When I was at college doing A level History, my rather brilliant teacher, Mr Biggins, devoted an entire lesson to educating us about how propaganda didn’t suddenly cease with the collapse of the Third Reich. We might have scoffed at how anyone could be so easily influenced as to be taken in by a cartoon of a Jew/rat hybrid creature, but in fact, we learned, we were being just as manipulated, each and every day.
Every society needs its scapegoats. In the 80s, I remember one of my friend’s Mums (blithely unaware that my brothers are mixed race), telling me how this country was “going to pot” because black people were responsible for all crime. Yes, that’s right. All of it. In the noughties, acquaintances of mine who I had always considered rather sensible and open-minded, categorically told me that Polish people had “come over here and taken their jobs”. Even though they were employed at the time.
In the teenies, it seems it’s the “obesity epidemic” which is being blamed for absolutely everything which is wrong with our culture. Yes, folks, overweight people are infiltrating our homes with poisonous messages promoting sloth and gluttony, using up all the resources of the NHS and probably committing all the crimes and taking your job as well. Even though they never get off their fat arses, apparently.
Seemingly sound statistics are thrown at us – Currently a third of all adults have an unhealthily high BMI and by 2020 this will rise to 80%. “Stop! Stop the terrifying slide into obesity!” The headlines scream, as if this is the miracle quick-fix we need in order to mend our broken society.
There are a couple of reasons why this is all self-righteous tosh. Firstly, it is actually impossible to measure whether or not someone is overweight simply by comparing their height and weight, which is the technique currently employed by British GPs. That’s why the 1/3 of people with an “unhealthy BMI” in this country include Olympic athletes and body builders. In the U.S, BMI is measured by comparing muscle and bone density as well as measurements, in addition to height and weight, the upshot being that technically there is a higher percentage of “obese” people in the UK than in the U.S (take a moment to think about that).
I have now lost count of the number of people I know who are a size 10, 12 or 14, slim, eat healthily, exercise regularly and have been induced into a state of utter panic and tearfulness by their doctors, after being told that they are officially “obese”. Equally, Winning Minds clients who are painfully thin to the eye have been told by their GPs that they do not qualify for emergency eating disorder treatment because they have a “healthy” BMI.
Secondly, let’s put aside the healthy people being put into an obese category for a moment and focus on the overweight people who do in fact significantly overeat. People do not compulsively overeat because they are greedy or selfish or evil. People overeat because they are lonely, bored, depressed, disillusioned or because when everything else in life fails you there is always chocolate. Obesity is a symptom, not a cause. By persecuting fat people, all we are doing is once again failing to acknowledge that, as a society, our priorities are all wrong.
Whenever my Granddad was criticized for being a smoker, he used to say “you can see my bad habit, what’s yours?”. Think about the people you know. I’d be willing to bet my last Rolo that each one of them is using some sort of coping mechanism. It might be smoking, it might be drinking, it might even be going to the gym. In a world where we are constantly being pushed to fit a perfect aesthetic and make the most money and to never be content with, or take the time to enjoy what we have, it’s the norm for us to be stressed-out, mildly depressed or anxious. So who can blame us if, caught up in the chaos, the mixed messages and the brutal rat race, the thing we most look forward to at the end of a hard day is a cigarette, a glass of wine or, dare I say it, a great big slice of cake?
Only when we finally absorb the message that raising self-esteem and re-prioritizing is the key to a happier, healthier population, will we see a decline in the rates of genuine obesity. It won’t happen with threats to cut medical care for obese people or to weigh and measure our children at school (horrific). In fact, all that will do is serve to increase our growing sense of despair, and probably make us reach for another slice of cake.