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Is fat shorthand for failure? Is the F word a universal symbol for laziness, greed and a
It seems that something in our DNA makes us judge the heavy human on these negative terms, despite the fact that those overweight are in the majority (68 per cent of men and 56 per cent of women).
Yet prejudice against the overweight and obese is common. Many complain about being abused and excluded, that they are the victims of a form of blatant discrimination that most minority groups are now spared and protected from by law. Body fat is regarded as not just unsightly, but as an extra strain on the public-health purse due to the consequences of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, and therefore we assume that it is everyone’s concern and everyone’s right to sneer.
Obesity has now overtaken smoking as the leading cause of premature death and illness in Australia. We read the stories all the time about the escalating “obesity epidemic” and the necessary “war on obesity”. Individuals “battle” with their weight. It’s described as a “crisis” and even a “national emergency”.
But dissenting voices are rising. The nascent academic genre of “Fat Studies” would suggest that the bad news has been overstated and discrimination, bullying and a trampling of human rights have been the result, far more serious and troubling than merely being fatter than a standard norm.
Anyone who has visited the US will tell you that seeing the overweight travelling in electronic wheelchairs, with oxygen bottles, is a frighteningly unhealthy look and probably should be discouraged.
Fat is being recast as a human-rights issue similar to that of race, gender and sexuality. The movement, known as Fat Acceptance, seeks to challenge the orthodoxy on size. It has been established for nearly 42 years and holds conventions run by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), whose goal is to “help build a society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life”. And from this has grown Fat Studies.
Once a group of outlyers, NAAFA now seems to have a higher profile, perhaps because so many Americans are overweight. The group wants body weight added to national anti-discrimination laws and says that size discrimination results in wage disparity and affects career options. There have been battles over plane seats and health-insurance premiums already.
Lily O’Hara and Jane Gregg, public health academics in Australia, have also taken up the baton to challenge what they call the “weight-centred health paradigm”, which they say has done more harm than good. They claim that between 1995 and 2005 the number of times “obesity” was mentioned in newspapers in Australia and New Zealand went from 40 to 2734 annually. In 1996 there was one mention of the word every nine days and in 2005 there were 7.5 mentions a day.
In an article in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia, the pair suggest that the “war on obesity” is actually a war on fat people and the collateral damage includes psychological problems with self-esteem and self-worth, yo-yo dieting and other unhealthy attempts to lose weight as well as creating an anxiety in children as young as six about their body image.
They propose a move towards a “health at any size” approach that challenges the link between the body mass index (BMI) and health and suggests that it would be better to encourage people to accept body shape but try to eat healthy food and move for the pleasure of it rather than to exercise with a specific weight-loss goal.
Esther Rosenblum and Sondra Solovay, academics at New York University, have edited a Fat Studies Reader – with articles that range across academic disciplines as well as from activists, artists and intellectuals – that prods the subject from many different cultural and political angles. Both are rather large women, it should be noted, and it seems that in many cases, being fat is a prerequisite to specialising in the field.
But when it comes to reality, being overweight or obese is still an indicator of chronic illness and early death. Critics of fat acceptance claim that complaints about discrimination are unquantified, while research on obesity confirms its negative impact on health. They say the fat-acceptance movement is delusional.
And you have to ask whether this apparently subversive sounding movement isn’t just feeding the beast – a capitalist system that depends on a compliant over-consuming population to survive.
David A. Kessler’s book The End of Overeating offers some alarming revelations about how the food industry has helped create the obesity spread. He reveals that eating certain foods can stimulate us to keep eating “and eating and eating”. And the food industry “designs” food specifically that way.
Kessler uses examples of dishes you tend not to find too much here. Much of what passes for food in American restaurants makes Elvis’ deep-friend peanut butter sandwiches sound the epitome of moderation.
We should probably regard what is happening there as a cautionary tale, before we too have “mobility scooters” provided for the overweight to use in supermarkets.
Left to Right: Tiffiny Hall, Shannan Ponton, host Hayley Lewis, Michelle Bridges, Steve “Commando” Willis.
The Biggest Loser
The big daddy of the diet shows. The Biggest Loser turns weight loss into a competition in a bid to create compelling television out of what is a mundane reality: eating less and exercising. But more than a TV show, The Biggest Loser is an industry, with a range of meal replacements, books, games, DVDs and celebrity trainers such as Michelle Bridges capitalising on the show’s success with her own books and newspaper columns. Lately the show has introduced themes, such as friends and family teams to spice up the dramatic tension with something more interesting than watching overweight people sob while battling the tedium of a cross-trainer.
» This year’s theme is singles. The Biggest Loser airs on Mondays at 7pm on Network 10.
With the catchphrase “The wait is over”, Excess Baggage, Channel Nine’s answer to The Biggest Loser, is promoting itself as the “feel-good show of 2012”.
Hosted by Kate Ceberano, the reality show is filmed on exotic outback locations and teams celebrities with “everyday Aussies” who will fight the fat and “face their demons”.
Among the line-up is Ajay Rochester, who seems to be on the upside of the diet yo-yo as well as Kevin Federline, whose claim to fame, other than being a junk-food enthusiast, is he was once married to Britney Spears.
Other celebrities include Christine Anu, Kate DeAraugo, Gabby Millgate, Darryn Lyons, Brant Webb and Robert “Dipper” DiPierdomenico.
» Episode one airs on January 30 at 7pm on Nine Network.
