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Fat City, U.S.A.: Stereotypes meet statistics

By Staff | Nov 24, 2008

They got us again. “They” being that mean old mainstream press that keeps coming to West Virginia for yet another real life horror story.  

This time, we’re monstrously fat, toothless cretins who jar the earth with every step. Fortunately, we don’t walk much. Except for the mayor of Huntington, pictured waddling his way to work on a grim street on a grim day, looking like something out of a scene from Steven Soderbergh’s movie “Bubble,” shot just up the river in Parkersburg.

Poor old soon-to-be ex-Mayor Felinton, who’s not so old, actually. The Boy Mayor of Huntington, elected eight years ago to the post while still a Marshall University student, had his stomach stapled recently and has already lost some 80 pounds. What more do they want, a quart of blood?  

Dr. Harry Tweel, director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, is quoted in Associated Press medical writer Mike Stobbe’s widely published story as saying folks down Huntington way don’t want anybody telling ‘em what to do. They fought all the way to the Supreme Court for their right to smoke in public places (and lost), and Tweel predicts the citizens of the five-county region around Huntington wouldn’t look kindly on any attempt to legislate fat control in local restaurants.  

Forget it, Tweel said, when Stobbe mentioned anti-fat-related food and restaurant legislation in Los Angeles and New York City. The city that hosts an annual hot dog festival and lists more area pizza joints than the entire state’s roster of health and gym clubs must be about its business of attracting, uh, factories.  

Stobbe quotes Tweel, Felinton and Dr. Thomas Dannals, a Huntington family physician, in a litany of familiar observations that set our region apart from much of the United States: a substantial number of people who are fatter than the average American, who, by the way, is also fat; a culture that insists on a cheap, fast diet of salty fried fatty food and sugar drinks, and a hope that a vanished economy based on unskilled manual labor will somehow return.  

The good news for Huntington is that the city is not bad by West Virginia standards. Health professionals there say problems are significantly worse in rural coal counties to the south.  

And we wonder why we suffer from a bad image. Is this a fun house mirror that Stobbe holds up for us, a distortion that plays up some disturbing statistics while ignoring the positives? We can shoot the messenger, but the realities reflected in Stobbe’s report remain.

The question is, what to do about it? Other than wishing to avoid the embarrassment of (once again) being held up as an example of the nation’s most embarrassing excesses, deficiencies and failures, what’s it going to take to create face-saving, butt-saving change?  

For anyone interested in joining the conversation about bootstrapping positive change in West Virginia, start by visiting the Web site www.createwv.com. It’s us talking frankly about how to deal with us. Create West Virginia has ignited conversations all around West Virginia, including in Huntington, where a community development organization has renamed itself Create Huntington.

The pictures on the Create Huntington Web site are a lot prettier than the AP story’s, but nobody’s trying to snow anyone. We have serious issues here in West Virginia, but some of us aren’t waiting for someone else to come along and solve the problems.

It won’t be easy to shake the brand we’ve inadvertently created for ourselves, but it’s time to take a hard look in the funhouse mirror and if the image isn’t so fun, to know we are the only ones who can change it.

Contact rebecca at rkimmons@graffitiwv.com