to emphasize the passage that I expect most universally resonates and relates to our work as dietitians. Joanne and I do a great deal of activism in the size acceptance movement because on a daily basis we see the consequences of people living under the oppression of weight stigma: eating disorders, shoddy medical care, failing weight-loss pursuits, bullying, weight cycling, disordered eating, and other conditions, approaches, and consequences that only serve to worsen health, not improve it.

In an era when another celebrity gained our trust only to abuse it and built us up until it was personally and financially advantageous to tear us down, Bowie’s lessons of acceptance and being true to ourselves juxtapose in even greater contrast and feel that much more important to reinforce. No matter which Bowie era is your favorite, whether you are a Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Scary Monsters, Modern Love, Heart’s Filthy Lesson, Reality, or Lazarus fan, or even if none of those are your cup of tea, we can all recognize that he impacted our world in a way that extended well beyond his music.