The government’s recent anti-obesity campaign is a response to claims that obesity is a risk factor for COVID-19. Whilst the initiative acknowledges that the environment is a contributing factor towards obesity, it focuses on ‘empowerment to make better decisions’ by the individual. If we’re honest, blaming overweight people for the increased costs of COVID completely avoids the failures of the government in preventing the spread, delays in testing, and impacts on vulnerable groups.
It is also impossible to ignore how this clashes with the body- positivity movement. Sources of body acceptance and positivity on Instagram, such as @fatgirlfashioninspo, @alissbonyt and @charlottexlouise have all criticised the campaign that has stigmatised fat bodies and reduces them to their potential cost. Measures of obesity, such as BMI have largely been described as racist. As a plus size woman myself, I have found that my doctor’s appointments have always been reduced to weight, whether I have gone to the doctor for migraines, muscle pain or a simple injury. Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to bring up weight. Doctors and nurses are invaluable resources when it comes to managing weight, but the judgement that accompanies fat bodies can easily put people off of seeking medical help, and potentially even treating underlying illnesses.
Worryingly, the government campaign might worsen insecurities around weight, and encourage eating disorders. Whilst of course, healthy eating and exercise should be encouraged, there is a greater need to understand ‘health at any size’. Popular sports brands don’t usually even make plus size activewear, and so increasingly alienate fat bodies from ‘healthy’ spaces like gyms and reduce confidence exercising. How can we simultaneously demand health and exercise, without facilitating it. Fat bodies cannot be seen as worthless or seen as a ‘before’ image: it’s impossible to love a body that you see as temporary.
The campaign itself seems overly simplistic and ignores the very real issues surrounding obesity, including class, race and medical health. With more families relying on foodbanks than ever during the current pandemic, it almost feels that healthy food is deemed a ‘luxury’ as opposed to a necessity. If anything, the patronising tone of the government campaign creates a bigger stigma surrounding obesity. For those living in emergency accommodation, or small flats, access to fridges, ovens, and freezers is not guaranteed. Parents working 60- hour weeks, or multiple jobs, are truly exhausted when they return home. It’s not laziness stopping healthy meals being prepared, it’s the complete and utter lack of resources.
With a focus on childhood obesity, there’s an emphasis on calorie counting and structured exercise. Surely, it would be more beneficial to help create ‘healthy habits’ for younger children, and encourage group sports as opposed to exercise for weight loss. Creating constant anxiety surrounding weight and weight loss is particularly damaging for young children, and will affect them through adulthood. Think tank Demos has recently launched its campaign to subsidise healthy eating, which might create a more balanced approach. The think tank argued that positive intervention is more accepted than negative, and so by increasing availability to healthy foods, families will have more choices available to them. This is a welcome change from previous government campaigns, such as the sugar tax- which have disproportionately affected poorer families that often need to prioritise being full (on cheaper carbs and sugars) over nutrition. They also argued for funding on meat alternatives and a levy on processed meats. Taste, cost and ease, according to Demos, are the three main deciding factors in determining which foods we buy.
So, it seems obvious that a poorer family would buy cheaper, quicker, and tastier foods (think chicken nuggets and chips over salmon en croute) when food is not accessible for them. Even when we look at pasta sauces: the healthiest option would be to make it at home, to avoid the high levels of processed sugar in a jarred version. However, making a sauce from scratch can take anything from 30 minutes to a few hours, which isn’t necessarily conducive to a quick and easy weekday meal. The report also highlighted that 20 million people in the UK cannot afford healthy food, and 19 million found it difficult to find healthy food near their home. Once again, poorer families are disproportionately affected by ‘food deserts’, and any anti-obesity campaign would need to take this into account to effectively encourage health.
No one is saying that health shouldn’t be encouraged, but nevertheless, there is not a moral value to health. We all choose things that are unhealthy: smoking, drinking, the odd takeaway. This doesn’t mean that we are ‘less’ of a person, or less entitled to public services. Until the government can address systematic inequalities that limit access to fresh, healthy food, and the resources (including time) needed to cook it, the campaign is simply an empty statement. The body positive movement is fast growing and a welcome relief from conventional beauty ideals that are almost impossible to attain.
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