‘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.