Posted by: ezzakazhall | July 2, 2012

“You’re fat!” “That’s illegal!”

Now we follow the body police across the Atlantic to the UK- where we find a different kind of policing going on. First, however, we’ll start with some local content.

I found this piece of literature by the one and only Sir Bob Jones on the Kiwi Journalists’ Association Facebook page last week. A fellow journo posted the aforementioned piece of literature, wondering if it would be appropriate to make a complaint, given the amount veered towards “hate speech” (in her words). This led to a spirited discussion, in which I will admit I took part! While Sir Bob’s dulcet tones had a somewhat polarising effect on the KJA group, a large number of commenters on the column itself chimed in with their hearty agreement. I have my own thoughts on the column – but I was expressly warned by my lecturer not to turn this into a ranting blog!

However, I did glean from Sir Bob’s piece that the UK Government had moved to criminalise “mocking the obese”, in line with laws against sexual and racial discrimination. I went on a bit of a hunt and found that, sure enough, a group of MPs (coining themselves the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image), supported by the YMCA, have requested British legislation be amended to prohibit appearance-based discrimination and harassment- including drawing negative attention to a person’s weight. If the Parliamentary Group’s bid is successful, body size and physical appearance could end up as “protected characteristics” under the Equalities Act 2010, along with race, gender, sexual orientation, age and disability.

This Daily Telegraph article  from 30 May this year has more information, and quotes representatives from both the YMCA and the Parliamentary Group concerned – with a few murmurs of support from the British National Obesity Forum.  Though it would seem, according to the NOF, that doctors would retain the right to tell people they’re fat. For their own good, apparently.

As expected, there has been a bit of commentary on this movement- from employment lawyers to conservative Christian bloggers. It’s attracted criticism, of course – this editorial piece from the Daily Mail asserts that criminalising appearance-based discrimination will simply create a “victim” culture by “highlighting” and “dramatising” the problem. Plus, according to the columnist, a law change won’t address the issue of childhood obesity (but “attacking” Turkey Twizzlers will). This Daily Telegraph blog by conservative commentator Norman Tebbit deems the Parliamentary Group’s proposal as a move towards politically-correct thought control, and asks if banning “offensive” words is an appropriate substitute for teaching good manners. Valid points.

In spite of the criticism, however, an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, published yesterday, found that out of 2,026 British survey participants, 66 percent stated they were in favour of changing the Equalities Act so that people could not be harassed or victimised based on appearance. The majority of respondents (57 percent) also supported outlawing discrimination based on body weight.

So…it will be interesting to see if the UK Parliament gets behind this one. And, if size-ist discrimination is outlawed, it will certainly interesting to see be reprimanded (employers who do not hire people over a certain BMI? People who yell out abusive slurs in the pub? Parents and relatives? School kids?), how will victims be compensated and how easy will looks-based discrimination be to prove. But, honestly? Even if no new law is passed, I’m hoping the Parliamentary Group may have raised at least some awareness of the problem of poor body image and the damage discriminatory behaviour can cause.

The report on body image released by the Parliamentary Group and the YMCA found that at least half of the UK population struggles with physical and emotional problems relating to poor body image- as was mentioned in this Guardian article on the subject. The report also found that British children as young as five were concerned about their bodies, and that 50 percent of girls and a third of boys aged 14 had dieted to lose weight. I also came across this study conducted by Columbia University in New York- which found, after surveying 170,577 people, that those who were dissatisfied with their weight were in poorer health than those who were not. The same study also showed that women who were concerned about their bodies had experienced more physical and mental illnesses than those women who were happy with their size- regardless of body weight.

So if the Parliamentary Group and Columbia University are to be believed, if such a large number of UK citizens struggle with negative body image, and if dissatisfaction with body size can lead to reduced health outcomes…then maybe there is something for checking discriminatory attitudes towards larger people. A legislative amendment may not be the solution but I, for one, commend the Parliamentary Group for at least bringing this issue, and the stigma faced by those with body types outside of the norm, to light.

And it raises the question- is it society’s preoccupation with obesity, rather than obesity itself, resulting in poor health? Sir Bob Jones may do well to consider that before comparing human beings with large, semi-aquatic, mostly herbivorous animals in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Responses

  1. […] they’re not going to want to be seen walking anywhere. In addition, as I mentioned  in this post, studies by the University of Columbia in NYC show that those who are unhappy with their size […]


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