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Fat Phobia October 7, 2006

Posted by Winter in body politics, fat panic.

Here we have celebrity chef Jamie Oliver “representing” a fat person, and not just “fat,” his fat self is depicted as miserable, slovenly, greedy and, of course, poor. Look at the messy hair, the dirty trousers and armfuls of fast food clutched to his chest.

Fat = depressed, lazy, poor and gluttonous.

This image is taken from a television programme in which Jamie sets out to warn young people that they could all end up “disgusting” fat people by dressing up in a fat suit and acting stupid. It even includes hilarious stupid fat person slapstick as he’s shown getting on a scooter which collapses beneath his (fake) weight. Ha ha! Thanks for that one Jamie.

But of course Jamie Oliver isn’t actually a poor fat person. He’s a very rich thin person in a fat suit. How dare somebody so privileged dress up and stigmatise fat people as the abject other with whom “we,” who are not yet obese, must not identify? How do you think this material will make young people identified as fat feel? What effect do images like this have on people’s attitudes towards those already perceived and stigmatised as fat? *

It’s not just Oliver. According to the government and media, this is the future of the UK and we should all be getting whipped up into a frenzy of fat panic because we’re all equally at risk of the dreaded obesity epidemic. Government ministers have been popping up on television recently exhorting each us, as individuals, to “do more,” go to the gym, eat “properly” and give our kids “healthy” food. But the framing of obesity with the rhetoric of epidemic, contagion and individual responsibility distracts away from the issues of class, economics and poverty in the UK. I live in an area where few people can afford gym memberships or organic vegetables and, yes, there is a lot of sickness; but are the people here unhealthy because they are fat, or are they unhealthy for other reasons tied up with poverty and social disadvantage? This latest moral panic just seems another means to beat and frighten people who don’t have the options to change their circumstances anyway.

Why does Jamie Oliver get to represent fat people anyway? Couldn’t we get an actual fat person to do it? How about Dawn French?*

No, we can’t have her! Yes, she’s fat, but she’s also successful, entertaining, healthy looking and we love her. She’d counter the story that being big automatically leads to poverty, misery and illness, not to mention the fact that she’d cry bullshit on the whole narrative. She might say something like this instead:

The diet industry dictates how we should look along with the fashion industry. They take all your money for you to buy these products and you lose a lot of weight very fast. Then of course when you put it on, you put on much more than you ever were before. So then you’ve got more to lose, so give them more money to buy more of their stupid products. Meanwhile you’re destroying your body, no chance of ever settling at the weight you’re ‘supposed’ to be. So we’re paying for them to destroy our bodies, because we’re not allowed to feel happy with the size we are… Why should we have to starve to be beautiful?

Thin does not equal healthy.

There are plenty of people in the UK currently destroying their physical and mental health by refusing to eat at all, or through erratic eating habits and constant dieting and I think it’s about time we stopped stigmatising fat people and took a long hard look at British culture’s unhealthy relationship with food.

* I haven’t actually seen the programme because, as far as I know, it hasn’t aired yet, so I can only comment in the images here.

* I am aware that in our fat phobic culture, one of the few areas where large women are permitted to be visible is comedy. If French wasn’t funny I’m sure it would be very difficult for her to break into any other area of entertainment.



1. Winter - October 10, 2006

When I saw this article mentioning the North-South divide in the UK in relation to obesity, I thought “Good, they’re finally going to talk about economics” because poeple in the North are poorer than people the south.

There is still a significant north-south health divide in England, government data has revealed.
Northern areas have higher obesity rates, more smoking-related deaths and lower life expectancies

A good start! But then the article breezily bypsses the entire poverty issue to waffle on with the usual crap about people having to change their lifestyles, buy bikes and do some walking.

What they need in the North are more cycling paths. Yeah, that’ll solve the problem of high unemployment and low life expectancy

2. Naiades - October 10, 2006

I think this is a really difficult issue. I watched the jamie oliver school dinners series last year and I enjoyed it. The focus of that program was on a healthy life style and the types of food that are healthy and unhealthy etc, not on bashing obese people.

While I don’t support him walking round in a fat suit, I do think what he is trying to do is admirable. He’s trying to get the message out there about healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle.

