A football fan eats chips before a match. Photo: Getty
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Thin people don’t just eat differently to fat people. They live completely different lives

One of the biggest lies about obesity is that it’s simply about eating too much and not doing enough exercise – problems are often far deeper rooted. 

This summer, I’ve spent the parliamentary recess reading improving books, learning Mandarin and nominating my celebrity friends to do the ice-bucket challenge. No, wait – of course I haven’t. Like most people, I’ve responded to having more free time by filling it with reality television.

My particular favourite is an American import called Obese: a Year to Save My Life. In the show, Chris Powell – a personal trainer who looks like a cross between a thigh muscle and a televangelist – takes on patients who need to lose half their body weight. On the whole, over the course of a year, they do. And as I’ve watched more of the programme, I’ve become convinced that behind the blindingly white teeth and unnervingly chirpy demeanour, Chris Powell is a stone-cold genius, and possibly even the man to save the NHS.

One of the biggest lies about obesity is that it’s simply about eating too much and not doing enough exercise. It’s instructive to note how, when people talk about the subject in public, often the person faux-innocently asking, “Why not just eat a bit less, then?” is carrying a little extra padding, too. The stark fact is that most of us are fat: two-thirds of Britons are overweight or obese.

That’s because our society conspires against us and our best intentions. Outside the big cities, a car is a necessity; soon you hop into it for even the shortest trip to the shops. We sit, or stand, still for hours at work. Our bodies, which evolved to savour sugar and fat as rare and precious sources of nutrition, are overwhelmed by fizzy drinks and junk food. Even as we get more puritan about alcohol, food remains the drug it is socially acceptable to consume in public: where a previous generation might have had a drinks tray in the corner office, we have a packet of Hobnobs in the desk drawer.

The truth is that thin people don’t just eat differently from fat people. They live differently. The morbidly obese need to raze their life to rubble and build it again from scratch. On Obese: a Year to Save My Life, the subjects take three months off work to concentrate on their exercise routine. The production crew goes through their cupboards, chucking out the crisps and doughnuts and filling them with whole grains and fruit and vegetables. They get classes in cooking healthy food that tastes of something (lemon juice and chilli are usually involved). Their living rooms are filled with treadmills and free weights. In some cases, their families sign a “contract” to support them. If they reach their target weight, they are given skin removal surgery – so they aren’t dragging round six square feet of the person they used to be.

Even taking into account the inevitable behind-the-scenes manipulation that goes on – this is American reality TV, after all – the results are extraordinary. But what consistently surprises me is why the people involved in the show became obese. For some, the weight crept on after a divorce, or the death of a child, or a bout of depression. For others, being overweight is part of a general feeling of lack of control over the course of their lives. One episode followed Jacqui McCoy, who went from 25 to 11 stone and who started overeating when she was raped at the age of 14. As part of the year-long transformation, many of those trying to lose weight speak to a therapist, and that must be one reason for the programme’s success.

“Obesity is a symptom,” is how Emma Burnell puts it. The Labour blogger had a gastric sleeve operation this year and has since lost eight stone. “Everyone who is overweight has a different reason.” She believes any policy response to Britain’s ballooning weight has to address the psychological as well as physical aspects of obesity. “It would have to bring in mental health, because, in my own experience, I knew all the good rules about food and exercise – but there was something stopping me.”

And this is where I think Obese: a Year to Save My Life has a lesson for the NHS. We already know that obesity costs the health service more than £5bn a year, both through increased rates of heart disease and other illnesses, and through the costs involved in adapting medical equipment for bariatric patients. Yet the kind of holistic, intensive intervention offered by Powell just isn’t available – our counselling services are overstretched, and the NHS deals far better with emergencies and acute cases than it does with chronic, complex problems and the need for preventative medicine.

Admittedly, gastric sleeves and bypass operations are available – though there is not enough capacity, as Burnell found out when her operation was outsourced by King’s College trust to a private hospital in Chelsfield. (In Wales, the health service plans to increase its bariatric surgery capacity from 80 to 300 a year by 2018 to cope with demand.) As for skin removal, it is defined as cosmetic surgery and is rarely funded by the health service. That means patients are given a second chance but saddled with excess skin that chafes, and gets inflamed, and perhaps infected. It’s certainly a disincentive to do exercise.

There’s an echo here of “Million-Dollar Murray”, Malcolm Gladwell’s celebrated essay for the New Yorker – in which he calculates that over a decade, a single homeless man called Murray Barr cost the state of Nevada a million dollars as he bounced around police stations and hospital emergency departments. “It would probably have been cheaper to give him a full-time nurse and his own apartment,” Gladwell concludes.

