Obesity and the Political Agenda: Would you Like Lies with That? (Part 1)

We’ve all had a discussion or two about obesity. You know the one. You were walking your dog, or doing the weekly grocery shopping and you spotted a particularly large person. Probably struggling to breathe, probably wearing a sweat stained XXXL t-shirt, probably looking pretty damn unhappy with whatever task (s)he’s (attempting?) to undertake.

You turned to the person you’re with and make a snide comment about his weight – ‘how do people get that big?’, or sent off a short text message – ‘you’ll never guess the size of this bastard’. Maybe you were one of those people who took a photo and posted it online with a fat-shaming caption. Maybe you participated in international fat shaming week. Yes. That’s actually a thing now [1].

Then again, maybe you were a little more sympathetic. Maybe you yourself are a little north of a healthy weight and, instead of insulting the poor guy/gal, you looked guiltily at your own waistline and hurried away. Maybe you defended the them to your friend – ‘it could be genetic?’ Maybe you declined to make a comment because your relationship with food is the same as that annoying couple on Facebook, ‘complicated’.

Whether we admit it or not, almost all of us have an opinion on the issue of overweightness and obesity; and unlike a lot of other big issues (pun intended) – like the state of the economy or the government’s treatment of refugees – the growing size of our population is something that can’t be ignored simply by choosing to watch cat videos on the tram instead of reading the news.

It is pervasive because it is visible. If you go a day or even an hour without seeing a person who is overweight, then you’re in the minority.

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What is perplexing then is the fact that, despite its visibility, obesity is quite simply not on Australia’s political agenda. No politician in Australia is yet to be voted into office by running on a health platform. Tony Abbott’s first words as Australia’s Prime Minister were not ‘we will make this country happier and healthier’ but ‘we will stop the boats an uhhhhh protect our uhhhhh borders’ (and then something about hating poor people and having good looking daughters).

This is in light of the fact that obesity costs us in excess of 60 billion dollars annually – primarily stemming from the burdens placed on our healthcare system for weight-related illnesses, like type 2 diabetes or heart conditions[2].

This is in light of the fact that the average Australian weights 9kgs heavier than they did in the 1980s – It’s like each of us are carrying around a small koala (I’ve named mine Larry)[3].

This is in light of the fact that sugar kills around seven times more people a year worldwide than cigarettes (38 million compared to 5 million)[4], and that since the year 2000, overweight people out-number their ‘ideal body weight’ counterparts in Australia[5].

This is in light of the fact that for the first time in human history there are generations of children who are predicted to live shorter life spans than their parents based solely on their excessive eating habits [6].

This is in light of the fact that there are 852 million people in the world suffering from starvation [7].

But why has this issue perpetually circumvented the political spotlight? Why have we not demanded a political response the same way we do for other social problems like illicit drug use of excessive alcohol consumption? Why, in a time of economic recession, has someone not pointed out that solving a $60 billion dollar problem would address our $48 billion dollar deficit? Why did no one challenge Tony Abbott’s statement, made earlier this year, that “The only person responsible for what goes into my mouth is me,” and “the only people who are responsible for what goes into kids’ mouths are the parents”?[8]

Well, for a start, Australia’s waistline doesn’t appear to have been framed as a political or social problem as much as a crisis of personal responsibility – a sentiment clearly shared by old mate Tony.

The popular narrative is that obesity is associated with self-esteem and a wholesale lack of self-control, and can only be mitigated when individuals start making responsible choices: to eat healthy; to exercise regularly; to buy a shitload of supplements from GNC[9].

It’s promoted by shows like The Biggest Loser, where teams of obese contestants compete against one another to lose weight and are repeatedly commanded to ‘take control’ of their lives. In the process they are empowered and rewarded – in many cases, the contestants lose upwards of 70kgs, are given lavish gifts, and attest to obtaining a ‘new lease on life’. They are also humiliated – in season 7 the first episode shows the contestants being filed onto the lawn and told, point blank that they ‘all have one thing in common – there’s no spouse, no partner, no boyfriend’. The implicit message is that the only way that will change is if they lose a shit tonne of weight. After all, who could love a fattie?

It’s also further ingrained by news stories like this from the UK’s Daily Star, which trivialises any claim that a person’s weight could be associated with their socioeconomic status or personal circumstances.

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It promotes the view that fat persons alone are responsible for getting healthier – any suggestion of governmental intervention funded by ‘your taxpayer dollars’ is out of the question. It also clearly encourages persons to view fat persons as essentially bad people: when the photo did the rounds on Facebook last month, I was shocked by the near universal condemnation of the woman – clearly intended by the page who’d published it –, with comments demarcating her as a ‘fat tattooed slut’ who ‘didn’t need money to lose weight’. The fact that the article itself, which provided insight and clarity to her actual assertions, wasn’t attached to the photo only shows that people need very little prompting (or information) to air their ‘fattism’.

So what exactly is wrong with this ‘tough love’ stance we’ve taken on our overweight society? Well, put frankly, the issue is just not as simple as its being made out to be.

Children are up to twice as likely to be obese when they come from low income families[10] or when they are brought up in single parent[11]. It is in this scenario that the affordability and convenience of takeaway food are at their most acute when compared to persons of a higher income bracket, and the relative lack of nutritional education also plays a part.

