Sunday, May 28, 2006


Apparently, prejudice against fatties is OK. There is no public health basis for it -- as moderately overweight people live slightly longer

In the past, fat kids only had to worry about the playground bully. Now the politicians, the doctors and their teachers are all out to get them - and their parents. In the next few weeks children aged four and ten are all going to be lined up at school for measurements of height and weight (1). This is necessary because the government, having already set a target for reducing childhood obesity, has realised that nobody knows how many children are overweight. The plan is to repeat these measurements in 12 months' time and then to write to the parents of obese children to warn that they risk long-term health damage unless they lose weight.

Even the government's own health advisers have warned that the mass weigh-in will inevitably stigmatise overweight children and will provoke widespread anxiety and distress among both children and parents. Public health doctors are well aware that it is illegitimate to diagnose individual health risks on the basis of population statistics and that there is no scientific justification for this approach. But, having fostered the obesity panic by promoting scares about fast food and snacks, they are ill-equipped to resist the zealots now driving government policy.

The politicians are now gripped by the dogma that exhorting people to eat less and exercise more will banish obesity. One of the few things that emerges clearly from half a century of research is that this approach simply does not work. While the scale of the problem of childhood obesity remains controversial - and both its causes and consequences are uncertain - it is widely recognised that no form of intervention has been found to be effective.

The crusade against childhood obesity has become dangerously irrational. Like most of the government's most cherished initiatives, it is exempted from the requirements of evidence-based policy. It is driven by the most desperate imperative of New Labour: the need to connect, with at least that section of the electorate that has responded so impressively to the charms of the celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver. In the childhood obesity panic, the insecurities of the nation's elite are projected into our primary schools, reflecting, as American academic Paul Campos observes, a culture that is `ultimately all about fear, self-loathing and endless dissatisfaction'.

Once again this week, the tired metaphors of `epidemic' and `time-bomb' have been mobilised to raise the emotional temperature. Obesity is presented as a modern plague, as a source of contagion and risk, which therefore justifies the sort of authoritarian measures considered necessary to protect society from extreme danger. These metaphors provide new forms of expression for deep-rooted prejudices against ordinary people, particularly against poorer people, who are more likely, in most Western societies, to be overweight. As the Australian educationalists Michael Gard and Jan Wright observe, `the idea of the"obesity epidemic" appears to lock commentators into a view of people as childlike in their stupidity, short-sightedness and utter self-centredness'. To be overweight is to be regarded as being `out of control, undisciplined, deviant, dangerously unhealthy'.

The label of obesity legitimises the public monitoring of behaviour and provides a licence for ridicule and harassment. For politicians and pundits, public health advocacy groups and popular television programmes, parents are a particular focus of condescension and contempt. According to Tam Fry of the Child Growth Foundation, `parents are very ignorant about what a healthy weight is'. In truth, within wide limits, there is no such thing as a healthy (or an unhealthy) weight - a simple fact parents know much better than these self-appointed experts.

The shift in focus of the obesity panic towards children is a particularly invidious development. A younger generation is now being indoctrinated with a deeply misanthropic and neurotic attitude towards the joys of life, such as eating, drinking and playing. As Tom MacMillan of the Food Ethics Council observes, health `neither is nor ought to be [the] main criterion in rational lifestyle choices'.

Eating and drinking are modes of sensual enjoyment and social engagement, ways of expressing individual and group identity, which are impoverished by the narrow preoccupations of the health fetishists. But instead of learning the pleasures of eating and sharing a wide variety foods, children are being coerced into consuming `five-a-day' fruit and veg, even though an authoritative study confirms that this yields no significant reduction in the development of chronic disease. Playing sport for pleasure is now being reduced to taking exercise for health, despite the fact that `no link between school physical education and either the long-term health, body weight or physical activity of children has ever been established'. The crusade against child obesity is likely to produce, not healthy outcomes, but miserable children and anxious parents and epidemics of dieting and eating disorders.


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