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Obese West Virginia, with photos (and sorely needed context!)

December 5, 2009

In the November issue of Scientific American, I also ran across a photo which I found striking. (On p. 45, in “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030”.) It’s of a group of miners protesting in West Virginia, and actually serves an as excellent example of why West Virginia consistently ranks high in obesity stats based on unadjusted BMI. I scaled it not to overflow the column here too badly, but you can click on it for a bit larger version.

Miners in West Virginia, holding a 'Go Home Tree Huggers' sign

What do we see here? A lot of people who would be considered burly by most standards, with big shoulders, barrel chests, and rather a lot of muscle; also bear in mind that the average male height here is around six feet, rather than the 5’9.2″ national average. Look at the arms on a lot of these men! Notice that the women in the front row are not small by comparison. A couple of the folks here are chunky for their build, but most of them are not. There are maybe two people visible that, based on experience, I’d expect to have a BMI of 25 or less, possibly including the old lady with her arm in a sling in the front row. I’m not even sure about her.

I was born in West Virginia, and I’d fit right in the photo. As further illustration, I’ll bring forward a couple of GIMPed-up photos from an earlier post, comparing my mom and me to a couple of (Eastern Band Cherokee) The Warriors of AniKituhwa guys:

My mom and me beside a couple of Warriors of AniKituhwa members

Me next to a Warriors of AniKituhwa member of very similar build indeed

Those were cobbled together to illustrate that this type of physique is fairly common among certain groups, and how ridiculous it is to expect women to be remarkably smaller. Things just don’t work that way. (As an indication of basic infrastructure, I was wearing a DDD/E cup in these photos, and it doesn’t look very big with the ribcage and shoulders.) While the dominant culture really does not value this kind of build among men these days, it’s even less acceptable if you’re a woman. My trained reaction to seeing these photos is still to cringe–and point out that I was at least 40 lbs. heavier there, to further distance myself from them–though that’s improving now that I have a better idea what’s behind the shaming.

“Fatness” is used as a major rationale for looking down on whole groups of people these days, no matter their actual body fat levels. It’s really popular to ignore the fact that different groups of people are meant to have different builds. That’s Eurocentrism for you; the rest of the world just doesn’t Measure Up.

What initially caught my eye was–particularly striking, since I’ve been living in Greater London–that most of these folks have a similar build and facial structure to mine, including variations on my “hideous” nose. (No wonder, since a lot of my biodad’s family comes from the WV/KY coalfields.) I don’t see anybody here without high cheekbones and a low nasal bridge. Most of the people shown here could be my family*; some probably are distant relatives. This has also impressed me while spending time in the Big Sandy and Kanawha** drainages.

For fun, here’s another one from that old post, showing me with a couple of members of my paternal family and Thayendanegea (a.k.a. Joseph Brant)***:

Thayendanegea, some of my paternal family, and myself: a comparison

At any rate, the Dread Obesity Epidemic is mostly just a new excuse for hating on us hillbillies. Shame so many of us have internalized this by now, as I know from hard experience.

Additionally, it struck me again that very possibly some of the Horrible Hillbilly Inbreeding stereotypes have come straight from the hoary old “They All Look The Same” perception. We don’t look any more alike than, say, the English do; we just look sufficiently different from them. (This is besides the Carrie Buck factor.) Not to mention a lot of people still keeping close track of genealogy, so they can tell you that somebody is their second cousin once removed–and wouldn’t marry them on a bet, BTW, which is part of the reason for doing it. That might make it look to outsiders like more people in the area are actually related than would seem to be the case if they were completely unaware of the fact; either way, they’re still related!

As for the “Treehuggers Go Home” sign, my take is getting shuffled over to a different post.


* I actually got a bit of an early wakeup call when I went to the Pike Co., KY/Mingo Co., WV area in 1994 or 1995, to help build a Habitat for Humanity house with members of the Appalachian Communities elective I was taking. (I’m still conflicted about the motives there, though mine were probably very different and less condescending than the organizers’.) That’s the same exact area a lot of my biodad’s family comes from, but I hadn’t spent time there since I was a kid. I couldn’t help but notice how many people did look like my siblings or cousins, unlike in the more heavily Tutelo area of the New River Valley where I mostly grew up.

Old ladies kept zeroing in on me to (very politely!) inquire as to who we were, where we came from, and what we were doing (and who I might be related to that they knew): sort of a modern version of the classic “1. Who are your elders? 2. What message did they give you for us? 3. What Clan Mother welcomed you, strange person?” asked of visitors who wanted to speak in councils. Not only was I the only local-looking member of the group, I was also the only one familiar with the social scripts in play, which was kinda their point. In a way I find it galling that it’s such a persistent problem, but in more ways I was glad to be able to give the group rather a lot of good PR: it was obvious that I, at least, was not there to rudely gawk at the hillbillies, and condescendingly make myself feel better by “helping” them.

Particularly striking? The woman whose house we were building looked oddly familiar, and I was trying not to stare at her rudely. Then it dawned on me that she could have been my slightly older sister–and I did not think she was ugly. It really impressed me, realizing just how much alike we did look, and how much appearance-based crap I’d obviously picked up!

** Both part of the Ohio drainage; the New River, which I grew up on, turns into the Kanawha once it gets closer to the Ohio. It all used to be the Kanawha–or part of the Ohio itself, depending on viewpoint (then there’s the old Teays). “River of death”–WTF?! I guess the neighbors just didn’t bother to tell us about that. Or something.

*** My initial reaction to portraits of him was that he was one ugly sucker; talk about projecting internalized hatred onto other people! Come to find out, while Thayendanegea was a Mohawk war chief, his family were Wendat adoptees; he was born in the Ohio Country. A lot of Wendat (a.k.a. “Huron”) also ended up in West Virginia, many along the Kanawha; the influx seems to have affected language in some areas.

BTW, Barbara Mann–herself from a “Grey-Eyes” Ohio Erie/Wendat lineage–has plenty to say about the carefully cultivated myth of Northern Europeans as the world’s only light-skinned people. In (the much-referenced!) Iroquoian Women, she also provides an analysis of the “Fall of Huronia” in which people’s motivations actually make sense.

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