The state-sanctioned bullying of fat people
After 10 years of politicians and medical experts waging a war on obesity, is it surprising our kids have body-image issues?
‘It’s very mean to pick on someone because they are fat’, said our deputy headmaster, nervously, as he ‘had a chat’ about ‘an incident’ with the gathered male company of forms 2H and 2S at Blessed Humphrey Middlemore comprehensive school. ‘When girls get older, their bodies start to change, they develop breasts and hips. This is normal and you shouldn’t be rude to your classmates about it.’ There was silence. ‘Do you want me to tell you more about breasts?’
With but a momentary glance around, the hands of 30 12-year-old boys shot up. We had heard about breasts and some had even seen pictures of naked ones. But most importantly, finding out more about breasts right now would make a teacher feel really uncomfortable. ‘Winning’, as Charlie Sheen would say.
That little incident, over 30 years ago, came back to me as I heard about a report published yesterday by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Body Image. Apparently, half the population suffers from negative body image. The accompanying press release states that negative body image is ‘seen as an underlying cause of health and relationship problems, a key contributor to low self-esteem and a major barrier to participation in school and progression at work. The problem is so acute that girls as young as five now worry about their size and appearance, half of girls and one quarter of boys believe their peers have body-image problems, and appearance is the largest cause of bullying in schools.’
The report is quick to place the blame elsewhere than the corridors of power, stating: ‘media (43.5 per cent), advertising (16.8 per cent) and celebrity culture (12.5 per cent) together account for almost three quarters of the influence on body image in society, yet the “body ideal” that they typically present was estimated to not be physically achievable by nearly 95 per cent of the population’. According to the chair of the APPG, Jo Swinson MP: ‘Body image dissatisfaction in the UK has reached an all-time high and the pressure to conform to an unattainable body ideal is wreaking havoc on the self-esteem of many people.’
Yet, as my little anecdote suggests, young people have always had problems with the way they look. Puberty and adolescence, in particular, have long given children cause for concern about their bodies as bits expand and hair sprouts, along with all the awkwardness of sudden sexual attraction, periods and wet dreams. Most survive this period thanks to sharing experiences with their peers and with bucketloads of reassurance from older and wiser relations.
What this delicate situation does not require is the intervention of politicians with all the subtlety of large, horned bovines in a porcelain emporium. Yet that is what the report gleefully suggests. What we need, it seems, is not the careful negotiation of a confusing period of life. No, we need ‘evidence-based’ interventions, ‘psycho-educational initiatives’, censorship, a serious look at anti-discrimination laws and Newspeak.
So the report suggests training on body image for teachers, ‘support’ for mothers and school pupils, changes to advertising codes and the language we use to discuss body weight, and even ‘exploring’ changing the law to outlaw discrimination on the basis of weight in the same way that discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sexuality is currently illegal. We also need ‘weight-neutral language’, so no more offensive terms like ‘obese’.
But it’s not as if advertisers were in the business of using fat models in the past. Film stars were pretty damn good looking in decades past, too, even though they represented ideals we could never live up to. Boys’ comics of my era (late Seventies/early Eighties) always featured adverts for Charles Atlas and Bullworker, directly aimed at weedy boys like me who were always, metaphorically, getting sand kicked in our faces.
The really big change has been the obsession with obesity. Politicians, medical experts and campaigners have been at pains to convince us that getting fat will kill us and that allowing our children to get fat is tantamount to child abuse. Parents have been threatened with the removal of their children because of weight issues. School pupils are now routinely weighed at specific ages and parents are sent letters warning them if their offspring breaches a particular weight level - regardless of whether the child is, by any common-sense understanding, fat or unhealthy. School lessons frequently revolve around health and diet issues. If body-weight concerns are starting younger and younger, the obsession in schools with obesity is surely a major culprit.
Broadcasters have bombarded us with shows like Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, The Biggest Loser and Supersize vs Superskinny. News and magazine programmes offer endless advice about the need to lose weight and what new semi-starvation plan will do the trick. Jamie Oliver is lauded for promoting such misplaced scares as the idea that children will die before their parents because of obesity.
To be fair, the report is not entirely blind to these problems. It notes that body mass index (BMI) is not a good measure of health risks. The report notes the concerns of several inquiry witnesses: ‘There was concern that an overemphasis and analysis of size and weight may lead to neuroses about size, weight and physical appearance.’ No shit, Sherlock. There is even some discussion in the report about whether reducing body weight would even have much benefit to health in any event, preferring an emphasis on exercise as having health benefits regardless of any weight loss.
Rather than launching an all-out offensive on body-weight issues, the report would have done much better to demand a ceasefire in the war on obesity. At best, the endless guilt-tripping about our waistlines has made all of our lives that bit more miserable with little or no actual health benefit. At worst, it has actually caused health problems, corrupted the school curriculum and been the justification for ever-increasing state intervention in our lives. Now it’s not just naughty boys picking on chubby girls - it’s the British state itself.
Instead of politicians banging on about evil corporations screwing up our kids’ self-image, maybe it is time for our guardians in Westminster and Whitehall to develop a bit of self-awareness themselves.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.