Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Personal, The Political & The Policy: Michelle Obama In Ladies' Home Journal

Experts & the White House weight in on First Lady's latest media outing...
First Lady Michelle Obama shares some intimate details about her eating habits in the cover story of the current issue of Ladies' Home Journal, which hit newsstands on Tuesday. It's part of a big print media push for Let's Move!, courtesy of Meredith National Media Group, which is featuring the campaign in the all-important September issues of five different magazine titles, with a promised reach of 60 million readers. That's excellent exposure for Let's Move!, but Mrs. Obama veers into tricky territory as she describes some of her eating habits. Millions of people will get that message, too.

The Fall of 2009 saw a similar multiple-magazine Obama blitzkrieg for health and fitness, when President Obama and Mrs. Obama appeared in four different magazine titles from Rodale publications, with three cover stories. The focus then was on healthy eating and fitness, too, but it's far more developed this year, thanks to the six-month-old Let's Move! campaign.

Personal policy stories...and the vegetable cleanse
Then and now, the First Lady has used Obama family food and fitness stories to send her message, blending personal narrative with policy points. It's become a trademark of the Let's Move! campaign, with Mrs. Obama describing her private epiphanies, her personal habits, and how she interacts with her family to make her points, and to explain how childhood obesity became a critical part of her portfolio as First Lady. The technique is deployed whether Mrs. Obama is giving (somewhat rare) interviews, or making public remarks to citizens, corporations, policymakers, lawmakers. One goal of the campaign was to start a national conversation--and Mrs. Obama has. (Above: At the launch of Chefs Move To Schools, Mrs. Obama explained that the campaign had bloomed from "a few conversations in our kitchen on the South Side of Chicago" into a "major initiative that hopefully will change the way we think as a country")

But in Ladies' Home Journal (LHJ), the First Lady goes deeper.

"Recently I was on a sort of cleanse and I was just eating vegetables," Mrs. Obama told LHJ editor-in-chief Sally Lee. "The cleanses are good for a short period of time. I can't live my life on a cleanse. But they help me clean out my palate. Because when you start adding things like sugars into your diet, you start craving them. And the more you eat, the more you crave...So maybe I'll do a cleanse for two days."

There's also a psychological component:

"It isn't a way of life, because I like food too much," Mrs. Obama added. "But it is good to break your mind-set."

Mrs. Obama told LHJ nothing else about what her cleansing routine involves, but also said that she works out at 4:30 AM most days (although she admits to skipping workouts), and described her fondness for French fries and pie, as well as a recent weekend of foodie indulgence, including pizza and BBQ.

"I ate everything that was available. In fact, we had a take-out food-fest," Mrs. Obama said about the First Family's visit to Chicago over Memorial Day weekend.

Taken together, it sounds as if Mrs. Obama is promoting vegetable "cleansing" as an antidote for sugar addiction and binge eating. The subject is even highlighted with its own special subtitle on the internet version of the story: The Cleanse. This raised a red flag with this writer--and other observers, in part because Mrs. Obama has spent so much time stressing that she's interested in helping Americans develop a balanced approach to eating. The word "cleanse" raises the ghost not only of imbalance, but of extremism. And because the LHJ story is titled "Michelle Obama's New Mission," and is all about Let's Move!, it seems as if cleansing is a recommended part of the campaign, too. It sounds like policy.

The experts weigh in...
"When I hear “cleanse,” I immediately think of things ranging from total fasting, to vegetable juices, to drinks with all kinds of herbal and other weird things in them, to coffee enemas," said nutrition expert Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, and author of What to Eat and other books. "Some are healthful (vegetable juices). Some are not (coffee enemas)."

Dr. Nestle, by the way, is extensively quoted in a story about school lunch programs in Parents magazine, another of the Meredith titles that's featuring Let's Move!. The piece includes an interview with Sam Kass, Mrs. Obama's Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives.

"In any case, the body does not need to be 'cleansed,'” Dr. Nestle said. "The digestive tract takes care of that all by itself by constantly sloughing off the cells that line it and excreting them."

When the LHJ story went live on the internet last week, Jeff Stier, associate director for the American Council on Science and Health, was so concerned about the cleansing comments that he wrote a brief editorial about it.