The same is true of the morbidly obese. It would cost the health service many millions to offer them intensive support – cognitive behavioural therapy, diet education, free exercise equipment, plus gastric surgery and skin removal where appropriate. But in the long run, it will cost more not to offer people a second chance. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

It feeds into the myth that when it comes to wiping bottoms and drying tears, fathers are amateurs while mothers are naturals.

It suggests that childcare remains the sole responsibility of mothers, who should therefore be grateful should any man bother to “help them out”.

It’s rare to see mothers described as “babysitting” their own children. On the contrary, one is either “being a mother” – doing what mothers do, without receiving any particular recognition for it – or one is guilty of neglect.

To that extent, I’m with the dads. I don’t want them to be seen as mere babysitters any more than you do. And yet there’s something about the testimonies of some of the “babysitting” dads of reddit that I can’t help but find annoying. Sure, their parenting efforts aren’t always appreciated – but do they have to be quite so self-pitying about it?

Take this complaint appearing in the “Dads don’t babysit” thread, for instance:

“Watch comedy shows about families. Dad is always the bumbling but loveable fool, mom is the strict, way too good looking, poor woman who has to put up with all of this.”

Poor men. Poor, poor men. And lucky, lucky women for being the beneficiaries of gender stereotypes that would appear not to bear any resemblance whatsoever to real life.

Except that’s not quite true. While the number of stay-at-home fathers in the UK has risen, it remains relatively low at 16 per cent of all stay-at-home parents. In heterosexual couples where both parents are in paid employment, women continue to take on the majority of household tasks and childcare responsibilities. While carework is seen as the key reason why mothers earn less than childfree women, men with children earn more than men without.

Moreover, there is evidence that men tend to cherrypick when it comes to the type of childcare they are willing to perform. Kicking a ball about in the park is one thing; taking time off work to look after a sick child is quite another.

Of course, when I say “men” I mean #notallmen. But enough men to make it somewhat galling when “fathers being seen as mere babysitters” is presented as an injustice not just to women, but to men.

The trouble is, when it comes to how children are cared for, many fathers do behave more like babysitters. They get to do the fun tasks; they don’t end up out-of-pocket; they’re not expected to stick around to clear up afterwards. Not all men are like this, but is it really fair to pretend that current divisions of labour are more equitable than they really are?

This is a common dilemma for feminists when dealing with gender. Do we let language run ahead of reality on the basis that this in itself will change expectations of what should be, creating a virtuous circle of cause and effect?

Or do we assume, as I tend to, that any linguistic manoeuvre suggesting that equality has already been achieved will be used to suggest that women have nothing left to fight for?

After all, we’ve already been told, for years on end, that “perhaps the pendulum has swung too far”. Alas, it’s utter nonsense. The “pendulum” remains one massive swinging dick, swooping between boorish laddism on one side and performative new man-ism on the other. Women don’t even get a look-in.

It’s easier to be frustrated at gender stereotypes than it is to remember why they exist in the first place. Inequality between men and women is so deeply ingrained – and so pathetically mundane – that we forget beliefs about men and women’s “essential” selves have anything to do with it.

We treat the imposition of gender roles as equally unfair on both men and women, failing to register that it is through these assumed roles that men have acquired the vast majority of the world’s wealth and resources. When men suffer due to gender, it is a side-effect; when women suffer, that’s because it’s the whole sodding point.

Thus a woman trying to gain acceptance while performing what is traditionally seen as a “man’s” role is not in the same position as a man performing a “woman’s” role. The woman will eventually crash into the glass ceiling, while the man may well find himself on board the glass escalator instead.

From a male perspective, this particular privilege is experienced as a mixed blessing. To their credit, some commenters on the reddit thread note how the criteria for being a wonderful dad can end up the same as those for being a terrible mother:

“When my kids were little I’d take them to the playground and chase them around a little bit then settle in on a bench and look at my phone while they played. I can’t count the number of times people walked up to me while I was essentially just airing out my kids, and told me that I was a wonderful father. Meanwhile when my wife took them to the playground, when she sat on a bench and talked with her friends, people would tsk tsk her for not attending to our kids 100% of the time.”

The belief that men are not natural carers heightens the value of the caring work they do, whereas the belief that women are not natural, say, artists or politicians leads to them having to work several times as hard to be taken seriously. In the grand scheme of things, being seen as a mere babysitter is less dehumanising than being seen as a mere woman.

We all deserve to be recognised for the roles we perform. Nonetheless, there’s a difficult balance to be made between reflecting the ways things are and the way they should be. When it comes to shared parenting, I’d like to assume that we all want the same thing. But if that were the case, devoted dads, surely we’d already have it by now? And since we haven’t yet been there and done that, is it really time to be getting the t-shirt?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.