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Last Updated: Monday, 6 September, 2004, 10:15 GMT 11:15 UK
Piling on the prejudice
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

The fight against flab is being waged as never before, with healthy lifestyle campaigns in abundance. But is the drive to get people in shape adding to fattism?

If anyone is still able to sit up and take notice, 2004 is proving to be a turning point in the war on waists.

With two thirds of Britons now overweight or obese - and the bulges still growing - warnings about overeating, inactivity and the associated health risks are made daily.

Those few extra pounds are no longer a personal matter to be sighed over in the privacy of the bedroom. They are a social problem which, it is said, need to be worked off together.

While elastic-waisted jogging bottoms are yet to be handed out on the NHS, the government, papers and even fast food firms are all telling us to change our ways.

Yet in the collective rush to create a slim line future, is there a danger of actually making things worse?

Critics say that not only do overweight people know diets don't work, but dwelling on the idea that extra pounds are "bad" heightens the one remaining acceptable prejudice - fattism.

Cheerful jibes

"The perception of most people is dyed in the wool, that fat people are ugly, lazy, unattractive and unable," says Vicki Swinden, founder of Fat is the new Black, one of a small but growing number of groups campaigning for the overweight.

We live in a blame culture, if something happens someone will get the flak
Toast

Most people accept that racism and homophobia are unacceptable, says Ms Swinden, but many cheerfully trade jibes about the weight of friends, family, colleagues and strangers.

Think amusing comments about "fat boy", or questions like "who ate all the pies?".

Prejudice against the overweight is such that they are less likely to get a job and can earn less when they do. A Liverpool University study found preconceptions about the obese extended to their friends, who were judged less attractive than those with slim companions.

Other potential pitfalls are being stared at by schoolchildren, being spoken to slowly and dealing with people's shock when you eat fruit or exercise, says Louise Diss, advocate for The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust (Toast).

Vigorous turn

It is of course a long time since the British considered extra pounds to be a sign of health, wealth and general sex appeal. Weight has long been a favourite stick with which children - and adults - beat one another.

Woman eating
One in three adults will be obese by 2020, MPs believe

But the vigorous turn of the debate in recent months has added to the feeling that the overweight and obese are somehow lacking as individuals.

It was in May that the Commons Health Select Committee published a report which showed that obesity rates had risen by 400% over the past 25 years. It suggested that by 2020 one third of adults and half of children could be obese.

Not only were the costs to the individual great, with shorter life expectancy and health problems like diabetes, but society was also paying the price. Weight related health issues already cost the NHS 3.7bn a year and the figure will only rise, it warned. Headlines about "Telly tubbies" draining the nation's resources followed.

In addition to the government campaigns, a BBC healthy lifestyles programme will start this week. Fat Nation is aiming to acknowledge the need for a longer-term approach than mere crash diets, and will run over two years.

Psychologist Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist issue, says the accumulated effect is that people have made the fat issue a personal one. They judge because they perceive a lack of control in others and think "there, but for the grace of God go I".

Toast agrees: "We live in a blame culture, if something happens someone will get the flak," says Ms Diss. "As it becomes more of an issue it's going to become a problem for more and more people."

Insides 'squashed'

Despite their anger at the blame heaped on the overweight, even those campaigning for greater acceptance recognise that it's unhealthy to be carrying extra pounds.

Both fat and things like chocolate have been denounced and it's crazy, because it will produce completely the opposite effect
Susie Orbach

"You won't be as healthy if you are overweight as me, because your insides are being squashed by your outsides," says Ms Swinden, whose website has received tens of thousands of visitors since it was launched earlier this year.

But campaigners say greater acceptance is needed of the fact that people are unable to simply get up one morning and start to shed the extra weight.

The Commons Health Select Committee agrees. In its report it said individuals have a key role in managing their own health. But it added: "As the main factors contributing to the rapid rises in obesity seen in recent years are societal, it is critical that obesity is tackled first and foremost at a societal rather than an individual level."

Vicki Swinden
Vicki Swinden says few people will ever have model figures

Campaigners believe this is where the message has become blurred - people understand that it's not good to be fat, but not that those who are overweight aren't entirely to blame for the problem.

Many people continue to see the extra pounds as self-inflicted and therefore something to be tackled with nothing more than a little bit of self discipline.

Even those who would appear to be natural allies of the cause continue to suggest the problem is down to individuals.

"There is absolutely no one, apart from yourself, who can prevent you, in the middle of the night, from sneaking down to tidy up the edges of that hunk of cheese at the back of the fridge," wrote shadow arts minister Boris Johnson in his Daily Telegraph column.

'Short-sighted'

Well intentioned as they may be, the healthy eating campaigns are simply adding to the problem, says Susie Orbach and will heighten the UK's "crazy eating".

She says: "Both fat and things like chocolate have been denounced and it's crazy, because it will produce completely the opposite effect."

Food needs to remain pleasurable, Ms Orbach argues, something which is being forgotten by the "narrow, demonistic and short-sighted" campaigns.

For many of the growing numbers of people who are overweight or obese, the immediate battle remains not one of losing pounds, but of fighting for acceptance.

"People's ambitions may well be to be slimmer and we would never disagree with that, but the great majority of us are never going to look like poster girls," says Ms Swinden.

Fat Nation will be broadcast in the UK on BBC One starting on 9 September.


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