Why ‘anti-obesity’ campaigns will fail

Being fat

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There’s a brand of tights and pantyhose in Australia called Size Wise.  They are for the ‘full-figured’ woman.  I used to surreptitiously buy them, and I remember my horror at Coles one day when they had to do a price check for them because the barcode wasn’t scanning.  The whole supermarket would know I wore plus-size pantyhose.  The horror.  Sure, my arse size might have tipped them off anyway, but having it said out loud was gut-wrenchingly embarrassing.

(this is a loooooong size rant, I’m warning you up front)

I used to put on a similar guise while shopping with friends when I was in high school.  I’d be all “oh, I haven’t seen anything I like” or “I haven’t got any money” or “I only want to buy jewelery today” whenever we’d go shopping in regular size or teen size clothes stores, where inevitably the clothing didn’t fit me or wouldn’t fit me well.  (I still have an aversion to group clothes shopping, however… I’d rather battle that nightmare alone…) My friends played along, I don’t know whether it was out of politeness or simply a complete lack of knowledge that fat people don’t get to shop in the same stores as everyone else (this is slowly improving, but as a plus size teenager in a small town, my god, trying to be fashionable was nearly impossible).

I basically used to try and pretend I wasn’t plus size, though I wasn’t ever in a denial of that fact to myself.  I just really wished it could be secret.  I felt like, if I hid the clothing labels and never publicly admitted that I was fat, somehow I could protect myself from further ridicule.  It didn’t work…. I was mercilessly teased and bullied at school about my size for quite some time.  Probably roughly from the ages of eight to seventeen.

Size is a very public ‘failure.’  You carry it with you wherever you go.  But even when bullies grow up a bit and at least start saying things behind your back instead of screaming it across the playground, the scars stay.

It took me until my second year of university to feel comfortable enough to go to a gym, and it was only thanks to the added encouragement of some of my awesome lady friends also being members rather than being told I should go because I was fat.  During high school, I always participated in PDHPE and school sport because I was a geek student and didn’t want to mess up my grades,  and I had some very encouraging teachers during that time, but being the slowest or the crappiest or the one being made fun of in the changeroom and on the field didn’t exactly warm me to sports.  And those annual fitness tests where your BMI was measured were also super not-fun.

Swimming was the worst.  I actually really like swimming, and always have, despite often being brutally punished with sunburn no matter how much SPF15+ I’ve slapped all over me.  But being in a swimsuit for a school swimming day?  Hellish.  I used to try and forget my swimmers on purpose, or get sick, or say I had women’s problems… I usually then had to walk down to the pool in the sweltering midday heat, sit out in the sweltering midday heat while everyone else swam, and then walk back to school, where our classrooms were mostly unairconditioned.  But it beat getting my kit off in the changerooms and it beat having to tolerate the slurs and hand-over-mouth-whisper-to-each-other-and-giggle that were directed at me when I wore my swimmers.

I remember spending at least six months at school trying to not eat in front of anybody because I thought maybe, just maybe, people would lay off me if they thought I wasn’t fat because I was some sort of glutton.

Sure, kids will be kids and everyone grows out of their bitchy teenage stage and I hold no grudges against those who may have  tormented me because I know that I often fought back with bitching too (and they were probably feeling just as self-conscious and messed up because adolescence is so screwy).  And now I’m stronger… strong enough to publicly say “i’m fat!” but honestly, still dealing with many body image issues.

So in my experience, being constantly made aware of my fat, often in the shiny package of abusive nicknames, did not help reduce my arse size or do good things for my relationship with either physical activity or food.

But, fat-shaming is a learned behavior.  Those kids and teenagers learned it from somewhere, right? But no real moves ever seem to be made to say “this is not acceptable.”  So it continues.

It continues beyond the realm of high school and is played out and reinforced even by policy makers.

Militaristic fat-fighting taskforces are getting all anti-childhood obesity on our arses all over the place these days.

Public health is important.  But YOU ARE NOT HELPING with your war on fat.  You are excluding.  You are creating barriers.  You are telling certain people that they are wrong or flawed (on health, which is something that can only be judged on an individual basis by a medical professional, rather than a cursory glance by a random citizen) and by doing that, you are allowing discrimination and fat-shaming to continue.

Do I think we should abandon public health and child nutrition campaigns and start contracting out school canteens to McDonald’s?  Hell no.

But nutrition and exercise campaigns should be called exactly that.  Pro-health.  Pro-exercise. Pro-healthy eating.  They should be inclusive and they should be targeted at everyone no matter their current body size.  They should encourage people instead of shaming them.  They should inform rather than abuse.

How about instead of dragging fat kids out of class for boot camp style fitness training, we subsidize after school sporting activities for kids of all shapes and sizes so more people can afford to access them?  How about, instead of spending money on crappy ads about how fat equals bad, we make healthy food just as accessible as fast food by subsidizing the rent for local farmers markets, building community gardens or farms in urban areas or providing incentives for small businesses that offer healthy food?

Reinforcing body shame can have the nasty consequences of turning people off participating, especially adolescents.  It can damage their confidence at the time when they are feeling most vulnerable. I cannot fathom how policy makers cannot realize this.  So much of this war on obesity seems to be political point-scoring to win over the ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ crowd and I think it’s going to do more harm than good.

The fact is, there’s industries out there making big bucks out of fat shame.  There’s politicians out there trying to grab votes out of fat shame.  We as a society unfortunately just keep buying into it, but it’s not going to help anyone at the end of the day.

These are some of the reasons why I support Fat Acceptance.  Some people think the being “fat acceptance” means being “anti-health” or “stuff yourself with chocolate and never go to the gym” and it’s just not true.  I support health… but mental health and happiness is part of overall health and that does not seem to be taken into account by the mainstream when it comes to the “war on obesity.”

4 Responses to " Why ‘anti-obesity’ campaigns will fail "

  1. Sara says:

    Well said. We are all made differently. It still amazes me how it remains acceptable to criticize people for their weight (either to their face or behind their back) – I see it as akin to racism.

    So much in society encourages people to consume far more than they need – we are being fed these messages constantly. Eat this, buy this, etc. Campaigns to encourage health should definitely take a positive approach.

  2. Trish says:

    This is eloquent and well-reasoned. You should try to get it published as an op-ed somewhere.

  3. Ashlee says:

    Sara — attacks on weight is often such a power thing, especially when gender is brought into it. It’s another mechanism by which men can disempower women, that’s one of the reasons why I get so angry when I see fat-shaming being continually reinforced. It’s so often not about health at all.

    Trish — Thanks :). Maybe I’ll try giving it an edit and submitting it somewhere. It was basically just a rant.

  4. Spilt Milk says:

    I love this – it is powerful and very true. Even the framing of a publc health issue as a ‘war’ of any kind is completely offensive and doomed to fail.

    I know this is an old post – I came here via Mamamia. I am one of the fat acceptance advocates who was attacked at that site for speaking up. It is a shame the whole thing has been framed as a fight about Donna Simpson – it wasn’t – but that is the nature of spin I suppose. Anyway it is always a pleasure to find more writing on fat issues – I loved your Gruen transfer post too, I felt similarly about that incident.