The UK Government appear to have noticed recently that there might be quite a lot of fat people in this country. This is a problem because one of the impacts obesity can have is making you more likely to suffer complications from Coronavirus. Therefore, it is now your moral duty to Lose Weight For Lizzie, England and Saint George! This sudden awakening has prompted ridicule, fear, anger, and frustration: partly because the headlines are very, very wrong; and partly because they are probably right.
Why are they wrong? The easy answer is that there is no easy answer to this complex situation. Just as there is no single way to exercise, worship God or decorate a home, there is no single reason that people are obese. There are many medications and health conditions that can result in weight gain; there are societal and cultural implications; there are lifestyle factors and financial involvement. To suggest that all of these can be overcome by stopping junk food adverts for children and providing bike maintenance is, to put it mildly, utterly missing the point. Instead, it is taking a cheap shot at a group that we as a country are already conditioned to demonise: an easy target for a quick headline, and don’t worry if it all goes wrong, it isn’t your fault these people are too lazy to help themselves.
I am obese. I haven’t always been; for many years I was solidly overweight, unable to drop down into healthy, but equally able to keep my BMI below that scary red “you will die and it will all be your own fault” zone on the charts. I’m tall and in proportion with myself, so even health professionals didn’t always realise I had a problem. They used to look surprised and change tack abruptly when I stepped on the scales, looking slightly embarrassed and talking about the problems of “carrying a little extra” – like I’d just picked up one too many books at the library. I have most of a lifetime’s experience of hating the “little extra” I have grown used to carrying; but speaking about it as something separate to me, something inconvenient that can be put down as soon as possible and forgotten about, won’t help. These rolls of fat are as much a part of me as my greying hair, my automatic smile, my heart and my pancreas and my memories. They may stop me doing some things (fitting into old clothes and choosing the right sizes in charity shops, for example, or touching the floor instead of my toes) but so do my memories. So does my fear. So, for that matter, do my job and my family and my finances and all the other pressures that hold me here, for worse and for better.
Given all this, then, how can any of the current headlines about obesity be in any way right? Because, although the message is clumsy and temporary and turning a process of love into a glorification of violence, it is a message with truth at its heart. I do want to lead a more sustainable life, and that means changing the things that have helped to keep me, at least, obese. I don’t like buying more food than we need, and one reason for buying too much is because we are eating too much (or sometimes that we’re buying treats for our kids to get them through the craziest, scariest months of their lives so far and then eating them ourselves to get us through those crazy, scary months instead, and end up buying more). Food with fewer ingredients and less processing is in general more sustainable, likely to be produced more locally, is more linked to natural diets and more likely to keep us full for longer: better for the planet, better for our bodies, better for our minds. Making food at home and bringing it to work and picnics means less plastic, less food waste, less chocolate mysteriously finding it’s way into my shopping basket, my handbag, my bulging waistline. It’s not all about food, either. Sustainable school runs would mean scooting, cycling, starting a walking bus around our estate; not driving to school slightly over the speed limit, late and knowing that that will mean sitting in traffic as I continue on to work. Sustainable days would be activities that build relationships and boost oxytocin, having fun playing together, exploring together, working together; not only shopping, eating, watching TV together.
It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? A lifestyle that is healthy, happy and reduces the risk of dying horribly while people explain to you how you could have avoided this if you had just taken a little more responsibility for your own choices. Why would anyone not choose that option? So why is it, then, that I, and so many like me, are still obese?
I don’t have the answers here. If I did, I’d be out there marketing how easy it is to do this: if I can, anyone can! Instead, all I can do is share the things I have learned so far. One is that blaming people who are overweight is about as helpful as a chocolate teapot, and likely to be swallowed just as easily. There are a few people who have made conscious choices to eat food that makes them fat. There aren’t many of them, and they’re not going to be paying attention to the advice given out by the government in contradiction of their life choices, so let’s not get caught up in that. Let’s assume instead that excess weight is usually the result of other influences, not a goal in itself.
Sometimes it is lack of knowledge and education. Knowing that things with high calories are bad but never having been told why can lead to choices like eating Quavers instead of nuts or unlabelled, un-traffic-lighted carrot sticks as a snack. Never having eaten freshly cooked food can mean it is overwhelming to think about cooking yourself. Local council regulations that say that a microwave is essential in a kitchen but an oven is not can prevent many people from ever having the option of eating healthy food. Educating, discussing choices, changing priorities can change these things, but they will not change everything.
Living healthy also means living slow; dreaming slow; cooking, eating, shopping slow. It means having time to plan your shopping, to cook from scratch, to eat slowly enough to know when you are full and have time to stop eating. It means having time to walk or cycle, not drive in a race to squeeze everything in. It means having time to think and reflect and reject, not just react.
Changing shape means changing priorities. It means looking at where your energies are currently pointing and being able, and willing, to change direction if you need to. It may mean putting less energy into working and less value into financial gains. It may mean laying down commitments, hobbies, roles at church or, you know, Quaker Trusteeship (looking closely in the mirror) in order to have the headspace and diary freedom to be more active. It may mean letting go of good things as well as bad. And it may be – for me, it is – that these are not sacrifices that feel right at the moment. I’ve worked hard to get my priorities where they are now, balancing self and work and family and faith. It’s a nerve-wracking balancing act as it is, and if I add anything more in, however healthy that may be, the whole crazy caboodle will come crashing down in ruins.
If we’re agreed that headline-grabbing contradictions are not going to win the good fight and free us from obesity, what will? It has to be an entire lifestyle shift. A celebration of each of us as we are, without the blame and condemnation that lead so many into disordered eating. A commitment to ourselves and our finite energy and time, that lets us say no when we can fit no more into a day, that allows decent sleep patterns and prioritising care for ourselves and for others. A commitment to model good practise in cutting off the stresses and strains of work when we need to. If the government wants to fight this, let’s see real action. Let’s see legislation that encourages employers to allow their employees to take mental health days off. Let’s see rewards in the workplace for volunteering, so that you don’t have to sacrifice yourself in order to both do good for others and earn enough money to put healthy food on the table. Let’s see town planning that builds exercise into daily tasks; that put fun into routine activities; that makes love and loyalty more rewarded than individualism and self-promotion. Let’s celebrate who we are and how we look just as we are. And you know what? When we stop interfering and just let them get on with the process of living a good life, it’s possible that our bodies will end up sorting themselves out.