Comment: The tyranny of thin people

Our growing animosity towards fat people stems from our obsession with beauty and our narcissistic obsession with health.

By Ian Dunt

Marsha Coupe was travelling home from London when she was attacked. She heard herself called a “fat pig” and then she was kicked in the stomach and punched in the face. Her crime was to take up two seats on the train. Her attacker was a middle-aged woman.

At 22 stone, Coupe became one of the most famous examples of the rise of anti-fat hate crime in the UK. The most tedious cliché about the obese is that they’re the only people we’re allowed to discriminate against. If you believe that, you obviously haven’t spent much time with immigrants recently, who are routinely treated like sub-humans with the merry nod of the media and political establishment. But the glib generalisation carries, as they often do, a grain of truth. We feel empowered to speak to and about fat people in a way we never dream of doing with others. We act towards fat people with a discernible sense of moral superiority and a palpable sense of outrage.

What is it that makes everyone feel so entitled, so justified in their prejudice? Aesthetic answers get us somewhere, but not far enough. The human mind is conditioned to dislike what it sees as ugliness in others. Some studies have shown this behaviour to be exhibited in young children, suggesting it’s innate.

Answers around society’s view of health get us the rest of the way. The dominant view in Britain is that longevity overrides intensity in a human life. The idea that it is better to live long than it is to live well is now so widely accepted that one hardly ever finds it questioned at all. Smoking was the first victim of this violent new puritanism. Every year, more draconian, paternalistic proposals are made by doctors and medical groups. The Department of Health gratefully swallows them up. Every year we crawl closer to an outright ban.

Decent food regulation, which would be a sensible and proportionate way of allowing consumers to make informed choices without taking away their freedoms, was prevented by a colossal lobbying operation. When MEPs debated a European-wide food labelling system last year, the industry threw one billion euros at it. The battle between industry and the health crusaders continues, with the most draconian proposals being adopted and those which empower consumers to make their own choices falling by the wayside.

The existence of a national health service also triggers a particularly unpleasant sense of entitlement in those predisposed to judging others. It allows them to turn their own personal character defects into a political issue. Whatever personal reasons lead them to need to cast judgement on others, they justify it by screaming about the way fat people use up their tax money when they seek treatment on the NHS. Fat people, in this mean-spirited world view, are like walking medical versions of MPs’ expenses, sucking up money from the good-old British taxpayer because of their shabby inability to impose a bit of self-discipline. The same grubby arguments are used against smokers and drinkers, or the lazy, to provide some sort of intellectual justification for our culture’s incessant need to judge others.

It takes place alongside a completely abstract respect for self-discipline. In the same way that children now want to be famous, rather than famous footballers or famous scientists, society now values self-discipline in and of itself, rather than as a means to an end. It may be some sort of backlash to the instant gratification culture we live in, but it remains pointless, like some nasty remnant of a brutal public school education. Fasting, after all, stems from religious practise and the desire to demonstrate control in the face of temptation.

There is also the suspicion, and I accept that I’m not able to point to any research on this, that our growing hatred for fat people stems from a projection of our collective guilt about overconsumption. We always hate most in others what we feel in ourselves, and fat people stand as symbols of the laziness and greed of our lifestyle.

The issue of choice, of their decision to eat, to not exercise, provides the bedrock for our prejudice. That’s the difference between calling someone a ‘fat fool’, which is socially acceptable, and calling someone a ‘black fool’ or a ‘gay fool’, which is not. The black man and the gay man do not chose to be so, but a fat man chooses to allow himself to become fat. The truth is, people have different struggles. Some people struggle not to gamble, or drink, or stay loyal to their wife. Some people struggle not to eat. Some struggle to not vomit after they eat, so obsessed are they with our deranged priorities as a country. Temptation is like phobia. You can’t understand it. It does not stem from reason. It stems from experience, and everyone’s experience is different.

It’s the combination of aesthetics and health which fuels our prejudice against fat people. It is the perfect storm for two of our most pernicious failings as a country: the pathetic reification of beauty and our zealous obsession with health. These two priorities stand as broken, nasty reflections of our society: our narcissistic need to live forever, to prolong our existence at all costs, and our increasingly desperate, vacuous, celebrity-obsessed culture.

This discrimination is not only an ugly reflection of our priorities, but there are increasing signs that it is actually worsening morbidity levels among those with sedentary lifestyles.

A report published in the peer-reviewed Nutrition journal this week found that concentrating on weight loss through diets and increased exercise may work in the short-term, but is rarely maintained in the long-term.

“Concern has arisen that this weight focus is not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but may also have unintended consequences, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatisation and discrimination,” the authors, from the University of California and Coventry University, found.

Instead, health experts should look to the growing Health at Every Size (HAES) movement, which doesn’t concentrate on reaching a certain weight, or even accept the dictatorship of the body mass index. Instead, it argues for accepting your size, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, consuming nutritious meals and doing exercise you enjoy.

The report was widely reported, but we shouldn’t get carried away just yet. It was not original, but a collection of 26 pooled studies in a previous systematic review. The trials mentioned were small, short-term and in women only. But there were promising results. There were a statistically significant improvements in the results of overweight or obese women, many of whom were chronic dieters or binge eaters, following HAES treatment compared to those following more traditional social support, dieting, cognitive behavioural treatment, education or weight loss approaches. We need larger, longer studies now, conducted on both men and women. But there’s reason to think that our obsession with health and beauty is actually damaging the very thing we cherish.

The need to judge, to discriminate, is a deep-seated urge in humans. We’ve always separated and pointed and blamed. As society’s habits change, it finds new outlets for that discrimination to be expressed legitimately. One of those places is in our attitude to fat people. It’s not as harmless or as justified as you think. It’s a reflection on yourself.

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