The first stop is Freakonomics, which I read right after it came out. Like the rest of the world, I thought it was tremendously cool, but I was stunned to see the authors refer to a known urban legend — that of Orangejello and Lemonjello — as fact. In her breakdown of similar African-American name myths — think Female, Placenta, Chlamydia, Vagina, Eczema — Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes gets right to the heart of why these stories are so sticky:
Legends of the “kid named Eczema” ilk attempt to reinforce belief in the rightness of racism or regionalism. Just as parables were used in the Bible to communicate in a simple-to-understand form a behavior thought worthy of emulation, racist legends try to drive home the point that the looked-down-upon group is inherently inferior….
The more stories like these are told, the more the message of them is worked into the fabric of the people exposed to them. Hearing the “kid named Eczema” story again and again makes it that much more easy to think of Blacks as less intelligent.
I recall reading (though I can’t find a link right now) that Levitt and Dubner admitted the error, and Orangejello and Lemonjello do not appear in revised versions of Freakonomics. But what I do have a link to is Laura Wattenburg’s quoting of their original justification for including the legend:
Although these names have the whiff of urgan legend about them — they are, in fact, discussed on a variety of websites that dispel (or pass along) urban legends — the authors learned of the existence of OrangeJello and LemonJello from Doug McAdam, a sociologist at Stanford University, who swears he met the twin boys in a grocery store.
Dudes. You went to the trouble of Googling, discovered that these names are indeed “discussed on a variety of websites that dispel (or pass along) urban legends,” and yet, you still believed it was true because you know a guy who swears he met them? For fuck’s sake, THAT’S HOW URBAN LEGENDS WORK. Hey, here’s something for the Freakonomics sequel: my cousin and her boyfriend were making out in a car, when they heard on the radio that an escaped convict was loose in the area…
Wattenburg does an excellent job of questioning Dubner and Levitt’s “analytical rigor” with regard to names. (They predicted, for instance, that Emma and Grace would become mainstream names — “unlikely as it seems” — when both were already in the top 15). In a different entry about the Freakonomics take on traditionally black and white names — the section of the book where Orangejello and Lemonjello appeared — she also blows a big hole the simplistic thesis that giving children “black” names will harm their chances of success.
All “black” names aren’t created equal. Take two examples from Levitt’s “blackest names” list, DeShawn and Terrance. Both may send the same skin-color signals, but they send very different cultural signals. (Just as, say, Beatrix and Shyanne are equally white names that send different cultural signals.) Look at Emily and Lakisha, from the title of the resumé paper. Emily, an old familiar classic, is the #1 name in America; Lakisha, an invention of the 1970s, has never cracked the top 1000. How can you compare such wildly different names and expect a pure reading on the effects of race?
She goes on to talk about other research which suggests that a name’s socioeconomic indicators were, in fact, much more important than the racial indicators:
A name like Dwayne, which was strongly African-American but carried no socioeconomic markers, didn’t affect teachers’ expectations. But a name like Da’Quan, with multiple signals of economic status, did.
The resume study she refers to above involved researchers sending fake resumes with either strongly black names (Lakisha, Jamal) or strongly white names (Emily, Greg) in response to help wanted ads. The white names got a lot more callbacks — and I don’t doubt that racism played no small part in that. However, even in the abstract to the paper (the full version of which I haven’t read), the authors remark, “Applicants living in better neighborhoods receive more callbacks but, interestingly, this effect does not differ by race.”
Much like the “obesity paradox” only being paradoxical if you believe the hype about obesity in the first place, that result is only “interesting” if you’re focused on race to the exclusion of socioeconomic status. The reality is, racism is inextricably intertwined with classism. Prising apart the specific prejudices is tricky, if not impossible, work. And the problem with looking at “black” names without distinguishing between Da’Quan and Dwayne is that the conclusion then becomes, “Don’t give your children black-sounding names if you want them to succeed. Deny your heritage and give them a shot at being mistaken for white at least until they get in the door.”
But would a black woman named Shyanne have any more luck on the job market than one named Lakisha? I’m thinking no. Would Terrance face more discrimination than Kody? Unlikely. Would Shanda Lear have had the same shot at success if she weren’t the daughter of a ridiculously wealthy man? Doubtful. White people name their kids some crazy shit. But if you’re the kind of person who actually believes someone you know met African-American twins named Orangejello and Lemonjello — even after checking it out on the fucking internet — it makes perfect sense that “black” names would be a liability and “white” names a boon, period. You don’t need to think about it any harder than that, because your biases have been confirmed. And so you feel confident telling people that if they want their kids to succeed, they need to give them names that sound “whiter” — not names that sound more middle-class, which might actually help.
