Sunday, 4 September 2011

Obesity, the 'Healthy Living' mob, and the other sinister extreme

In 2009, 15% of girls between 2-15 years old were classed as obese, a rise of 12% since 1995. The government has been investing for years in a series of campaigns aimed at tackling obesity; meanwhile, everywhere you look the media is screaming at us to eat less and exercise more. Obesity kills people, no doubt about it, and the government aren't trying to force us into the gene-lottery-winning body of Kim Kardashian...but there's a line between tackling obesity and encouraging eating disorders, and slowly, incrementally, it's moving from being a quietly-hated-but-accepted part of celebrity culture, to being an institutionalised part of Health...even of Being A Good Person. No longer is being fat about being unhappy with your body, silently judged by otherwise decent people; that was bad enough; now being fat has become about being a drain on the NHS, being unable to care for yourself or your children, being pitiable, but not in the respectable way.

I've been anorexic for three years now. I'm just coming up to a weight at which I can call myself healthy, and that's great. It's been a very long ladder to climb, but I'm beginning to see the top.
For a long time I - or my parents - have had to shield me from the onslaught of the media, telling us all what we ought to look like, what we ought to be. It's not an easy task; even reading the guardian magazine on a Sunday over breakfast, I'm faced with skinny giraffes of women sprawled across the fashion pages, their cigarette-limbs taunting me, flaccid and grotesque*. The media is, as we all know, a blackhole of false perfection.
But I'm not here to rail against digital-enhancement; I'm not going to open the body-image can of worms. The thing that's terrifying me is the respectable face of the weight-debate: the Health lobby, the government schemes, the "Doctor Advises" health-columns. I'm worried about the girls (and, increasingly, boys) sitting at home watching Jamie's Food Revolution and thinking, "so...butter is a bad thing?" We get told that butter is bad, that too many carbs are bad, that too much sugar is bad, that red meat, bread, eggs, coffee, fat of any kind, are all Bad with a capital B. On the radio the other day there was a woman ranting about how fruit is the main cause of obesity. What in the name of Jesus Christ and all his singing cherubim ARE we allowed to eat?
You may be sitting there thinking, "but they're all nutters - you just have to ignore the cacophony of food-related-madness and get on with your life." For adolescent girls, trying desperately to cope with school-stress, social-stress, parent-stress and endless, endless "self"-stress, turning away from apparent help and guidance is like trying not to look at the huge hickey on someone's neck: you can do it, but my god is it hard.
I know from personal experience, and from discussing this issue with an Eating Disorders expert who must have hundreds, if not thousands, of regular patients, that impressionable young people are imbued, slowly and unconciously, with the feeling that food makes you fat; eating makes you fat; fat is bad. Obviously anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that's ridiculous**. But when everyone around you, from TV characters to your own parents are "watching what they eat", it's not hard to come to believe that eating IS something to be watched, something to be delicately policed. And then, before you know it, food equals fear. All those people trying to promote healthy eating and plentiful exercise: great, good, fine. But please be terribly, terribly careful; by making jokes about "only a dab of oil - we can keep it healthy!" you're reinforcing the ridiculous idea that eating like human being makes you fat. Watch what you write, and weigh every word with precision. It's not only midly overweight middle-aged women reading your column; I can assure you that there are plenty of unhappy young women out there, pouring over your words and committing them to tortured memory.


*I apologise for the harsh language. I have to resist being horrible about these women's bodies; I don't mean to be, but I face a confusing mixture of pity, anger, and churning envy. It's not rational, so I won't try to rationalise it; I'm mentally ill, so sometimes the logic slips away.
**For anyone on the brink of madness, teetering above the abyss that is an eating disorder, let me remind you now: you KNOW that eating doesn't make you fat, it is necessary for existence, to live life and to function in any way at all. And when I say "eating", I mean eating like a proper human being, not eating like Victoria Beckham.

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