Tackling stereotypes in the war against obesity

Obesity is regarded as a modern day scourge, but is part of the problem the way it is portrayed in the media? Chris Bond reports.

64 per cent of adults are classified as obese

WE are, we’re repeatedly told, in the grip of a spiralling obesity epidemic as a nation.

Barely a month goes by without some kind of warning about the numbers of people who are either overweight or obese. The latest figures claim that 28 per cent of girls and 31 per cent of boys between the age of two and 15 in the UK are now classified as being either obese or overweight, with 64 per cent of adults also falling into the same category.

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But we’re not the only country battling this problem. A report published last week by the Overseas Development Institute said the number of overweight and obese adults in the developing world has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980. The UK think tank warned that one in three people worldwide was now overweight and urged governments to do more to stem the growing tide.

The report said this increase was due to changing diets and increased consumption of fatty and sugary foods with experts predicting a “huge increase” in heart attacks, strokes and diabetes in the years ahead unless action was taken. All of which makes for a pretty bleak picture.

But while there’s no shortage of shocking statistics being bandied around it isn’t all bad news.

More than a quarter of women in the UK regularly eat the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables while healthy living campaigns like the “Change for Life” initiative have helped boost the number of adults doing some form of regular exercise. Last month it was also reported that the number of obese and overweight children in the final year of primary school in England had fallen for the first time in six years.

The issue of public health is complicated and one that’s influenced by people’s behaviour as well as social and economic conditions. Nevertheless, when it comes to the question of obesity the language used is frequently couched in negativity.

The UK, for instance, has been described as the fat man of Europe with obesity even being referred to as a modern day “plague”.

The general perception, too, seems to be that if someone is fat or overweight then it’s their own fault. Celebrities and public figures deemed overweight repeatedly find themselves the butt of jokes on TV, the inference being that obesity is something that only afflicts those who are too lazy to exercise, or simply eat too much.

Carole Wright, former Slimming World Woman of the Year, lost 19 stone after she was warned by doctors that she might die if she didn’t lose weight. She had battled with her weight from an early age but finally managed to shed the pounds after joining a local slimming group.

However, she feels it’s still seen as socially acceptable to poke fun at someone because they have weight problems. “The last people now that can be stigmatised are people that are overweight,” she said, in a recent BBC interview. “You can’t say anything to somebody about the colour of their skin, or their race, but you can still have a go at the fat person in the street, and without empathy and without support there’s nowhere for us to go.”

Stuart Flint, a lecturer and researcher in exercise psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, believes that people who are overweight are often stereotyped in the media.

Over one 12 month period he looked at the way obesity was portrayed in the national press and his findings make for interesting reading.

He says that out of 349 articles which made reference to obesity only a fraction, just two per cent, discussed what he called “uncontrollable” causes.

“Some of the stories were created to try to spark moral panic and there was even one headline that said ‘We are killing our children.’” Dr Flint says this kind of sensationalism doesn’t reflect the work being done to tackle the issue. “In the last few years obesity has started to plateau out a bit and it’s not increasing at the same rate it was back in the late 1990s, but we don’t hear about this.”

He points out that this isn’t simply a modern phenomena. “Obesity has been around for a long time but it’s only really come to the forefront of people’s attention in the last 20 or 30 years.”

The tabloids, in particular, have been criticised for encouraging negative stereotypes and suggesting that obese people are lazy, gluttonous and stupid.

Dr Flint says that making it socially acceptable to poke fun at people who are overweight can have a knock-on effect, with bullying at school and discrimination in the workplace.

“Other characteristics like race and sex have discrimination laws in place to protect people but we don’t have anything like that for overweight and obese people,” he says.

“You also have a lot of fat jokes on TV which reinforces the existing attitude that it’s OK to discriminate against people who are overweight.”

According to health experts most cases of obesity are caused by eating too much and moving too little, which leads to surplus energy being turned into fat.

But genes can also play a key role in whether someone struggles to control their weight. “You can take two people who eat the same amount and one of them will be more prone to put on fatness because of their genetic make-up. It doesn’t mean they will become obese because there are other factors, like lifestyle, but they have a greater likelihood of becoming obese and this doesn’t tend to get reported,” says Dr Flint.

Last year researchers found that the so-called “obesity excuse” of being born with a slow metabolism is actually true for some people. A team from the University of Cambridge found the first proof that mutated DNA does actually slow metabolism, which could lead to the development of new obesity treatments.

Dr Flint believes that one of the reasons for the harsh criticism and stigmatising of people who have weight problems is that it goes against the modern day obsession with being slim.

“Women, in particular, often feel under huge pressure to live up to this ideal body size that they see on the TV and in magazines which revolves around a skinny physique, but some people just can’t achieve it.

“The average body size has increased over the years but the ideal body size hasn’t, in fact it’s heading in the opposite direction and we’re seeing increasing anxiety over body size and shape.”

It’s not only women who feel under pressure to conform to a certain body image. “Men are encouraged to have a more muscular physique through TV adverts and films in a way they weren’t in the past,” he says.

Dr Flint believes the underlying causes of why someone is overweight can get overlooked. “There are often different reasons why someone becomes overweight and obese in the first place and just focusing on the physical aspects doesn’t deal with the issue.

“You have to find out what is causing a person to be unhappy and consume so much. There may have been a serious event in their life, they may have lost a parent or a partner and started comfort eating.

“Obesity is a chronic condition and too often the emphasis is put solely on the physical side of it and the psychological aspect isn’t dealt with.”

He believes the media can play a key role in helping to inform and educate the public but feels too often it falls short and simply reinforces existing prejudices.

“It’s difficult to change people’s perceptions especially when people see anti-fat attitudes reinforced in the media and this is something that needs to change.”