The New Scarlet Letter is an O

And it doesn’t stand for Oprah, except during her fat periods. We who have learned to accept, non-judgmentally, ax murderers, prostitutes, and crooked politicians, still feel free to discriminate against and humiliate people whose weight is higher than their IQ.

The use of physical fitness and health as metaphors for moral and spiritual soundness dates back at least to classical Greece. Socrates, for instance, repeatedly compares the struggle for moral self-discipline to athletic training. St. Paul says the same thing, on several occasions. But there is a substantial difference between saying that moral self-discipline is like the efforts required to maintain physical health and fitness, and our current ethos which holds that physical health and fitness are all there is to moral uprightness.

Diet and exercise are the only context in which ordinary people today ever use words like “sin”, “vice”, and “virtue.” While we are reluctant to appear “judgmental” about real moral faults–even those of child-rapers and mass murderers–we rarely hesitate to express our scorn for smokers and fat people. The moral energy we used to focus on the bedroom now centers on the dining room and the exercise room. Recent medical research, indicating that most fat people eat the same kinds and amounts of food as thin people, but metabolize it differently, seems to have made no dent in our disapproval. Neither do the medical findings that many hard-core smokers are genuinely addicted, and have no more control over their behavior than the alcoholics and junkies we are so reluctant to condemn.

So far, no one in our currently burgeoning ethics industry has analyzed this anomaly. My own armchair assessment is that we have set our moral standards extremely low, which makes us feel free to apply them extremely rigidly. A person can have the family life of Caligula, the political probity of Papa Doc Duvalier, and the disposition of Jack the Ripper, and we will at least tolerate his deviations from the moral norm, so long as he is trim, fit and healthy. (Caligula, by the way, was monstrously fat.) But someone with the altruism of Mother Teresa, the intellect of Albert Einstein, the political uprightness of Abe Lincoln, the family life of June Cleaver, and the professional devotion of Marcus Welby–if she also has a weight problem and a smoking habit–will be barely accepted in polite society.

One of the more unnerving results of this superficial morality is the ease with which many child-rapers and mass murderers convince some board of state officials to parole them. Most long-term male prison inmates under 50 are fanatic in their pursuit of physical fitness. It’s easy to keep fit if you have half-decent exercise facilities and nothing else to do with the next twenty years of your life. My guess is that parole board members, like the rest of us, equate physical fitness with moral probity, at least subconciously. The nastier an inmate’s crimes are, the longer his sentence will be, and the more time he will have to achieve the body beautiful. Which may even suggest that a prisoner’s likelihood of parole increases with the viciousness of his original offense. If this fearsome prospect isn’t enough to refocus our moral energies onto real moral issues, we are probably too far gone to be salvaged.

Jane Grey

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