Embodying America in 2021
Y'all ever have the experience of reading something and being unable to figure out what it means? When I was reading George Packer's Atlantic piece, "How America Fractured Into Four Parts," and got to the part about Democrats and Republicans in pre-1970s America, this jumped out:
The two parties reflected a society that was less free than today, less tolerant, and far less diverse, with fewer choices, but with more economic equality, more shared prosperity, and more political cooperation. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats played important roles in their respective parties. Americans then were more uniform than we are in what they ate (tuna noodle casserole) and what they watched (Bullitt). Even their bodies looked more alike.
Bolded emphasis mine. As I read through the read of the piece, I kept searching for passages that would identify the divergent morphological traits of the four Americas.
Imagine if the four Americas were Artsy Robot, Time Traveler, Fancy History Lady and Wig-Wearing Mad Professor.
Were we about to see an Eloi vs. Morlock dichotomy in an exciting shout-out to H.G. Wells? Would there be a nod to class-linked appearance a la Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's The Sum of Small Things, when she writes of the Bar Method-taking cohort:
If one has the time and money to attend cardio barre classes several times a week, it does start to show. As the New York Observer less than delicately put it, women who attend these classes do look physically different from their non–barre workout class attendees. So merely by picking up coffee, stopping at the grocery store, or going out to dinner, those who attend classes at Pop Physique, Physique 57, The Bar Method, or any permutation of cardio barre class, reveal their conspicuous leisure by simply living their lives.
Alas, Packer is so busy sorting the American population into Free Americans, Smart Americans, Real Americans and Just Americans, he never gets around to explaining how our bodies reflect these four American personae.
The question persists. How are American bodies diverging?
We know wealthy people exercise more. The Economist reported this in 2015, noting that Americans in the top income quintile took nearly six times as much weekly exercise as Americans in the bottom income quintile. That dramatic gap closed in a 2017 study on exercise published in the Journal of Preventive Medicine, which analyzed accelerometer data and found that individuals earning at least $75,000 annually were 1.9 times more likely to meet physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous workout over a week when compared to individuals making less than $20,000 annually. In 2018, the Washington Post added, "States with higher percentages of people in managerial and professional roles, which tend to pay more money, have higher rates of physical activity."
You really couldn’t ask for a better illustration on wealth and exercise …
We also know that the United States grapples with pervasive food insecurity, and that food insecurity is linked to income level (low) and obesity rates (high). Food insecure adults have a 32% higher chance of obesity compared to food secure adults; researchers are studying what they call the "food insecurity-obesity paradox" to determine why this is so. Of the states with the highest rates of food insecurity in the country -- New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, all but Ohio and Texas are in the bottom fifth of the country by poverty level.
Perhaps the most significant difference comes down to having a living body.
We know that income and life expectancy are linked in the U.S. Poor women are more likely to die after giving birth, as are rural women and Black women -- their deaths are why United States women are three times more likely to die after childbirth than Canadian women, and six times more likely to die after childbirth than Scandinavian women. Poor Americans have shorter lifespans, period: the richest American men will live 15 years longer than the poorest American men and the richest American women will live 10 years longer than the poorest American women.
Packard doesn't drill down into the systemic social factors that are reflected in each of his Four Americas, nor does he ever allude to how American policies may have shaped the diverging bodies in this country. All we're left with is a throwaway line that doesn't do justice to why we all look so different now.
In Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness, the author draws a direct line from the politics of racial resentment to poor health and shortened lifespans. Among his findings after studying Tennessee's refusal to expand the ACA and Missouri's loosening of gun laws: GOP budget cuts corresponded to the loss of over 7,000 white life years in the first four years of the cuts, white working-class Tennessean life spans shrank, and gun violence "correlate(s) with the loss of over 10,500 years of productive white male life."
The data continues to show bifurcations in health outcomes: Rural areas tend to be Republican areas (an estimated three of every four voters goes Republican, Quartz reported in November 2020) and in rural areas, people are much more likely to succumb to the five leading causes of potentially preventable death.
And the data is showing up most starkly in COVID-19 vaccination and deaths. There is a much-tweeted map showing the similarities between the 2020 presidential election and the rate of vaccination. Political scientist Seth Masket has said, “We’re at the point where people are choosing riskier personal behavior due to following the lead of people in their party.”
Metzl was telling us that back in 2019: "I found that Trump supporters were often willing to put their own lives on the line in support of their political beliefs. As a result, when viewed more broadly, actions that may have seemed from the outside to be crazy, uninformed, or self-defeating served larger political aims."
And who benefitted from those larger political aims? Per Metzl: "People and corporations far higher up the socioeconomic food chain—whose agendas and capital gains depended on the invisible sacrifices of low-income whites."
Those of us who ever hope to move freely about the country again. (Which is, in and of itself, a fairly privileged position to be in, given how there are still towns cleaving to their sundown-town warning siren.)
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in red-state America (what Packet slots into the "Free America" and "Real America" psychographics), and the red-state areas with their lower vaccination rates are going to be facing higher infection rates and continued drag on their hospital resources.
For a look at how COVID-19 hits rural areas with few medical resources, read, "She Collapsed In Her Kitchen From COVID-19. The Next Day She Was Nearly 300 Miles From Home." Now imagine how this hits a region already beset with higher death rates from what the CDC terms "preventible deaths."
Now imagine how that ripples out to affect everyone in an area. We've read plenty about the way the opioid epidemic cost the U.S. $78.5 billion in 2016, with total costs of $631 billion from 2015-2018. On a community level, there is research linking economic impact to opioid access.
I can't stop wondering what Packer meant to write in that one phrase about how Americans used to have similar bodies. Perhaps what he meant to write was that it was a lot easier to cling to the American ideal of "all men being created equal" when their bodies looked a lot more alike.