The Current Global Health Crisis Doesn’t Make It Okay To Fat Shame
Up until the age of around 18, I was very skinny. The sort of skinny where people jab you in the ribs with a finger and make jokes about turning you on your side to play the violin with.
I could deal with these mildly uncomfortable intrusions, and could laugh-grimace along quite easily as other people’s hands encircled my arms with amusement or when a rather nasty popular girl nicknamed me ‘Chicken Legs’.
Like most girls, I didn’t like people dividing up my body with their eyes, or being referred to as ‘boyish’ by friends who expressed both envy and repulsion at my sharp elbows and jutting hipbones. But then, all of a sudden, the weight began to pile on, like an unexpected snowfall that did not let up.
For a variety of reasons, some health-related, I felt myself get heavier and heavier over the course of a few short years; bursting through dress size after dress size at an alarming speed.
The change was so rapid, so unsettling, that I wondered whether my body would ever stop or whether I would simply continue to shift and expand. I felt out of control during these years, as frightened as if a kite had suddenly pulled me up from the ground into the deep, endless blue of the skies.
In recent years, I’ve managed to control my weight somewhat, but it’s not been easy. I’ve had to bite my lip through endless unwanted advice and side glances while ordering a sweet cocktail rather than a puritanically slimline G and T. Endure the tired refrain that I could be ‘so pretty’, if only I tried.
There was, for example, the personal trainer who, upon observing me in a tight, unflattering vest top, urged me to ‘wear that one next time so we can take a before picture’. There was never an after picture, and for a long time I felt like an unfinished product.
Because to be deemed overweight is to be held up to a higher level of health scrutiny, with the constant expectation that you should always be chipping away at your flesh, never allowing for a payday takeaway or a full fat Coke.
While slim girls skip the gym for a bit and gain only empathetic laughs from their mates, a heavier girl will receive anxious frowns or unsolicited tips. Have you tried Weight Watchers? Have you thought about getting up from your desk every hour to walk around?
After my own body shape changed dramatically, I learned things about people that I wish I didn’t. I learned of the ways in which people feel entitled to make assumptions about those above a socially acceptable weight, to treat them as something to be trimmed down and fixed.
In more subtle ways, we see how bigger people are expected to be hidden away in the corners. The comedic side part in the movie, or the ‘brave’ addition to a forward-thinking fashion shoot. And, of course, government policy will sometimes reflect our prejudices straight back at us.
This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged British people to lose weight, opening up candidly about his own long-term weight issues and the serious health problems he himself has suffered.
More than 45,000 people in Britain have now died from coronavirus, with almost 8% of those in intensive care units reported to be morbidly obese, despite morbidly obese people accounting for just 2.9% of the general population.
A new government plan has been put in place to tackle obesity among UK adults and children, describing obesity as being ‘one of the greatest long-term health challenges’ faced by the country, with nearly two-thirds of adults living in England reported to be overweight or obese.
Sadly, people living with obesity are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying after contracting coronavirus, as per this plan, which describes such individuals as putting increased ‘pressure’ on the health service.
Although I would absolutely encourage government action to address public health and well-being, I don’t feel comfortable with language that conflates those with weight issues with being a ‘burden’ upon the NHS.
All too often, larger bodies are discussed as being somehow unworthy or undeserving of treatment, with the living minds inside regarded to be selfish and unthinking of the apparent strain they are putting on those around them.
This is the sort of dehumanising language I’ve seen crop up since the plan was unveiled, in think pieces and social media posts alike. Language that ignores the many complicated factors that lead to obesity, and indeed the socioeconomic disparities dividing the nation’s dinner plates.
Many rich and influential decision-makers may indeed believe a bag of potatoes to be cheaper than a bag of chips, but factor in issues such as time, necessary ingredients and a lack of basic kitchen items, and you have a much bigger and more complex story to unravel.
Over the past few days I’ve been dismayed at headlines such as The Telegraph’s opinion piece If we must be slim, why are so many nurses fat?, which takes aim at some of the most important front-line professionals during the worst pandemic in living memory.
That people’s health and bodies can be up for discussion like this is far from a pleasant thing to observe, and neither is the idea that something so very personal can become a matter of public duty and uniform solidarity.
I’ve been particularly concerned about those with eating disorders at this time, watching the policing of the nation’s bodies unfold during what has already been an deeply troubling and painful year.
I’m not the only one to feel worried about the direction this conversation has taken, with the UK’s eating disorder charity, Beat, having strongly criticised measures set out by the UK Government to address obesity.
Such strategies could, as per this report, cause distress to individuals at risk of developing eating disorders, and could also exacerbate eating disorder behaviours in those who have already been diagnosed.
