Mississippi sending mixed obesity messages

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It’s likely that only her doctor would know the exact cause for blues legend Memphis Minnie’s death.

But a layman with access to WebMD, a bit of cultural knowledge and a copy of Minnie’s song lyrics could take a guess at one of the contributing factors.

Memphis Minnie — often called the best female blues singer of all time who certainly gave great bluesmen a run for their money — reportedly died of a stroke.

She spent the last decade of her life ill, her final years in a nursing home. She died at age 76.

Life in the South has never been particularly healthy. Hot temperatures, lack of adequate medical care and plates of fried food have done us in for decades.

Minnie, who died in 1973, was probably no different.

In fact, her soulful sound even makes overeating sound desirable.

One of her songs, “Keep on eating,” is featured in a TV commercial promoting Mississippi tourism.

The lyrics from the commercial are: “Every time I cook, look like you can’t get enough, it’s just something good and you just eat it up, so keep on eating, oh keep on eating, keep on eating baby til you get enough.

“Eat all you want baby.”

Minnie wasn’t fat when most of her press photos were taken. But Mississippi certainly is.

The first time I saw the commercial — ironically during a parade of skinny women in the Miss Mississippi pageant — I couldn’t help but shake my head.

Only a few weeks prior, Mississippi had yet again won a crown of its own — fattest.

For six years now, Mississippi has led the nation in obesity rankings.

We also have the highest rates of physical inactivity and hypertension and the second highest rate of diabetes.

Yet, what’s the message of our state government?

“Eat all you want baby.”

The ad was put together with good intentions, I’m sure. Its target audience is not Mississippi residents, it’s tourists from out of state who may be enticed to spend dollars in Mississippi because of our finger-licking good fried fish, fried chicken, fried okra, seafood, pies and more.

We do have good food, no doubt about it.

Making a dime is important, but no one would think it right to promote Mississippi cigarette sales. Tobacco kills, but obesity affects far more people than tobacco these days.

And, the ad aired on Mississippi TV. Watching it from my Mississippi home made me hungry.

So, despite all the government-promoted campaigns and every time Gov. Haley Barbour tells Marsha, “Let’s go walkin,” Mississippi isn’t really fighting obesity; it’s promoting it.

A government-funded commercial, complete with the Mississippi logo, that says “Eat all you want baby” sends entirely the wrong message.

What’s next? The governor lighting up a cigarette, saying it’s cool and encouraging children to smoke.

I pray not.

Our lifestyle, our beloved fried foods, are killing us. Predictions are that the current generation of children will be the first in ages to live shorter lives than their parents, due largely to eating habits.

Change is going to be difficult, but it must start at the top. Our educated state leaders must realize that it’s not acceptable to promote a message of overindulgence, no matter what the business benefit may be.

Memphis Minnie had a good song, but not a good message. And 37 years after her death, I can’t help but wonder if the words of her song played a part in the stroke that killed her.

If she could live life over again, would the lyrics be different? Will Mississippi ever sing a different tune?

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or julie.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.