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13 June 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 12:05pm

Why fat is a political issue

Obesity is not about individual greed: it has social causes and collective consequences.

By Rowenna Davis

When Georgia Davis was cut out of her bedroom we were watching. Britain’s largest teen had to be rescued from her domestic prison by forty emergency staff who lifted her 63 stone into a reinforced ambulance. News from IPPR that we are now facing an obesity epidemic seemed to justify our voyeurism. We were enthralled by our own repulsion. How could she let herself get like that?

But this story is about more than personal responsibility. I spent last week talking to overweight parents and children who are seeking help through intensive local health programmes. The reality is much more complicated than individual gluttony. Obesity has social causes and collective consequences. It has economic costs. Fat is a political issue.

Take Abdul Uddin. He’s eight, he lives in East London and he’s desperate to lose weight. The jibes from the school playground ring around his head. You’re so fat, you need your own postcode. You’re so fat they use your belt to measure the equator. But like the 30 per cent of children who are now overweight in the UK, it’s hard to talk about responsibility when he can’t shop for himself, or go to the park on his own. Right now he’s too shy to talk, let alone risk the jungle gym.

What about his family? Actually, they’re trying to help. Sitting in a class sponsored by Bupa and the council, his parents are figuring out the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. The centre is full of families lethargic after school and the summer heat, their checked shirts pulling tight over their bellies. Most of the children are under ten. Almost all are ethnic minorities. Some are eating crisps. It turns out the combination of ghee and Walkers isn’t so great.

But it’s not easy. In dense urban environments, it’s easier to be fat than healthy. A fear of crime can stop people going out. A world where poorer parents often have to work more than two jobs leaves little time. Leisure budgets are being cut. Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, both in price and in preparation time. Take-aways are easy because children love them; they give exhausted parents a chance to apologise.

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“We have two children and me and my wife just don’t have the time,” says Uddin’s father. “We are both working. I work as a kitchen assistant and she works in the teaching department at their school. To save time we drop them by car.”

Although the statistics are complicated by gender and ethnicity, studies have shown that there is a relationship between children living in deprived areas and their chances of suffering from obesity. It’s not a coincidence that my borough of Southwark has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and an average family income of £17,000. It’s why we’re pursuing healthy free school meals.

Children from poorer families are more likely to be carers and suffer from certain mental health problems that can make obesity worse. It’s interesting that although Georgia Davis wasn’t obviously poor, she lost her father to a heart attack and she is the registered carer of her mother who has a heart condition and severe arthritis. Dealing with obesity often means dealing with root causes beyond an individual’s control.

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Stigma only makes things worse. Gross. Repulsive. Sick. Most of us criticisise because we’re scared. We know exactly what it feels like to overindulge; that horrible combination of guilt and tightness. We stigmatise other people because it reminds us of ourselves. But that’s part of the problem. Uddin knows going in the pool will come with social judgement, so he doesn’t swim. Society has to take responsibility too.

Then of course, there’s the market. In the health class I watch the instructor struggle to explain what foods are good for you when Capri-Sun looks like fruit juice. Beans and cereals are supposed to be good for you, but Heinz and Kellogs produce versions that are full of salt and sugar. It’s hard when sugar is disguised as glucose, sucrose or dextrose, and sold to you by a cartoon that you trust.

That’s why Michelle Obama was right to challenge the market this week, fighting for unhealthy food adverts to be banned from the Disney channel.  

The right says this is patronising. But it’s about power. Acknowledging that the society and economy we live in effects our health doesn’t reduce personal responsibility to zero. It just means that it operates in a context. Yes, parents and children have work to do, but corporates, politicians and society have responsibilities too.

So far, David Cameron has talked about introducing a fat tax, but he doesn’t dare take on the market to make that happen. Ed Miliband needs to talk about more than chocolate oranges. We need to link obesity to the safety of our streets, the quality of our education, our rights in work and the renewal of our public spaces.

And lets face it, the alternative is not laissez faire or zero cost. We’ll just pay in other ways. Obesity currently costs us £500m a year through the NHS, and a wider £2bn in lost productivity according to the National Audit Office. Fat is always going to be political. We just have to decide whether we want to build a society that addresses it before or after the weight goes on.