Achtung: if you’re fat, you’re anti-social

The German government’s new anti-obesity campaign seems designed to turn people’s weight into a measure of their moral integrity.

According to the German government, Germans are too fat. They’re so fat, in fact, that the government has made encouraging weight loss one of the country’s main political tasks. In May, the minister for health, Ulla Schmidt, and the minister of consumer protection and agriculture, Horst Seehofer, launched a national health campaign to motivate people to eat healthier food and do more exercise. The government aims to halt the trend towards obesity by the year 2020.

The national action plan is comprehensive and far-reaching. It recommends that health education should play a greater role in kindergartens and schools. Parents should be encouraged to tell their children about the risks of fast food. Adults should be informed about health issues at their workplaces. At state level, communities and sports clubs should encourage people to participate in sports. The anti-obesity campaign hopes to establish new standards of health and nutrition in canteen services in schools, hospitals and workplaces, and it will give funding to scientific research into the consequences of an unhealthy diet.

The government is also putting pressure on the German food industry. It is asking that food manufacturers put more accurate and prominent labelling on their products, in order to warn consumers that certain ingredients might be bad for their health and wellbeing. Although the food industry has broadly supported the government’s campaign, its representatives have criticised this call for stricter labelling. Jürgen Abraham, chairman of the German food industry confederation, argued that individuals are fully responsible for what they eat: ‘Why blame the industry when some individuals just eat too much?’

Fatness has now been successfully transformed into a major issue in German society. Apparently, more than 75 per cent of German men and 59 per cent of German women are considered overweight, a condition said to cause cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, strokes, cancer and depression. The cost of treating such diseases is a major burden on the German state budget, which, the government argues, could easily be reduced by healthier living.

In outlining an economic imperative for national slimming, the government has drawn attention to the bureaucratic and authoritarian edge to its anti-obesity campaign. The campaign has little time for individual choice or free will in matters of food consumption or exercise, and nor does it accept the idea that people should determine what is best for them and their families. Rather, it turns the (highly questionable) measurement of the ‘right’ body-weight ratio, the Body Mass Index (BMI), into a social statement about a person’s ability and willingness to adopt a socially acceptable lifestyle. In other words, those who are fat are increasingly seen as ‘bad’ and anti-social people who do not fit in, while those who regularly take exercise and eat well are seen as ‘good’ citizens.

How to design an irrational health campaign

If you take a closer look at the German government’s new health campaign, you will see how irrational it is. First of all, it would seem that, in a rush to ‘educate’ the people, the government has exaggerated the personal and social relevance of the obesity issue. It started by exercising some poetic license with the statistics. Reports claiming that Germans are the fattest people in Europe were designed to startle – but such a claim was only arrived at by removing those aged 18 to 24 from the study. So slimmer, younger adults were excluded from the calculations, which allowed government and media scaremongers to say ‘shock, horror – German adults are the fattest!’ Those scientists who have questioned the fat stats have only occasionally been given a platform in the media.

But you need more than just concocted scientific evidence to launch a national campaign on what people eat and how they play: you also need a cultural climate that is open to such interventions. And in today’s Germany, the ground has been well-prepared for this kind of government activity.

In Germany, the fatness issue has been harnessed by a government keen to intervene into people’s private lives at ever more intimate levels. In recent debates, obesity has been linked to child neglect (that is, parents feeding their children the ‘wrong’ foods and letting them get fat), and it has also been taken as evidence that people have gone consumerism-crazy, misled by the advertising of big food companies. Once body weight has been squeezed into such a moral framework – which raises questions of choice, free will and independence – then it quickly becomes an issue around which all sorts of authoritarian measures can be enforced. And questioning the government’s anti-obesity campaign has become tantamount to blasphemy. Health and weight are no longer the subject of a meaningful debate – they are consensus issues on which you raise awkward questions at your peril. Those who disagree with the need to lose weight are regarded as ‘stupid’ or wilfully contrary, and it is hoped that the new emphasis on health education in schools will help to stamp out these unorthodox views. 

What can be done with those of us in Germany who argue that the government’s all-pervasive health agenda is an attack on personal freedom? In order to silence us, a new line of argument is being developed, one which focuses on the alleged social consequences of obesity. The government now claims that obesity costs the government between €10billion and €20billion in terms of health provision and care. In short, those who are overweight are socially irresponsible; they are anti-social.

Slim up or shut up 

Official exhortations to live healthily are not a new phenomenon. Indeed, campaigns of this kind have a long tradition in Germany. In the early Seventies, the German Sports Association (DSB), the umbrella organisation for all German sports clubs, launched a marketing campaign to get people to join sport clubs. The aim of the campaign was to reduce the burden on public health institutions, which were then dealing with around 250,000 cases of heart attack a year. Back then, it was said that a third of the male population and more than 40 per cent of the female population were overweight. That Seventies campaign took off, and fitness became a major issue in the lives of Germans. 

Back then, politicians certainly jumped on the sport-and-fitness bandwagon, but they didn’t play a major role in creating it. The DSB’s campaign was largely driven by a need to recruit new sports club members: in 1970, only 17 per cent of the West German population were engaged in sports clubs. Organised sports had suffered a deep crisis as traditional gymnastics became more and more unfashionable. The DSB was looking for new ways to attract a younger generation. Within 10 years, sports club membership rose by 28 per cent, and today more then 75 per cent of German kids between the ages of three and 10 are members of a sports club. 

By contrast, today’s anti-obesity campaign has a purely political aim. It is designed to strengthen the moral authority of a political class that has lost its traditional bonds with society. By focusing on private matters such as health and weight, the German government is trying to develop new points of contact with people’s everyday concerns and fears. It is turning personal lifestyle into a political issue. Where in the past sports campaigns were designed to engage people, and make them join sports activities voluntarily or out of personal interest and enthusiasm, the current health plan puts the economic and social necessity of slimming at the centre of the debate. Government-endorsed slimming and health awareness are no longer about increasing the quality of our personal lives; rather they are about instilling in us a new sense of social duty and even conformity. Indeed, we should remember that for all today’s talk about having the ‘right’ Body Mass Index, there is in fact no scientific and enduring definition of what ‘overweight’ is. In the past (and in some cultures even today) being ‘overweight’ was seen as an enviable condition because as it was an indicator of social wealth and economic success.

An isolated government is using the issue of what foodstuff we put in our mouths to ‘make a connection’ and to enforce new forms of authority and standards of responsibility. The German people should tell it to get stuffed.

Matthias Heitmann is co-editor of the German magazine Novo where this article was originally published. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Basham and Luik questioned if dieting is good for you. Paul Campos debunked the Obesity Myth. Peter Marsh said that fattened statistics are behind the shock-horror headlines about child obesity, and Rob Lyons said we shouldn’t panic about it. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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