“So much of what the first lady has said regarding encouraging people to eat balanced diets high in fruits and vegetables has been reasonable and scientifically sound," Stier said when discussing why he'd felt the need to weigh in. "But that she has some sort of ‘cleansing’ routine, while her private business, is something I wish she wouldn't have admitted in the press.”

It's not a practice recommended by the medical community, and thus not something that someone who has a leadership mantle should be discussing, Stier added.

The White House goes on the record...
There were no further details in the LHJ interview about what exactly Mrs. Obama's cleansing routine involves, but when queried, a White House official elaborated. The First Lady's routine involves eating as much fruits and vegetables as she wants, while eliminating fats/oil, dairy, meat, caffeine, sugar and starch from her diet for a few days at a time, to "clean out her system." The cleanses are not medically supervised, and neither the President nor the Obama daughters participate. And Mrs. Obama has been doing this "for years," according to the White House, though she's not necessarily recommending it for others.

When told about the White House clarification, Dr. Nestle pointed to Mrs. Obama's word choice as the real issue.

"The problem isn’t what she is doing," Dr. Nestle said. "Plenty of people eat that way all the time and consider it healthy and normal. Her choice of words makes it easy to misread and mis-translate her remarks as suggestive of eating disorders, food addictions, and other unhealthy relationships with food, which don’t really seem to be there."

Stier agreed. “The first lady wields a powerful pulpit whenever she speaks. She needs to be careful that her words are not misunderstood," he said.

It's a virtual guarantee, however, that at least some citizen readers will be engaging in Mrs. Obama's ill defined cleanse, simply because she said it. And the LHJ readers will not be party to the White House clarification, nor the comments of outside experts.

Personal policies & federal policies...
At the behest of the White House, the First Lady's huge, ambitious campaign is being enacted with programs in federal agencies as varied as the Treasury (with the Healthy Food Financing Initiative) and the Interior (Let's Move Outside, which encourages the use of federal conservation lands for physical fitness), and as obvious as USDA and Health and Human Services.

Mrs. Obama is regularly accompanied by Cabinet Secretaries at public events, which makes her seem as much a concerned Mom In Chief as an activist policy maker herself--which she now is. She's devoted much time to speaking about real policy issues--the need for corporations to trim sugar, fat and salts from processed foods; the need for cities and towns to create communities that foster fitness; the need for changes in federal labeling standards for foods, among other things. Her first-ever Op Ed about the dire need for Congress to pass school lunch legislation that contains improved policy appeared earlier this month in the Washington Post. (Above: Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius joined Mrs. Obama at the Spring Kitchen Garden planting)

All First Ladies occupy a complicated position that is still, after a few centuries, blurry bordered. They're semi-private citizens, not elected, but they often engage in plenty of political activity. Popular first ladies are boons to their husbands' presidencies, and Mrs. Obama has enjoyed stellar poll ratings, routinely rating higher than the President. The campaign to eliminate childhood obesity fulfills many critical parts of President Obama's policy goals, from trimming ballooning health care costs associated with chronic diet-related disease (an estimated $147 billion annually), to helping kids be more competitive in school, to ensuring that America will be able to staff its armed forces with fit volunteers. Mrs. Obama has been sent into the national trenches to ensure all of this happens.

So six months into the campaign, anything the First Lady now says about food is mixed up with policy. Somewhat ironically, this is thanks to the success Mrs. Obama has garnered for the campaign by telling personal, relatable stories. But now the mere mention of a personal eating habit, such as "cleansing," sounds like policy.

Ultimately, however, the discussion of the cleansing--with no further elaboration--seems like a poor editorial choice on the part of the magazine, rather than a mis-step by the First Lady. Who knows what else Mrs. Obama said on the topic, since it's an edited interview? During the rest of the interview, Mrs. Obama stays entirely on message, repeating stories she's told before about healthy eating and fitness. It's also worth noting that Sam Kass (above), who was given the new title of Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives in June, is noted in all the magazines' coverage--and in the corporate press release announcing the five-magazine blitz--and on the companion websites--with his old title, Food Initiative Coordinator. That piece of misinformation alone points to a less than scrupulous approach to editorial issues.