Other weight loss programs
Ruby Gettinger, a native of Savannah, Georgia, is the poster girl of massive weight loss. Her weight has fluctuated from 160 kilograms to terrifying heights of 340 kilograms when she was advised to lose it or she’d most certainly die. The reality show documents her journey to whittle herself down to 68 kilograms and has been one of Style’s most successful shows. There is also a book and DVD as well as Ruby’s blog. Her southern charm and determination is what keeps viewers tuning in.
The 650lb (294kgs) Virgin
TLC’s star of his own show, David Smith was morbidly obese and suicidal. But he decided enough was enough and over two years lost a massive 185 kilograms but still had more to lose – namely his virginity, since being so big had ruled out a love life for the 26-year-old. The show tracks his quest to woo a woman and offers flashbacks to his big, old days when he was too ashamed to leave the house. Highlights include an operation to reduce the massive folds of excess skin hanging from him after the fat had gone.
You Are What You Eat
The original diet “doctor” (although not medically qualified) Gillian McKeith, is described as a “world-renowned holistic nutritionist”. Her kitchen-raiding Channel 4 show is seen in 34 countries and has many spin-offs and new angles, such as her Three Fat Brides prenuptial special. With her no-nonsense Scottish manner, her MO is to start going through the cupboards and the fridges of the overweight and unhealthy and bring them into line with some straight-talking, hard facts about the junk in their lives. The show often uses shock tactics to get the participants to lose weight. In each episode, all food eaten in one week by those taking part is placed on a table to highlight problem areas of their diet. There are several books including a meal planner, recipes and a “total health overhaul”.
Too Fat For 15: Fighting Back
Humungous youngsters fill the screen of this Style Channel show where they attend the Wellspring Academy, a weight-loss boarding school where they gain skills and get motivation to change their lives while they also keep up their studies. But you have to wonder how they got to be so big and what their parents were thinking – and doing – as girls such as Tanisha Mitchell struggle to walk around a basketball court and suffers health problems usually associated with the elderly. This show is perhaps the most affecting since it’s obvious that youth is being wasted and this might be just the tip of an oversized iceberg.
Supersized Teens: Can’t Stop Eating
Two American 13-year-olds, Laura Broach and Victoria Jordan, undergo gastric-banding surgery to stop them from overeating, something that is becoming increasingly common in the US, where 250,000 adults go under the knife each year. The cameras follow the teens as they prepare for potentially life-threatening surgery and examines why they take this drastic step. The program follows Laura and Victoria as they undergo surgery and as they begin to deal with the emotional and physical impact on themselves and their families.
Supersize vs Superskinny
With the dashing Dr Christian Jessen officiating this British Channel 4 production, two problem eaters are incarcerated for a week in a “feeding clinic” together, where they swap menus. The anorexic is forced to choke down mountains of greasy comfort food while her obese companion watches on like a salivating puppy with nothing but a few morsels of the anorexic’s standard meal before her. If ever there was evidence that the calories determine size, this is it. The aim is to get these two extremes to find some balance. Just as in Gillian McKeith’s show, the day’s typical eating comes cascading down a transparent tube at the start of the show, revealing the realities (and the consequences) of portion distortion.
Diet Doctors: Wendy Denning and Vicki Edgson
The Lifestyle Channel’s British-made program has a pair of svelt medicos, Wendy Denning and Vicki Edgson, prod and probe the inside workings of the dangerously overweight; from taking skin scrapings and stool samples to examining high-resolution pictures of tongues, these women leave no kidney stone unturned. The shock tactics help set some of these bad eaters on the right track. Not only do they start losing weight, their vital signs start improving and, most tellingly, they actually feel better. There is also a book, The Diet Doctors Inside and Out: The Full Body Makeover That Gets Results.
Fat and Fatter
Produced by the BBC and aired here on the ABC, this show sees overweight Brits Gary Rowland and Amareen Iqbal head to four parts of the world where obesity levels are shockingly high. Will their experience make them think twice about their own lifestyles? Each episode sees two big Brits live with even bigger local obese people in the US, Argentina, Greece and Kuwait. They eat what their hosts eat and share their lifestyle.
Discovery Health Channel follows the personal stories of severely obese patients who turn to Houston’s Methodist Weight Management Centre as a last resort. At the heart of the operation is passionate father and son surgeon team Robert and Garth Davis, who have dedicated their professional lives to obesity, which, it has to be said, is as good a career move as there is.
Body Mass Index
The body mass index (BMI) is a convenient way of telling if someone is overweight. It's more reliable than simply weighing yourself on the scales, because weight varies with height. If you're tall, your weight might be normal even though it's above average.
Body mass index is weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared (kg/m2). For an adult Western population, a BMI less than 18.5 means you're underweight, over 25 means you're overweight, and over 30 means you're obese.
To measure your BMI go to www.abc.net.au/health/quizzestools/tools/2008/01/17/2114338.htm#bmi
Increasingly, experts believe that the type of fat and its location may be more important than the BMI. Even if your BMI is normal, if you have a “pot belly” you may be at risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
The waist measurement is used as a measure of abdominal fat. It is taken by running the tape measure around the waist, between the top of the pelvic bone and the bottom of the ribs.
A waist measurement larger than the following is associated with increased risk of disease: For Western men: 94 centimetres, for south Asian and Chinese men: 85 centimetres, for Western, south Asian and Chinese women: 80 centimetres.
In Western populations, the risk is substantially increased over 102 centimetres (in men) and 88 centimetres (in women).
* Source: ABC Health and Wellbeing
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