The message for women is that being fat isn't just unhealthy – it's shameful. Photo: Mason Masteka
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Fat-shaming women doesn’t make us any slimmer

Over the past few decades the ideal female body, as depicted in adverts and on film and TV, has got thinner and thinner, yet the average woman has got fatter and fatter.

So it’s official: British women are the fattest in Europe. Way-hey! It’s been hard to miss the schadenfreude in the media’s reporting of this. No longer do we have to pussyfoot around, pretending to be ever so concerned about eating disorders and “real” beauty. Clearly women aren’t that arsed, otherwise they wouldn’t be stuffing their faces. Cue plenty of news clips featuring young ladies filmed from the neck down, roaming the streets unawares while the camera zones in on every inch. Just look at the state of that, menfolk! I wouldn’t, would you?

The women in the stock footage do not look how women are “meant” to look. Over the past few decades the ideal female body, as depicted in adverts and on film and TV, has got thinner and thinner, yet the average woman has got fatter and fatter. The UK diet industry rakes in an estimated £2bn per year and around 90 per cent of British women claim to have been on a diet. Tips on healthy eating and lifestyle changes, such as those promoted by the Government’s Change 4 Life campaign, would have us believe that individuals lack knowledge and motivation, but I find this hard to believe. The message that being fat is not just unhealthy, but shameful and worthy of mockery, is everywhere and it is powerful.  I simply don’t accept that we could make women want to be thin any more than they already do. They want it badly. Indeed, perhaps we should consider whether even those who don’t seem to care do in fact want it too much.

Almost half of all teenage girls in the UK report trying to lose weight. The response to this might be “well, they’re obviously not trying hard enough” but I think that’s simplistic. The desire to weigh less than is natural or healthy is not inconsistent with binge eating. Overeating or eating more than is deemed to be “normal” is not just something women do because they are greedy (whatever that means); we overeat when we have lost the ability to respond freely to our bodies’ hunger signals. A pro-thinness culture, in which dieting, fasting and detoxing are deemed praiseworthy, disrupts women’s own understanding of their appetite and needs. In Overcoming Binge Eating ED specialist Christopher Fairburn notes that “the majority of people with binge eating problems were already dieting when they started to binge. And among those who diet strictly, the binge eating is caused at least in part by the dieting.”

While I don’t wish to suggest that anyone who overeats or weighs more than they’d like must necessarily have an eating disorder, I think this pattern is compelling. In the years that followed my own struggle with anorexia I ate compulsively, hating my size but subconsciously fearing that a return to scarcity would be just around the corner. More recently – and more prosaically – I have wondered how much I would weigh if it wasn’t for all those “I’ll go on a diet tomorrow” binge sessions. Perhaps the majority of my calorie intake is made up of things I only eat because I’m telling myself it’s my last chance and that I’ll never, ever eat them again. The problems we face stem not just from fast food culture, but from a culture of extremes. If you’re not thin and hungry (especially if you’re a woman) you might as well be eating junk. The hunger arises not just from the gut, but from constantly being told that you shouldn’t be eating at all.

When I go to see a film I am invariably unsettled by the thinness of female characters (regardless of whether these are real actresses or animations). It makes me want to gorge myself on popcorn because fuck it, I can’t be thin like them without being miserably hungry (I know it, I’ve tried). Diets work, insofar as they will make you lose weight, but they do not work insofar as they will never make you happy. Hunger cannot be overridden. Sufferers of anorexia suffer not just from some vague “being anorexic” condition but due to the fact that they are desperately hungry every minute of the day. You can choose not to be hungry in this way, and most women do so, but the needling pressure to lose that extra half stone can still be enough to create a binge cycle, and it can be one that lasts until that extra half stone is several stone more.

Healthy eating advice is not straightforward. Over the course of my eating disorder career (I consider it a career, given how much of my life I’ve devoted to it) I’ve seen the “bad” food group constantly changing: in the mid-eighties it was carbs, then fat was evil and fibre was all the rage, then suddenly carbs were bad again, and now it’s just the sugary carbs we need to fear. We can say that now we’ve really got it right, but that’s what we said last time, and the time before that. Furthermore, what are we really trying to achieve? The public health message about fat is hopelessly tainted not just with moral censure but with sexism, both in terms of how it sees women as responsible for nurturing families and in terms of how women’s bodies are judged without taking the specificities of women’s lives into account.

In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argued that the unhealthiness of specifically female fat was being overplayed:

The National Institutes of Health studies that linked obesity to heart disease and stroke were based on male subjects; when a study of females was finally published in 1990, it showed that weight made only a fraction of the difference for women that it made for men.[…] Female fat is not in itself unhealthy. […] A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.

I think there must be a middle ground in all this, where we can at least say that some levels of fat are unhealthy. Nonetheless, I don’t know how we can find it, given how morally charged and fuelled by prejudice the debate has become.

Women know the stigma that is attached to being fat. It’s not as though fat women are too busy munching on doughnuts to hear the cries of derision (although the fact that stock photographs often crop off the heads of fat or pregnant women is clearly useful in reinforcing the belief that women with “controversial” bodies don’t really hear, think or speak anyway). Instead of finger-wagging at women and girls who couldn’t feel more ashamed than they already do, or yet more easy, knee-jerk condemnations of McDonald’s, a steady, solid assault on broader cultural attitudes towards food, hunger and bodies is required. The work of researchers such as Fairburn, or the definition of “normal” eating provided by Ellyn Sattler, are worth a million diet books and healthy eating pep talks. We’re focused on our bodies but the real sickness is in our minds.

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

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.