Fried Bread And Circuses
|The thing about obesity and the news is that it has become a very simple story and as soon as story is simple, it is retold on a near daily basis. Obesity is a public health concern, both in the UK and worldwide. It greatly increases a person's risk of serious, debilitating and life-limiting diseases. In people with impairments, it can exacerbate symptoms like pain and breathing difficulties.|
But it shouldn't worry us any more than smoking, for example; a greater proportion of people smoke than are clinically obese and both are said to take an average of ten years off your life expectancy. As with smokers, obese people frequently live most of their lives in excellent health and some will see old age (they might not see their feet, but that's another matter).
And yes, it is all a bit funny. Bodies are funny; wobbly bits and bony bits, floppily doppily and firm bits. Whilst it is possible to joke about breasts without insulting women, or to joke about impairments or disability paraphrenalia without insulting disabled people, we haven't fully mastered the same with weight. I don't suppose I have either; whenever I see the phrase Obesity TimebombI have visions of Mr Creosote exploding at the end of The Life of Brian*.
And yet this issue which is only slightly more serious than we're all different shapes and sizes and thank goodness none of us are going hungry has become a moral panic.
Some months ago, I was amazed to read Obesity 'as bad as climate risk' Then last week I read Obese blamed for the world's ills, in which obese people were held responsible for the aforementioned climate change.
The first is such fantastic nonsense it is hardly worth refuting. It is a bit like arguing that the ice caps aren't melting, but we're all getting so heavy that the land is sinking. Climate Change could mean that the surface of this planet becomes inhospitable to human life and our species (among others) dies out. End of civilisation, end of humanity. Failing that, things could get extraordinariy bad, billions of people could suffer and die and our natural environment is changing dramatically in a relatively short space of time. Climate Change is bad news - bad news we still have much control over - but really very bad news if ignored. There is absolutely no way in which that can compare to obesity, not in any terms.
Meanwhile, there are about 300 million obese people in the world, as opposed to 850 million hungry people - and by the way, not having enough food kills you much much quicker than eating too much. The most serious effects of obesity don't tend to strike until middle age; many thousands of children starve to death every year, to say nothing of those who survive wth the consequences of chronic malnutrition.
So hunger is a much bigger problem than obesity. In fact, I reckon I could write a very lengthy list of problems which are more significant globally, and a pretty long list of more pressing but far more awkward public health concerns here in the UK. In any case, obesity isn't even taking a dent in our life-expectancy, which continues to go up and up.
The second article really took the biscuit (if reluctantly; it claimed to be on a diet). The article asserts than an obese person needs one and fifth of average calorific consumption, that is a fifth extra food and thus contributing more greatly to the global food shortage. Well, fair enough, but in the UK we throw a third of all the food we buy away. And of course, obesity is a disease associated with poverty – poor people don't buy any food that's going to get wasted; middle class people do and are thus wasting far more than your fatty is eating. So maybe middle-class people (who fly more, drive much further with bigger cars and undoubtedly buy more useless stuff) are actually responsible for the world's ills. Try publishing that theory.
(I don't believe that, by the way, but it would make more sense).
But like I say, the story is simple. Despite the fact that obesity has increased massively in recent years, it is still understood to be a problem with individuals, lifestyle choices. Easily identifiable individuals, we imagine. And it's those old-fashioned sins of gluttony and sloth that are to blame, never anything more complicated than a lack of will-power.
Trickier to consider why this is happening, to look at class, gender and ethnicity, to consider what it is about our society, the built environment and social policy which has heralded this change. Even more tricky to consider whether the media's obsession with food, the attempts to make a morality out of what we put in our mouths might be contributing to this. A morality nothing to do with the human or environmental cost of our consumption, but how many calories is in a thing. Rather like sex, morality only applies to food where one's choices effect other people. However, rather like sex, if you declare something harmless and pleasurable to be naughty, people want it all the more. This isn't why people are obese, but what if it were part of a complex problem?
And if it were, would politicians and the media not be forced to talk about something that mattered a great deal more?
* I read about so many timebombs, it's a wonder we can hear ourselves think for the ticking. My favourite I saw recently suggested that Middle England is sitting astride an alcohol timebomb. Sitting astride it? Oh dear.