About a month ago this video of Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was released onto the internet.
The video is not a lecture on physics as on might expect from someone who is perhaps the most famous scientist alive today. Instead, it is a video decrying the horrors of the “obesity epidemic”.
Vague statements are made about the dangers of being overweight or obese. I’m not going get into the science of health and weight. It’s complicated and contentious. I’m an academic in the humanities in no small part because of my total lack of aptitude for science.
Instead, I am going to look at the choice to use Stephen Hawking as the spokesperson for this message and some of the claims he makes in the video.
Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the most intelligent people on the planet. This reputation tends to give him a great deal of influence. This is a problem. I’m not saying he isn’t extremely smart but a high level of intelligence does not translate into expertise in every subject. Stephen Hawking is not a medical doctor. His presence in the video serves two purposes.
- Using this veneer of expertise to lend credibility to the message in the video.
- Using the image of his disabled body as both metaphor and threat.
In the context of the claims of this video Stephen Hawking does not, in fact, know what he’s talking about. Obesity is framed as primarily an issue of laziness. A problem that could be easily fixed if people only had the strength of will to exercise and eat better.
The reality is far more complicated. Access to healthy food and exercise are not necessarily easily attainable.
In order to eat healthy food, you need to be able to both have access to it and be able to afford it. This is a major barrier for many people living in poverty.
Not being able either access or afford healthy food is not a=actually evidence of laziness.
Similarly, people need to have access to safe and effective exercise. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter,
I hate that no one will notice that he’s never lived somewhere that’s too dangerous to let ur kids play outside (link)
It’s not always as simple as just getting out and walking.
Then there’s the issue of time, depending on issues like work schedules, parenting, and housekeeping. Finding time to actually exercise can be difficult for many and none of the reasons come down to laziness.
These issues are additionally complicated if, like Hawking, you happen to be disabled. Access to healthy food isn’t just an issue of cost and availability. There is also the issue of physical accessibility of the food.
Access to exercise can be even more limited.
In the video Hawking says “And for what it’s worth, how being sedentary has become a major health problem, is beyond my understanding.”
Some possible answers are increased mechanization requiring less human involvement, more work that is heavily based around computers, etc. None of these things are inherently caused by laziness but rather the adoption of technology without considering and planning for the consequences of a widespread shift to more sedentary work.
Add that to issues of poverty and you have the makings of a widespread socially constructed and maintained problem where people don’t have access to healthy lifestyle options.
It’s an issue that won’t be fixed by labeling the issue one of laziness and trying to shame people who very well be unable to change their circumstances.
None of these concepts are I expect beyond Stephen Hawkings ability to grasp but then he’s a cosmologist and not a social scientist.
Then there is the issue of using Hawking in a video decrying a sedentary lifestyle at all. He is after all paralyzed from ALS. The video uses this and it horrifies me that Hawking let them do it.
He is shown immobile in his wheelchair opining about the laziness of others. The unspoken message is clear “how dare you lazy people choose to be sedentary, I don’t even have the choice”.
He’s used as an odd and ultimately false morality tale. Even if access to healthy food and exercise weren’t more complicated than the video lets on, ALS is a genetic condition which is not caused by diet or lack of exercise.
Yet, people are supposed to look at him and see a horrifying alternative life. They’re supposed to decide not to waste the opportunity to move because some people can’t.
This message entirely relies on the widespread adoption of the idea that a life with disability is one that is not worth living. That is a big problem that extends beyond Hawking and his personal views on his quality of life.
Stephen Hawking in this video is not just speaking for himself, he is exploiting stereotypes about the disabled experience and presenting them with all the power of his influence and reputation.
Disabled people have been thrown under the bus to promote exercise before. It often positions the idea of disability as a threat. The thing that will happen to you if you don’t exercise. Things like this position disabled people as outside the human experience because it both dehumanizes us by turning us into the monster that will destroy you because you didn’t eat your vegetables or go for that run.
As a result of being artificially positioned as the outsider, it both ignores the unique difficulties disabled people face while trying to access exercise. It also frames disabled lives as ones that are not worth living.
While that may be the belief of some disabled people, it is not the opinion of all of us (not by a long shot). The problem is that nondisabled people don’t see or hear that often enough. Getting that message from Stephen Hawking gives it more weight than it deserves.
Exercise and eating healthy is good for people. Now if only people with as much influence as Stephen Hawking could better understand the big picture of the social causes of why people don’t then maybe we could move away from the obesity shaming and blaming rhetoric which will I assure you, not fix the problems of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.
I also wish people would stop using disability as a threat or misplaced morality tale to advertise healthy lifestyles. Disabled people deserve to be treated better than that and I for one would actually like to be considered as part of humanity when they actually start coming up with real solutions to the lack of access to healthy food and exercise. An inclusion that is unlikely if I and other disabled people are positioned not as members of the community who face issues of access to healthy lifestyles choices but as the bogeymen representing the perils of noncompliance.