‘SafeFoods’, obesity, eating disorders and shaming.

This is why I never, if left to my own devices, listen to the radio first thing in the morning. Who wants to be annoyed before they’ve had that essential first cup of tea? Also, who wants to feel guilty about the full-fat milk in their morning cereal? But this morning I’m staying with my family, and so ended up listening to the radio. Bad idea, because it was through this that I found out about SafeFood‘s new ‘Stop the Spread‘ ad campaign. On the radio was a representative from SafeFood, and one from Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland.

Here’s the ad that was being discussed. I’m going to give it a TW for fat/body shaming and pop it behind a jump. Not something to check out if you’re in any way vulnerable. I haven’t a transcript right now, but I’ll see about putting one together after work today.

Right. In this ad, we have ominous music, being obese/overweight seen as an epidemic, as a contagion. Close-up shots of people’s bellies, as a voiceover talks about higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Ominous music continuing with a shot, through a window, of a family sitting on their sofa eating their dinner, in front of the TV. A voiceover stating that if the ‘number around your waist’ is higher than 32 inches for women, or 37 inches for men, the epidemic ‘probably has’ spread to you.

Let’s analyse this a little, shall we? The purpose of this ad appears to be purely to let people know that they might be fat, and that there are certain health risks associated with that. The assumptions inherent in this are staggering- can anyone, in our society, truly believe that people don’t know when they’re fat? We have a culture obsessed with skinniness as the ideal body type, with selling us ‘solutions’ to our body ‘flaws’. I can’t remember the last time I heard of a ‘healthy eating’ plan that wasn’t code for a low-calorie diet- probably because ‘healthy eating’ is synonymous with losing weight in our society.

This ad also deliberately addresses what they call the ‘social contagion‘ effect- the idea that people are more likely to be overweight/obese if their friends, family members or spouses are. Instead of looking into social structural factors that may cause this, SafeFoods makes the assumption that we simply see our friends and families gaining weight and somehow, magically, become influenced to do the same. Not that, for example, people in similar social situations might live in similar areas, do similar jobs, have access to similar foods, have similar pressures, be similarly busy and similarly stressed and that the totality of these structural factors might lead to similar health and body issues within a person’s social sphere. Nope, it’s just that if my friend Betsy puts on weight, I’m going to suddenly decide to pile on the doughnuts because she’s just that cool.

The lack of awareness of the reality of what’s going on here is just.. staggering. The idea that people have suddenly, in the past decade or two, become lazy and stopped caring about our bodies is both insulting and ridiculous. If I’m in a situation where I’m working long hours, have a long commute without public transport links, responsibilities towards my family, and would like to see my friends once in a blue moon? I’m going to be more likely to just grab a sandwich from the local deli at lunch than to pile yet another thing on my plate to make myself a packed lunch every night. The problem here isn’t my (or your!) laziness. It’s the way our society is structured, it’s what kinds of filling, tasty foods we have access to, it’s the constant interplay of our responsibilities and priorities.

Sure, I could make a heroic effort, as an individual, to exercise every day and spend time preparing healthy and low-calorie meals for myself. But that’s going to mean less time with friends and loved ones, less time on hobbies, less time to sleep. And although an individual might be persuaded to make that effort and to keep it up over their entire life, we can’t expect an entire society to do so.

Yes, people were skinnier fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, we also had better and more extensive public transport networks, so people were more likely to get that extra fifteen minutes of walking every morning and evening. More people worked outdoors and in physically demanding jobs, so exercise was simply part of what we did all day, and not something that we had to make time for outside of work. These issues are structural, not individual, and need to be dealt with on the structural level.

And then there’s the shaming. As the BodyWhys representative* pointed out, we live in a society where eating disorders are a major problem. The response by the SafeFood representative to this was, in my opinion, absolutely appalling. She said- and I paraphrase- that eating disorders only affect a minority of the population, and that she is more interested in working to help the majority.

Eating disorders are but one extreme response to a situation where we are all told that our bodies are imperfect, flawed, not good enough. Where it is entirely normal to feel unhappy with our bodies. Where it is strange and unusual to not feel that way. Eating disorders are a symptom of a society which is structured in a way that makes us fatter, and which shames us for not being thinner. Telling people that obesity is a contagion? That they are not only harming themselves, but also everyone around them, if they have a waist measurement greater than 32 or 37 inches? Doing this, in a society which already talks about fat as if it is disgusting? In a society where it has been shown that shaming people about their bodies makes them less likely to exercise? Dismissing, in a sentence, the experiences of people with eating disorders? Completely ignoring the experiences and needs of people with eating disorders whose waists are larger than that magic number?

I wish I found it surprising. Instead, I’m simply disgusted.

*I’m not sure who exactly was speaking for either organisation. If anyone knows, please let me know!