Weighty issues, and eating disorders...
Let's Move! came under fire before it even launched for its potential to inspire an epidemic of eating disorders, and Mrs. Obama, for the first time, discussed eating disorders last month when she held her first-ever Let's Move! live chat on AOL. She announced then that she doesn't discuss weight with her daughters.

"The flip side to obesity can be eating disorders," Mrs. Obama said. "I'm particularly sensitive to this because I have two girls. So one of the things we try to do in our home is not really talk about weight. I try to make it a point not to spend a whole lot of time talking about weight or MY weight, for that matter."

She reiterates this in LHJ:

"I never talk about weight with my girls. I try not to even talk about my weight," Mrs. Obama said. "My girls are preteens and they're seeing their bodies in a whole different way."

But inspiring anorexia is not the only worry--overweight and obesity can arise from eating disorders, too. There's a note made of eating disorders in the Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and one lone eating disorder specialist was at the first-ever White House Childhood Obesity Summit in April. But eating disorders in general are outside the rubric of the campaign. The focus on NOT talking about weight, however, now seems to have become a regular part of Mrs. Obama's rhetoric.

"I’m not aware of evidence one way or the other on whether talking about weight to kids does more good than harm," Dr. Nestle said. "My guess is that it depends on family dynamics. For kids, the family food environment is critically important. If parents have a healthy attitude toward eating and food, the kids have a better chance of having one too. The best thing parents can do is to keep junk foods and sugary drinks out of the home and eat healthfully themselves."

That's exactly what Mrs. Obama is messaging in the campaign, but there's still a niggling problem. A number of studies have found that most parents have a skewed perception of their childrens' actual weight status--and don't identify them as overweight, even if they are. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation--which is a critical partner with Let's Move!--found in a poll included in its F as In Fat report on childhood obesity that the majority of Americans believe that childhood obesity is a “significant and growing challenge for the country"--yet 84 percent also believe that their children are at a healthy weight. How does kids' weight status get addressed, without someone talking hard numbers about weight? This will become more of an issue as the campaign moves forward.

Or not. An often-overlooked feature of the campaign is that it's actually designed to impact babies who are just being born, rather than the current crop of overweight and obese kids. The ultimate goal, Mrs. Obama frequently says, is to solve “the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight.” Changing the health status of the next generation by profoundly altering America's overall food culture is the approach; ancillary benefits for kids who are already obese is, er, frosting on the cake, so to speak. So not talking about weight is perhaps a workable solution.

Eat your veggies...except for beets
The LHJ interview also has a goofy moment that makes Mrs. Obama seem like she has a wickedly good sense of foodie humor. The First Lady dubs beets her "worst nightmare" among healthy foods when pressed by her interviewer, and then proffers a theory about why the nutrient-rich root vegetables disgust so many people.

"I am a believer that there is a beet gene," Mrs. Obama said. "People who love beets love them and people who hate beets can't stand them. Neither the President nor I have the beet gene."

Interestingly, there's not a single mention of the White House Kitchen Garden in the LHJ story; Mrs. Obama has credited childrens' overwhelmingly positive response to the project as an impetus for the campaign. (Above: Mrs. Obama in the Kitchen Garden with a child helper; no beets grow there)

Beet lovers were already shocked last year when it was revealed that President Obama was a beet hater. The First Lady doesn't elaborate on what other healthy foods she dislikes, but she does say that eating vegetables is a rule in the Obama household.

"Mommy swears I am much more strict than she was," Mrs. Obama said, about her own mother, Marian Robinson.

"Our rule is, 'you've got to finish your vegetables.' And if somebody says, 'I'm full,' then it's like, 'Okay, you're full when you're done. But you have to finish your vegetables, and don't ask for dessert," Mrs. Obama said.

As a final note, the articles look far better in the print editions in the magazines than they do on the internet. The websites for the titles are worse than this one, and that's a difficult feat to accomplish. In addition to Parents and Ladies' Home Journal, the other Meredith magazine titles featuring Let's Move! are Family Circle, Ser Padres and Siempre Mujer. White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford has a recipe for healthy Turkey Patties in Family Circle; it's here.

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama
, except for LHJ cover; courtesy of Meredith National Media Group