While fat isn’t the equivalent of unhealthy and thin the equivalent of healthy, there is no getting over the wealth of medical evidence that indicates that if you eat a lot food with a high sugar, salt and fat content you are more likely to suffer from heart diseass, diabetes, bowel cancer and many other ailments. There is also evidence that eating healthily can improve children’s concentration and behaviour in school which can lead to better learning.

I also don’t think it’s fare to assume that poor people are some how unable to provide healthy food for themselves and their families. A healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be all about gym membership and organic food. Vehetables rom the green grocers are generally quite cheep and, when washed and prepaered well, are just as healthy as organic ones. There are obviously massive problems facing low income families, that it is cheeper and easier to eat unhealthily than healthily is something that urgently needs to be addressed. But I also think that education, not just on the level of what is healthy, but also on the level of why people should eat healthily is really important. Being someone who struggles with binge eating, and who has Polycystic ovary disease, which is exacerbated by increases in eaight, I do think that people, and I include myself, should take some responsibility for their own health.

When people have a healthy lifestlyle, they are more likely to have a better quality of life. the problem, as I see it is that advice surrounding healthy living generally takes a high cost approach, gymm membership and expensive excercise classes, organic vegatables, wild bore etc etc. For many people trying to do their best in a difficult situation, this kind of advice is pretty useless and often insulting.

3. Naiades - October 10, 2006

And this is what the rest of the country thinks, apparently.


4. Winter - October 10, 2006

I don’t *think* we’re exactly disagreeing here, though maybe looking at it from slightly different perspectives.

I don’t dispute that Jamie Oliver has done some good work in the past and may well do more in the future, but I think this dressng up incident is very offensive and problematic and I’m really not sure what can have possessed him to do it.

I agree with you that we need more education to promote a healthy lifestyle generally, but as long as the government continues to ignore the way social disadvantage and class impact upon health problems related to weight in the UK, I don’t think we’re any closer to actually solving the problems.

And then there are so many other factors mitigating against people living healthy lives – including diet culture, poor education in this area, not to mention widespread depression and stress in the population. People are unhealthy for lots of reasons.

I just think they’re starting from the wrong end of the problem.

Also, Jamie’s fat suit seems part of a generally negative attitude to health promotion which in the UK tries to change people’s behaviour by scaring and intimidating them out of it. I don’t believe it really works. Look how awful it is to be fat! You don’t’ want to be like that! We can’t solve health problems by making already stigmatised people feel even worse about themselves than they already do.

Yes some people need to lose weight for their health. One of my best friends needs to lose some at the moment because her weight happens to exacerbate her asthma, but I know the way she feels about herself makes her depressed and results in a vicious cycle making it even more difficult to lose wieight. It was a real eye opener for me when I went shopping with her once and found that while I could buy clothes in any shop on the high street, there was only ONE shop stocking clothes in her size! Unsurprisingly, she can’t even bear to go into any of the other shops and I can’t see how images like those in the post will help her.

The media does seem to focus less on health problems related to constant dieting and being underweight.

5. Sarah - October 10, 2006

I agree – even if some people need to lose weight for genuine reasons this is not a helpful approach. Disordered eating (including the kind that leads to excessive weight gain) is associated with self-esteem problems, and making fun of fat people for the way they look is really, really unlikely to help with that.

I also wish there was more awareness of the harmfulnes of ‘dieting’ and the fact that it can actually cause more health problems and lead to further weight gain.

6. belledame222 - October 14, 2006

You know, I never liked Jamie Oliver. glad to have a justification for what seemed like an irrational knee-jerk atavistic dislike.

7. Greho - December 5, 2006

In the U.S., many of us have gotten to the point of mental exhaustion. Personally, I’m more concerned with my loss of muscle tone over the last few years, as job and life eat up all my time, and my motivation to actually move my body parts athletically sinks to new lows. I noticed myself huffing and puffing this year as I assembled the christmas* decorations.

I think it is time to pursue healthy and fit, not skinny and six-pack abs. Let’s go for realistically healthy. We can’t all be Daniel Craig (as much as we might like to be).

8. Anonymous - December 6, 2006

It’s a pity that ‘beauty of the mind’ isn’t more visible, that we’re distracted by outward appearance, there again, that’s probably utopia rather than reality.
Best wishes

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