**Need to go to work very soon. Will look up citations later! However, very definitely there. Anecdata, though, in the meantime: ever been to a gym as a squishy person? Felt self-conscious, eh?

‘SafeFoods’, obesity, eating disorders and shaming.
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Attention: women! You might be fat without even knowing it!

According to this charming article which has been lurking about the internet for a few weeks now (several decades in internet time, I am aware), a full quarter of women who are overweight perceive themselves as normal.

Oh, and this is a problem. A terrible, terrible problem, because all of those women? They might not know about all of the horrible health conditions they could be suffering from right at this very minute! These women might even be eating a normal amount of food and not starving themselves, because they don’t even know that they’re disgusting, sick freaks of horribleness possibly maybe kinda unhealthy. Maybe. Because, of course having a BMI over 25 automatically makes a person unhealthy than their 24.9 counterparts. Because a woman could never know herself if she is healthy or not. Because the only way to be healthy is to eat a restricted diet. Because, of course, a person who is overweight can’t be normal.

But less of the snark, and let’s get to actually looking at the article, shall we? Most of the article focuses on the fact that a reasonably large proportion of women feel themselves to be in a different BMI category than they are. Some women who are ‘overweight’ see themselves as ‘normal*’, and vice-versa.
Okay, fair enough. Not all of us have the time or the inclination to constantly check our BMIs. We might be more interested in how our bodies feel and look to us than how this relates to a height-weight ratio that is, frankly, of very little use on an individual level. We might be busy with actually getting on with our lives and have different priorities.

But then we get to the discussion, to what is talked about, what is left out, and how topics are actually discussed. While the research itself appears to have included ‘underweight’ as a category, this article defines ‘normal’ weight as a BMI under 25. Can anyone else see the large, glaring problem here? Particularly when being severely underweight comes with rather more acute health problems (actual starvation) than being equivalently overweight (claims that certain chronic conditions are more likely which, contrary to popular opinion, are frequently contested).
When contrasting unhealthy behaviours among people who misperceive their weights, there also seems to be an imbalance in discussion in this article. While ‘normal’ weight people who perceive themselves as overweight are more likely to smoke or take diet pills- both activities which are dangerous in themselves- those who are ‘overweight’ might simply not be restricting their diets. How… terrible?
Later, however, we get to the really peachy stuff**. The last section of the article talks about how the ‘fattening of America’ could be causing people to feel themselves to be ‘normal’ when they are really abnormal ‘overweight’- how seeing other people of similar weights around them causes people to normalise higher weights.
Leaving aside that this is problematised? Again, okay, fair enough. I can see how seeing people like you around you would lead you to think that being like you is pretty much normal. However, let’s go back to the numbers, shall we? Some back-of-an-envelope calculations give me, in this study, 22% of ‘overweight’ women seeing themselves as ‘normal’, and 16% of ‘normal’ women seeing themselves as ‘overweight’. While there is a disparity between the two, I’m going to guess that it isn’t a hugely significant one***. It’s around the same range, ish. Oh, and no numbers at all are given for women classed as ‘underweight’. Surprised?
Which is where we go back to the problematisation of ‘overweight’ women perceiving themselves as ‘normal’. There simply isn’t an equivalent problematisation, in this article, the other way around. It’s not there. The idea that there are every bit as significant a fraction of women who think themselves to be ‘overweight’ when they’re not? The fact that we’re shaming women of all sizes into behaviours that are both unhealthy and damned un-fun in the pursuit of a certain body type, and then writing damning articles about them when they have a healthy self-image? Not there either. And all of this without even a mention of the 49% of the human race left out of this discussion entirely.

There’s just one more thing I want to talk about, regarding this article and the women it criticises. And that is that it appears to me that one of the people they’re talking about here? The people they’re criticising like this for not restricting their diets and being suitably ashamed of their bodies? Is me.
See, I did some calculations over the past few weeks after this article came out. It turns out that my BMI? Varies between 23-ish and 25-ish. If I’m feeling a bit bloated, a bit on the PMSey side of things and happen to have eaten recently? If I’ve decided today that I’m probably closer to 5’2″ than 5’3″? I could, without even noticing, cross that great divide between Normal and Abnormal Overweight, between Healthy and Should Be Starving Herself. Today? I have no idea, and I have no interest in getting on the bathroom scales and taking out my calculator to find out.

*Here I recommend tying a nice pillow onto your forehead to avoid bruising from the inevitable headdesking and facepalming. If you don’t happen to have any pillows of appropriate size, you should be able to McGyver something with, say, some nice thick socks and some string or elastic.
**You might want to make sure that pillow is firmly attached to your forehead before going any further.
*** Feel free to jump in here please, statisticians!

Attention: women! You might be fat without even knowing it!