In recent weeks, the usual steady background noise of body-shaming and fatphobia has seen an uptick. A higher mortality of Covid-19 among people deemed obese led to a range of Government proposals, including calories to be displayed on restaurant menus and a public campaign to encourage people to lose weight. Soon after, a leading figure in the National Obesity Forum also suggested that children be regularly weighed at school after lockdown, despite concerns that this would be incredibly anxiety inducing for many children. These are all proposals presented as having our best interests at heart, but they embody a far darker part of our society.
The individual parts of these proposals can be picked apart. For examples, calories calculated by restaurants are often inaccurate but, even if they were right, calorie counting has long been discredited as an effective way to lose weight or improve how healthy your diet is. Unsurprisingly, your body is more complicated than a calorie-in, calorie-out machine.
But what’s more concerning is not that these proposals won’t help people – it’s that they’ll be actively damaging. Adding to a culture of fat shaming is not likely to make people thinner – somewhere around 95 to 98% of all diets fail. Instead, it just makes people hate their bodies more.
A lot of people already have a very negative image of their own body: nearly a third of teenagers are ashamed of their bodies, and one in eight adults in the UK say they have experienced suicidal thoughts because of their negative body image. And this isn’t just an issue which affects women – the rate of boys hospitalised for eating disorders is actually increasing faster than among girls.
Part of the cause in this increasing rise is to do with social media presenting us constantly with so many seemingly perfect bodies, but it’s also to do with a far wider societal disgust at fatness. How often have you seen a fat person in a film or TV show portrayed as sexy? It’s probably nowhere near as often as the amount of times fat people are shown as disgusting, gluttonous or lacking in self-control. (In contrast, the rise of super humanly ripped heroes in blockbuster films has also been linked to worsening body image among men).
As a society we are obsessed with weight loss. It only took till July for the Daily Mail, to run an article on a diet that “will help shed your quarantine pounds” – even living through a global pandemic is no longer an acceptable excuse for weight gain. When we’re constantly bombarded with all this messaging about how if we were only willing to put in a little work to change we could have the body of our dreams, it’s no wonder that so many of us are ashamed of our less than perfect bodies.
None of this is to say that we couldn’t be healthier as a society, but focussing on obesity probably isn’t a very helpful place to start. For one thing weight or BMI is a really bad metric to predict if someone is actually healthy.
We could focus on making healthy food more affordable on accessible, or change PE classes in schools so that they’re a place where kids actually have a fun time, rather than, as many do, feeling like this is not a space where they feel safe.
But we also need to normalise different bodies. You can start this for yourself by diversifying the people you follow on Instagram! There’s some incredible activists working on body positivity and fat activism, including ones based in Scotland like Danni Gordon and Scottee – so go give them a follow!
There’s also great advice out there on how to develop a healthier body image for yourself, and how that can feed into a positive relationship with your mental health more broadly. It’s also really helpful to read up on the ways our culture influences how we think about differently sized bodies. We particularly recommend Sofie Hagen’s book Happy Fat – it’s funny and often very personal, but will also make you want to start a revolution. Michael Hobbes’s article on the “obesity epidemic” also offers a lot of insight into the struggles and discrimination that many fat people face in their personal relationships and interactions with doctors as a result of fatphobia.
We talk a lot about the “obesity crisis”, but the way many of our politicians and media are talking about bodies and health is so counterproductive that it’s damaging how many of us see our own body and our mental health along with it, while not making us any physically healthier. For all our sakes, it’s time we start having a more productive conversation around health and bodies, and started recognising beautiful bodies in all their different shapes and sizes.