When "normal" is not necessarily "good"

As our average weight soars, fat is losing its stigma

Not long ago, I wrote a piece in a newspaper about fat rights. I thought that I gave the campaigners - who see parallels between fat and race in the ways both attract prejudice - a pretty fair hearing but, alas, they disagreed. An acquaintance, the author of a book about obesity in America, warned me that they would threaten to "sit on me" - which was what had happened to him when he had the temerity to suggest his swollen compatriots should think twice before indulging in a second doughnut with their morning vat of coffee.

So it was with some interest that I listened to the first part of Am I Normal? (Tuesdays, 9pm, Radio 4), a series examining the medical definition of ordinary in relation to such things as depression and cholesterol. Part one looked at weight. Medical science defines a healthy weight by an individual body mass index, or BMI, a way of measuring fat based on a person's pounds and height. Unfortunately, a "normal" BMI is increasingly an unhealthy one because, in the west, we are getting fatter and fatter. If you believe that there is a connection between fat and ill-health, this is a problem. How to make people understand that "normal" is not necessarily "good"?

The topic is rich territory. But this programme, presented in maddeningly chummy fashion by Vivienne Parry, showed troubling signs of the deep nervousness that so often permeates reporting on obesity. It wanted to be kind; it feared causing offence. These are fine instincts, but not if they castrate the debate: our greed is killing us, and there is no point in being lily-livered about saying so. When Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, was wheeled on to tell us how appalled she is by the government's decision to start weighing primary-school children (from September, this will happen when they join reception, and again in year six), I knew that the producers had simply wimped out.

The programme devoted too much time to the supposed stigma of being fat, and too little to the medical nitty-gritty. It spoke complacently of the link between fat and chronic illness (such as type-two diabetes) without ever attempting to explain it. Why didn't it? Here, amazingly, I find myself in total agreement with my grumpy friends in fat rights: the link must be scrutinised. They, of course, hope that on close examination it will turn to so much epidemiological dust, while I only want to make real a notion - that the fat die young - which might otherwise sound like just another Daily Mail scare story. Still, our impulse is the same: in this debate, only the facts count.

And yet, perhaps the real problem with Am I Normal? is its title. The truth is that increasingly we inhabit a world where this particular question can only ever be answered in the affirmative. These days, with the exception of Muslim fundamentalists and paedophiles, everyone is seen to be "normal" however they behave. All feelings are equal, and all feelings are more important than rational thought. Now, it's possible that I'm getting all worked up about nothing - that I have allowed yet another glib, schedule-filling show to provoke an existential crisis. But I don't think so. All I can tell you is that afterwards I came pretty close to eating three doughnuts with my cup of coffee - and I'm not sure that was part of anyone's plan.

Pick of the week

Desert Island Discs
Sundays, 11.15am, Radio 4
Kirsty Young takes over as presenter on 1 October and I, for one, can hardly wait.

Doubts and Demons: the inner John Betjeman
28 August, 8pm, Radio 4
A N Wilson joins the celebration of the late poet laureate’s centenary.

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