Although recognising the need to address obesity, Beat has urged the UK government to shift the campaign away from being ‘weight-focused and weight-shaming’, instead focusing on ‘positive behaviour changes and improving self-esteem’.
Beat’s chief executive, Andrew Radford, said:
It is extremely disappointing that the Government have chosen to put at risk the health of people affected by eating disorders.
We recognise the importance of addressing obesity, but the risks of stigmatising and poorly-considered campaigns on those affected by eating disorders must be taken into account.
Radford said they were particularly concerned ‘the campaign will encourage people with eating disorders to use the promoted weight loss app, which fails to prevent under 18s or people with normal or low-weight from using it, despite it not being suitable for them.’ Adding that, without ‘suitable safeguards’, something that could be useful to one person maybe harming others.
Beat has called upon the Prime Minister and Public Health England to only use evidence-based tactics while consulting with eating disorder experts and steering clear from promoting crash-dieting. A representative from Beat has stated that its advice has, so far, been ignored on all three accounts.
It is also worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling, as evidence clearly shows that these risk exacerbating eating disorders of all kinds.
Furthermore, we are disappointed that the Government has chosen to use language that blames people living with obesity. Instead we would like more attention to the complex causes of obesity, which for some people can include eating disorders.
Beat has seen an ‘overwhelming’ demand for its services over the course of the pandemic. The charity saw a 73% rise in contact across all helpline channels in May, compared to February, as well as a 162% increase in social media contact.
Such people need care, empathy and support, not harmful messages and BMI figures seeping into every crevice of social media, every news report. Such information needs to be handled delicately, mindful of those who are absorbing it and applying it within their own lives.
UNILAD spoke with Gemma, a PR consultant from West Yorkshire. Gemma has herself recovered from anorexia and bulimia, and has described herself as being ‘extremely concerned’ about the way the government has positioned its new anti-obesity campaign.
I’ve seen many refer to it as the ‘war against obesity’ and it saddens me to think that those who may be considered overweight are being shamed this way.
Often, there are a number of underlying factors causing a person to carry a little extra weight and that person generally feels pretty low about the fact they don’t conform to society’s definition of ‘healthy’ or has had failed attempts at trying to become a littler healthier inside, and now the the government has started a campaign to make these people feel even worse!
Imagine someone who feels a little terrible about their size and has fallen into a vicious circle of using food as comfort. They head out to a restaurant where they are presented with a menu full of calories and they desperately want to order a calorific meal but they see the ‘slim’ waiter/waitress heading over to take their order and feel worried about how they might judge their total order of calories.
Is that really how we want our nation to feel after months of struggling to cope with the effects of a global pandemic?
Gemma has also expressed annoyance is the fact that campaign is being led by BMI, which determines whether or not a person is overweight without taking into consideration their individual build, muscle mass or even their personal preference. She suggested one of the ‘most important’ thing the campaign is missing is ‘an understanding of individuality,’ and that ‘a person’s size is about more than just the calories they consume, yet the whole mission is to educate about calories thinking that’s a quick fix.’
What if someone who is consuming an accepted amount of calories per day is clinically overweight according to their BMI, but very very happy and healthy? Should we destroy that happiness based on their BMI and risk sending that person on a downward spiral? Of course not.
You’ll often find that even those classed as healthy according to their BMI won’t be consuming a healthy diet, they just have a faster metabolism. We’ve all had that friend who could eat three chocolate bars a day and never put an ounce of weight on.
Aren’t they at greater risk of illnesses such as heart attacks than those ‘overweight’ eating a nutritious, balanced diet?
Gemma believes the government should instead be investing properly in the country’s mental health services, improving support for those who have negative relationships with food or other medical reasons for being unhealthy.
She also noted that the government might do well to examine the stark price differences between nutritional and non-nutritional food, a factor that is all too often ignored in the ‘all in this together’ ethos of government campaigns.
As someone who has had their fair share of fat-shaming, both inadvertent and deliberate, I can tell you anecdotally that it’s never been the mean, underhanded comments that have prompted me to improve my health.
Indeed, a cruel remark has previously thrown me out of my routine of making healthy home-cooked meals from scratch, leading me to turn instead to easy teas of oven chips and nuggets.
More than once, hearing negative opinions about those over a certain BMI has made me feel too ashamed to pull on a pair of gym leggings, knowing I won’t look like the sort of person the high street shop made them for.
Kindness is key with such issues. As a society, we need to practice empathy and understanding about the myriad of aspects that contribute to a person’s health and well-being beyond the simplistic notions of ‘fat’ and ‘thin’.
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677, or talk to an advisor via the talk secure instant messaging service here.