Factor in that the average full-time working hours have increased due to increasing demands for flexibility and the rising cost of living[12] – increasing the appeal of pre-packaged meals or take-away; the pervasive influence of misleading advertising – the box says ‘high in fibre’ when the product is also absurdly high calories and saturated fats; and the distressing advent of advertising aimed at children – it is common practice for supermarkets to shelve sugary products AT THEIR EYE LEVEL and at the checkout, thereby pitting young children against their stressed out parents[13]; the argument that those extra kilos can be chalked up to an individual failure to ‘do the right thing’ as opposed to structural ‘nudging’ (or in some cases outright coercion) is simply not plausible.

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There’s also the fact – literally never talked about – that maintaining a healthy weight after having been obese is next to impossible, with a success rate as low as 2%[14]. This is because an individual’s metabolism becomes irreversibly changed as a result of being overweight, and after losing the excess kilos the person has to eat vastly less calories than a person who maintained a healthy weight consistently. This means that if a female child becomes obese she will generally need to maintain a diet of around 1300 calories for the rest of her life to retain a healthy weight – about half of what her ‘healthy’ counterpart could[15].

So what does all this indicate? Well, for a start, treating overweight persons as the source of all their problems distorts discourse oriented towards developing a solution. The emphasis on individual choice without a corresponding attention to critical deficiencies in education, resources and opportunities obscures the above social and economic factors that are critical to any comprehensive understanding of the problem and the development of a feasible response.

Yes, will-power is part the equation – if overweight or obese persons want to lose weight safely, the only real option they have is to work their butts off, change their lifestyle and believe that such a transformation is both attainable and desirable.

Yes, persons have a degree of responsibility in making this change – I fundamentally disagree with the notion that obesity is beautiful for the same reasons I don’t think lung cancer stemming from tobacco addiction is beautiful. Children should not be brought up with the belief that a life of XXXL is acceptable – and the societal consequences are such that accepting obesity as irreversible is simply not an feasible option.

Yes, shows like the Biggest Loser and I Used To Be Fat are not all bad in that they show that almost all people are capable of losing the weight and finding it within the selves to get started.

But it’s important not to confuse the solution with the problem. It’s important not to simplify the issue as something that’s 100% the fault of the individual or, better yet, something that can only be fixed by them. It’s important not to pretend that a reversal of Australia’s inflating size can occur without broader structural changes to our food economy, advertising laws and primary and secondary education.

Whether we like it or not, obesity is problem that we all pay for, and it simply will not go away without drastic governmental action.

We need to develop a response.

But more on that next week…



[1] Roosh Valizadeh. (2013). Fat Shaming Week Was A Corpulent Success. Available: http://www.returnofkings.com/19498/fat-shaming-week-was-a-corpulent-success. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[2] Lesley Russell. (2014). Tackling obesity will help reduce budget fat. Available: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/tackling-obesity-will-help-reduce-budget-fat-20140909-10eaci.html. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[3] Insight. (Tuesday, May 28, 2013 ). Fat Fighters . Available: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/tvepisode/fat-fighters. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[4] Dr Scott. (2013). What Kills More People: Sugar or Cigarettes?. Available: http://www.olsonnd.com/what-kills-more-people-sugar-or-cigarettes/. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[5] [5] Insight. (Tuesday, May 28, 2013 ). Fat Fighters . Available: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/tvepisode/fat-fighters. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[6] American Heart Association. (2014). Overweight in Children. Available: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/HealthierKids/ChildhoodObesity/Overweight-in-Children_UCM_304054_Article.jsp#. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[7] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2010). Globally almost 870 million chronically undernourished – new hunger report. Available: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/161819/icode/. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[8] Lesley Russell. (2014). Tackling obesity will help reduce budget fat. Available: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/tackling-obesity-will-help-reduce-budget-fat-20140909-10eaci.html. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[9] Good Nutrition Company

[10] Pettigrew, S, & Pescud, M 2013, ‘The Salience of Food Labeling Among Low-income Families With Overweight Children’, Journal Of Nutrition Education & Behavior, 45, 4, p. 332; Dennis Campbell. (2014). Childhood obesity at primary school age twice as likely in poor areas. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/03/childhood-obesity-poor-wealthy-areas-junk-food. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[11] Byrne, L, Cook, K, Skouteris, H, & Do, M (2011), ‘Parental status and childhood obesity in Australia’, International Journal Of Pediatric Obesity, 6, 5/6, pp. 415-418

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2010). 1370.0 – Measures of Australia’s Progress, 2010 .Available: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Hours%20worked%20% Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[13] Miranda Herron. (2013). Junk food advertising to kids. Available: http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/nutrition/junk-food-advertising-and-marketing-to-kids.aspx. Last accessed 6th December 2014.

[14] Wing RR, Phelan S. (2005). “Science-Based Solutions to Obesity: What are the Roles of Academia, Government, Industry, and Health Care? Proceedings of a symposium, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 10–11 March 2004 and Anaheim, Califo. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 82 (1), 207-273.

[15] Ibid.

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