Friday, August 11, 2006

All this talk about fat is unhealthy

Australia's fat epidemic is rarely out of the headlines. The most recent national health survey by the Bureau of Statistics found that since 1995 the overweight-obesity rate has grown by 10 per cent for men and 8 per cent for women. After a decade of warnings, we continue to grow fatter.

The promotion of overweight-obesity as an out-of-control disease rather than being one aspect of human diversity may be exacerbating the problem. Negative language surrounding fat increases psychological distress, while dieting leads to disturbed cycles of eating.

One in 20 Australians has bulimia, and binge eating is found in 4 per cent of the population, spread equally among males and females. Anorexia affects about 1 per cent of young women and kills more people than any other psychiatric illness. Studies show that dieting is the single greatest risk factor for the development of an eating disorder and dieters are starting younger and younger. Negative talk around fat children is especially dangerous, as disordered eating and food obsession develops in childhood, when social rejection is tied to appearance and as parents attempt to control their children's eating habits.

Eating disorders, especially anorexia, are not really about food, but about issues of control. It is easier to change the shape of your body than your emotional environment. However, emotion and power are intertwined. Incessant media coverage and constant social chitchat about fat, especially when it focuses on diets and attractiveness, for example, reinforces the notion that food and eating are not about nutrition and sustenance, but about who we are and the power we wield.

This is especially the case with celebrities. Superstars are skinny. People who refuse food are powerful. The thin ideal of pop culture and negative images surrounding the overweight destabilise self-esteem among the rest of us. As people deny themselves the pleasure of forbidden foods, obsession with food and desire for it grows until it is eaten in unhealthy quantities, which is followed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt and more craving. As shame and self-hatred build, eating habits reflect this despair. Whether the result is starving the body of food as punishment or binge eating to drown out the self, the physical and mental health implications are profound.

The British journalist William Leith explored his food addiction in his memoir The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. By the end of his last round of binge eating, dieting and alcoholism, Leith concluded that eating was about the avoidance of emotional trauma. People overeat, he writes, to avoid dealing with the important emotional issues in their lives. For Leith, this was the rejection of his mother, epitomised in her decision to send him to boarding school.

Leith's book is one example of how body image and the cycle of guilt and binge eating are symptoms of deeper emotional issues and destructive thought patterns. Disordered eating is often a manifestation of unresolved psychological problems, a displacement mechanism increasingly encouraged by the preoccupation with fat. Salads and stationary bicycles won't solve obesity because they don't address the basic issue of self-esteem that underlies problem eating for many. If anything, guilt-easing rituals encourage the emotional conflation of food, self and power. If we are serious about a fitter, thinner (and happier) country, if we want our children to grow up with a healthy attitude towards food, then fat must cease to be an issue.


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