‘But what about your health?’ The fat body, austerity and the faux concern of the state.

Milly Morris

This week Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer, has stated that school letters sent to parents “telling them their children are overweight should not be watered down” in order to act as a necessity for encouraging healthy habits. At the Childhood Obesity Summit in London, Davies stated that the word “obese” is a “physical description” that needs to be used in order to support unhealthy children, claiming to be worried about “how we have started to normalise” obesity (Boseley, 2016). Throughout the West, government officials have made it their priority to ‘rid courselves’ of obesity, citing it as a ‘national threat’ on par with terrorism. In the UK, the Conservative government have considered a variety of proposals to ‘target’ the problem of fat, ranging from a Sugar Tax on drinks and withholding welfare support from individuals who cannot work because of their weight and do not ‘accept help’ (Mason, 2015).

Within the mainstream media, ritualistic humiliation of fat people is commonplace; shows such as Fat Families and Secret Eaters film their contestants in their underwear whilst staring into the mirror, forcing the fat individual to “understand” the “damage they have done to their body” whilst simultaneously permitting the audience to gasp in disgust at their naked flesh. For example, one episode of ‘You Are What You Eat’ films the contestant – Lisa – in her swimming costume to the sound of ominous music and a voiceover reciting all the junk-food she has eaten in a week. In another scene, the presenter – Gillian – aims to demonstrate to Lisa “how much she is really eating” by laying out “her weekly consumption of junk” on a table. Whilst staring at the spread, the “no nonsense” Gillian asks “what imbecile would eat this?!” before calling Lisa “disgusting” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giUZoZSoLwY). Likewise, viewers of The Biggest Loser will recognise the “workout scenes” in which audiences are invited to point and laugh at the fatty trying to run laps, with trainers Jillian and Bob screaming words of ‘encouragement.’

However, it isn’t just “trash” TV that wields these tired stereotypes of fat people as out of control and in need of a hand to guide them towards a “purer” way of living. As Charlotte Cooper notes, fat individuals are silenced and disembodied through the use of the “headless fatty” ; an image used by reports about obesity that is accompanied by an unaware fat person with their “head neatly cropped out of the picture.” For Cooper, this creates incredibly powerful imagery of fat body, encapsulated in the following quote:

“(…) we are reduced and dehumanised as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food. There’s a symbolism, too, in the way that the people in these photographs have been beheaded. It’s as though we have been punished for existing, our right to speak has been removed by a prurient gaze, our headless images accompany articles that assume a world without people like us would be a better world altogether” (Cooper, 2007).

In this sense, rather than fat people being viewed as possessing individual thoughts and feelings, their agency is replaced with a symbol to be wielded by the government and the wider media. As a “diseased” body that is a “drain” on the NHS, fatness acts as an “easy target” for a government that is ruthlessly trying to dismantle the state; representations of the fat body throughout the mainstream media as gluttonous, lazy and unsuccessful equip politicians with a useful tool for presenting themselves as proactive on health. For example, is it not paradoxical that the same government who preach their concern for our poor health have simultaneously pledged to cut £1.1 billion from the NHS in 2016? (Broomfield, 2016).

Moreover, despite claiming that they have “saved this country from disaster” through cuts to the public sector (Ryan, 2015), figures from The Trussel Trust – the leading charity of Food Bank providers – reveal that one in five parents are struggling to feed their children. This links to the wider concern from charities surrounding the dramatic rise in people being admitted to hospital with malnutrition (Pugh, 2015), with cases of diseases “rife in the Victorian era” including “scurvy, scarlet fever, cholera and whooping cough” being reported to have risen since austerity was introduced in 2010 (Kirby, 2015). However, when a series of reports “drew links between government welfare policies” and “increased food bank usage”, the Department of Work and Pensions dismissed these claims as lacking in evidence (McBain, 2015).

Thus, the government crusade against the “obesity epidemic” should not be viewed as a genuine concern for societal health, but as laying down another stepping stone towards the privatisation of our health system. Likewise, Davies’ proposal to send “honest” letters to the parents of overweight children does not represent a “brave” action against the “PC” left, but another cowardly scapegoating of voiceless individuals. Consequently, perhaps it is time for us to stop looking at our waistlines as the sole reason for our ill-health and start considering that it is the wider atmosphere of austerity and neoliberalism that is really making us sick.

Work cited:

Boseley, S. (2016). Health chief: obesity warning letters to parents must not be watered down. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/03/chief-medical-officer-obesity-school-warning-letters-parents

Broomfield, M. (2016). Budget 2016: George Osborne cuts £1.1bn from NHS repairs fund. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.independent.co.uk: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget-2016-george-osborne-cuts-11bn-from-nhs-repairs-fund-a6942301.html

Cooper, C. (2007) ‘Headless Fatties’ [Online]. London. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: http://charlottecooper.net/publishing/digital/headless-fatties-01-07

Kirby, D. (2015). Malnutrition and ‘Victorian’ diseases soaring in England ‘due to poverty and cuts.’ Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.independent.co.uk: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/malnutrition-and-other-victorian-diseases-soaring-in-england-due-to-food-poverty-and-cuts-a6711236.html

Mason, R. (2015). David Cameron calls on obese to accept or risk losing benefits. Date accessed: 4th November. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/14/david-cameron-obese-addicts-accept-help-risk-losing-benefits

McBain, S. (2015). Why are so many people using food banks? Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.thenewstatesman.com: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/03/why-are-so-many-people-using-food-banks

Pugh, R. (2015). NHS hospital to offer food parcels to patients at risk of malnutrition. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/28/nhs-hospital-tameside-food-parcels-patients-risk-malnutrition

Ryan, F. (2015). Under austerity, deprivation in the UK is becoming normalised. Don’t vote for any more of it. Date accessed: 4th November 2016. Retrieved from: www.newstatesman.com: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/05/under-austerity-deprivation-becoming-normalised-don-t-vote-any-more-it


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