Now, for many white people, those biases are probably unconscious. They come from being steeped in the sort of culture in which racist urban legends are passed around just as funny stories; the rules are, you’re not allowed to examine the implications of an African-American woman insisting that “Vagina” is the most beautiful name she’s ever heard, ’cause if you do, you’re a humorless prig. So the story propagates itself, and few people unequivocally call bullshit on it, for fear of being the party pooper. That’s a racist culture at work. And it’s only one small example of the myriad ways in which we’re subtly trained to see certain groups of people as inherently other and lesser, to the point where we start drawing “logical” conclusions about them from false, damaging stereotypes.
Which brings us to our next stop on this train of thought: last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, in which Dubner and Levitt opine about weight loss surgery. Now, before we even get to the part they wrote, I need you to go look at the Magazine’s home page, where the blurb about the article tells us exactly what question the freakeconomists will be answering:
Why do obese people choose a drastic solution for a relatively simple problem?
For real. It says that. Go look. Obesity is a “relatively simple problem,” which is, of course, why the diet industry is flagging, Americans are getting thinner, and the billions that used to be spent on obesity research have been diverted to finding a cure for cancer.
And it only gets better from there!
The thrust of the article is that “bariatric surgery seems to fit in nicely with the tenor of our times” — said tenor being illustrated by the difference between Jeopardy and Deal or No Deal. No, really. Contemporary Americans are brainless and lazy, as evidenced by our choice in game shows, so weight loss surgery is right up our alley.
Where to fucking begin?
How about with the fact that they’re presenting bariatric surgery as a “quick fix” for obesity — casually brushing aside the side effects (“The operation often produces complications — physiological ones, to be sure” is the entire nod to what can go wrong physically, apart from the oh-so-trivial mortality rate), and touting the health benefits shown by “one recent analysis” that’s never named. In fact, the only “expert” who is named is Marc Bessler, a bariatric surgeon. And in a CYA move reminiscent of the “Orangejello and Lemonjello may have a whiff of urban legend about them, but we totally buy it anyway,” they have this to say about relying on Bessler’s expertise:
While asking a bariatric surgeon if bariatric surgery is a good idea might seem akin to asking a barber if you need a haircut — in fact, Bessler does consult for companies in the industry — the data seem to back up his claims…
The data in question then comes from the aforementioned “recent analysis,” and also some “research.” That’s exactly how specific they get when talking about sources other than Bessler, even though the whole point of drawing on other sources is to head off criticism that their information came from someone with a vested interest in selling bariatric surgery. Let’s hear it for intellectual rigor!
And now, I just have to quote:
There are at least two ways to think about the rise in bariatric surgery. On the one hand, isn’t it terrific that technology has once again solved a perplexing human problem? Now people can eat all they want for years and years and then, at the hands of a talented surgeon, suddenly bid farewell to all their fat. There are risks and expenses of course, but still, isn’t this what progress is all about?
On the other hand, why is such a drastic measure called for? It’s one thing to spend billions of dollars on a disease for which the cause and cure are a mystery. But that’s not the case here. Even those who argue that obesity has a strong genetic component must acknowledge, as Bessler does, that “the amount of obesity has skyrocketed in the past 30 years, but our genetic makeup certainly hasn’t changed in that time.”
So the cause is, essentially, that people eat too much; and the cure is, essentially, to eat less.
Okay, let’s start with their understanding of how people get fat enough to be candidates for WLS. You sit around stuffing your face for years, until the “talented surgeon” saves the day. IT’S SCIENCE!
Jesus fucking Christ. Guess what? I’ve been eating all I want for years, and I’m not fat enough to be a candidate for WLS anywhere except Tijuana. The thing about eating what you want in the quantities you want is, you eventually get full and stop. This is what’s called “eating in a non-disordered way.” I swear to god, some people must have learned every last thing they know about fatness from the Mr. Creosote sketch. And too goddamned many of those people have publishing contracts.
