Encouraging obesity?

A shop front with the name "Evans" in white over a dark green background; there are some posters showing off the clothing in the window, which is dominated by a large sign saying "Evans card: 25% off". The shop is set against red brickwork.Yesterday I came across a report in the Daily Telegraph claiming that a study from the University of East Anglia (in England) had suggested that the normalisation of overweight models and “plus-size” clothes ranges were threatening to normalise obesity by encouraging people to underestimate their weight, and that this could undermine efforts to tackle the “obesity epidemic where more than three in five Britons are overweight or obese”. A more detailed summary is available at Science Today but it finds that the numbers misperceiving their weight increased between 1997 and 2015; of the overweight, it increased from 48.4% to 57.9% among men and from 24.5% to 30.6% among women; of obese men, the figure increased from 6.6% to 12% in the same period. As might be expected, the number of overweight people trying to lose weight was much less than the number of those in the obese category (about half, versus more than two thirds).

The author of the study, a Dr Raya Muttarak, a senior lecturer at the university’s School of International Development, claims:

Seeing the huge potential of the fuller-sized fashion market, retailers may have contributed to the normalisation of being overweight and obese. While this type of body positive movement helps reduce stigmatisation of larger-sized bodies, it can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences. The increase in weight misperception in England is alarming and possibly a result of this normalisation.

Likewise, the higher prevalence of being overweight and obesity among individuals with lower levels of education and income may contribute to visual normalisation, that is, more regular visual exposure to people with excess weight than their counterparts with higher socioeconomic status have.

The problem is that the existence of plus-size ranges is only one of many factors influencing people (and women in particular) in what they do about their weight. For large parts of the period between 1997 and 2015 studied in this paper, fashion shows preferred unnaturally tall and thin models; models of normal and even below normal weight were pressured to lose weight until they ceased to have periods and displayed other signs of poor health — this was the heyday of the “size zero” model. Many major retailers used mannequins which were exceedingly thin with no bosoms to speak of. So, the mere existence of a few plus-size ranges with appealing names (as if they should be called “fatso” or something like that) does not change the fact that there is an overwhelming pressure to get thin; dieting advice in just about every women’s magazine on a regular basis, the repeat suggestion or assumption that any reader will want to lose weight, the use of moralistic language such as the suggestion that food which is hearty or has any noticeable fat content should inspire guilt in the eater. And all this despite the fact that anorexia can be triggered, especially in an adolescent, by the smallest of comments which may not be an insult, or intended as one.

What should be done if the mere presence of models and clothing ranges that acknowledge the existence of overweight people and do not apply pressure on the customers to lose weight encourage obesity? Does the author suggest that people who are overweight or obese face more and more pressure to lose weight, regardless of how their weight gain occurred to begin with? It is also known that certain medications can cause weight gain, particularly those used in psychiatry, and whatever the harms this weight gain causes, coming off it may not be an option. Even if someone is overweight simply because they eat too much, being overweight is not a dire health hazard in the same way that smoking is; smoking smells foul and is detrimental to other people’s health as well as the smoker’s, and it can cause cancer, even in a young person. While being morbidly obese is, as the name implies, a short-term health risk, being a bit fat does not necessarily put you at risk of becoming morbidly obese.

There has to be a balance struck; what must be encouraged is healthy eating, not weight loss or being thin for its own sake. The widespread prominence of the slim or skinny figure combined with messages to be thin or lose weight, or continually watch one’s weight, is a known contributor to eating disorders and remaining excessively underweight because of an eating disorder is a lot less healthy than being a bit overweight — and people with anorexia will also misperceive their weight, seeing a fat person where everyone else sees a painfully thin one. It’s important for people, and especially young people, to know they do not have to let their figure rule their life and that it’s not a disaster to be a bit overweight — it’s a lot easier to remedy than anorexia nervosa — and seeing people who are not thin and having clothes available that acknowledge that not everyone is helps to deliver this message.

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