Furthermore, as Shapelings are well aware, people with different metabolisms will gain different amounts of weight from eating the exact same things. My belief in genetic setpoints has as much to do with the fact that I’m not very fat as with the fact that I am fat. I come from a fat family, and except for when my father’s on one of his occasional starvation diets, I’m the thinnest person in it by a substantial margin. It’s not because I was raised on different food, or developed markedly different eating habits (except as compared to my sister who actually has an eating disorder). It’s because I got the less-fat genes, just like I got the only blonde wavy hair genes in the family, and my sister M. got the only green eyes. I can eat the same as my brother and non-disordered sister, and I won’t get as fat as they will. I routinely eat more than Al, who’s quite a bit fatter than I am, not to mention a foot taller. I eat WAY more than The Rotund, who’s pretty close to my height and weighs over a hundred pounds more. Etc., etc., etc. You’ve all heard this song before, but apparently some people are still not fucking getting it.
Speaking of genetics, I love how they casually insist that even if I believe fatness is basically hereditary, I must acknowledge that obesity rates have “skyrocketed” in the last 30 years. Um, no, I don’t think I will acknowledge that until somebody shows me proof that the average weight gain has been more than, say, 10 lbs. That ain’t skyrocketing, bub. That’s barely hopping, especially when it corresponds to a gain in height and an aging population. But the “skyrocketing” obesity rates have officially become an urban myth now. Everyone knows we are SO MUCH FATTER, there’s no point in doing something so silly as fact-checking that statement anymore.
Not to mention, even if it were true, I love how they — and practically everyone who throws this myth around — just stop thinking altogether after they conclude that this recent skyrocketing of obesity rates can’t possibly be genetic. No, it certainly couldn’t be genetic, if there were really some astonishing increase in the average American’s weight over 30 years. But, setting aside the fact that there hasn’t been — and the fact that the “obesity” classification is based on BMI — do you really believe it could be caused by millions of people suddenly starting to overeat enough to make the obesity rate skyrocket? All at the same time? For no apparent reason? That somehow, in the late 1970s, Americans were gripped by a form of mass hysteria that made us all start eating like goats? What the fuck?
Oddly enough, people don’t generally think that one through. Americans are getting fatter (so they say), and it can’t be genetic, so the “logical” conclusion is that the cause of and cure for obesity are not a medical mystery: “the cause is, essentially, that people eat too much; and the cure is, essentially, to eat less.”
Boy, thank god Levitt and Dubner came along, because I CERTAINLY DON’T KNOW ANY FAT PEOPLE WHO EVER THOUGHT OF THAT. That tip about hanging a bag of something foul-smelling around your neck and opening it every time you want to eat is super helpful, too — ’cause that’s totally not disordered behavior! Got any other “commitment devices” the pro-ana crew can crib there, boys?
Finally (although I could go on for about a million more pages, so rife is this article with ill-considered statements), the idea that people “suddenly bid farewell to all their fat” after WLS is such bullshit, I don’t even know where to begin. Even the people who do lose weight and keep it off after WLS haven’t found a magic pill that makes the fat melt away; they’ve gone through major surgery that makes them unable to eat normally for the rest of their lives. It’s not fucking quick fix; it’s a lifetime of not being able to process food the way human beings are supposed to be able to, and even then, it doesn’t guarantee weight loss. I fucking love how what this article comes down to is, “Bariatric surgery is totally awesome, but you should feel guilty about having it anyway, because it’s the lazy way out!” Not that you should be wary of having it because it might kill you, or leave you permanently malnourished — you should feel like a failure if you have it, because the hardworking person’s “cure” for fatness is to simply eat less.
Never mind that eating less is what weight loss surgery is all about. Never mind that people turn to weight loss surgery because they are so desperate not to be fat, they will commit to letting someone fuck with their healthy organs and spending the rest of their lives eating ridiculously tiny portions of food, making up for the forced malnutrition with vitamin supplements, all because it might mean taking weight off permanently.
Those people just don’t want to do the hard work of eating less. And/or they just never thought of it and were waiting for a New York Times article to tell them the real cure for fatness has been found! EAT LESS! IT’S THAT SIMPLE!
It’s that simple, but fat people are just too dumb or lazy to follow through. You know what that is, my friends? A myth, if not technically an urban one. And just like the Orangejello and Lemonjello legend, it’s designed to “drive home the point that the looked-down-upon group is inherently inferior.” Dubner and Levitt seem to have a real gift for spreading those around.