Posted by: ezzakazhall | January 25, 2013

The “body police” in review

policeman I started this blog back in June last year as part of a current affairs assignment for journalism school. I chose the topic of worldwide governmental and corporate anti-obesity interventions, as it’s one that’s close to my heart – but not for the reasons you may think.

I have not succeeded in losing a large fraction of my body weight through a restrictive diet programme or reality show, nor do I have a child who desperately needs to slim down or else I shall outlive her by several years. No, I did not start this blog because I am passionate about preventing obesity in our future generations – this blog was intended as a critique of the obesity interventions, and to examine the weightloss culture in which they exist.

This blog proved to be challenging for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a bigger person, I find much of the anti-obesity rhetoric bandied about in the media quite upsetting. It’s not exactly pleasant knowing some jurisdictions have launched a war
in order to “cure” people of my size and shape. In addition, I am always discouraged to read articles in the media that are derisive of the overweight (such as this one in the NZ Herald), and the cruel comments from Joe and Jane Public one can find in response to these pieces – which seem to go unmoderated. But, our tutor warned us this is not to be a “ranting blog”. So, I took a few deep breaths, wiped my brow and attempted to keep ranting to a minimum! I did wonder at times why I hadn’t gone for a “nicer” blog topic, such as weddings and the New Zealand economy, or the price of designer cheeses.

Secondly, I am a follower of many Fat Acceptance blogs and am a firm believer in the Health At Every Size Manifesto– and I know from research done by Fat Acceptance activists and from my own research that a high body weight and poor health are not mutually exclusive, and neither are thinner bodies and good health. I am aware, however, that journalism requires me to present a fair, balanced and unbiased report, regardless of my own personal convictions. Therefore, I made sure to look at both sides of the issue at hand, and also examine the intent and reasoning behind the obesity intervention I was discussing, as well as casting a critical eye over it and discussing why I felt it was problematic. I also made sure that if I was to flat-out disagree with the intervention in question, I would provide an article or published study to back up my statements. I also made an effort (well, I hope so) to post articles with a range of different viewpoints, in addition to the main article I was discussing.

When I first set up my Google Alerts for this blog (under the categories of “obesity and politics”, “obesity and Government” and “obesity and New Zealand”), I was not at all surprised to see the articles rolling into my Inbox thick and fast! From having been following the Fat Acceptance movement since about 2011, and before that when I worked for the Ministry of Health here in New Zealand from 2007, I was aware that governments worldwide were launching initiatives to combat the obesity “epidemic”. Both to curb health care costs, to reduce the risks of diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, sleep apnoea and joint problems, and to save lives. This despite:

* insistence from experts that there is no obesity epidemic
* studies have shown that healthy habits (such as five servings of fruit and vegetables per day, and moderate exercise three times a week) lead to healthy bodies, regardless of weight
* the fact that thin people can also find themselves at risk of “obesity-related” illnesses due to poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle and fat around the internal organs
* the American Diabetes Association stating that “most overweight people never develop type 2 diabetes, and many people with type 2 diabetes are at a normal weight or only moderately overweight.”
* evidence of the “Obesity Paradox”, which shows that larger people with chronic conditions fare better and live long than their thin counterparts with the same conditions; and
* evidence that shows that there is a link between “obesity-related” illnesses and societal stigma about weight.

So, I was never short of fodder for my blog. The greatest number of articles on obesity and government/politics came out of Western democracies, most predominantly the US, Australia and New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, the UK and Canada. However, a handful of Eastern and African nations, such as South Africa, Kuwait, Dubai and Turkey, were also launching anti-obesity initiatives. For this blog, I tried to focus as much as possible on New Zealand content (given I am a New Zealand journalist in training, I considered it was important to become as familiar as possible with how our media is covering a subject I’m passionate about). I also included several US stories, given America’s influence as a world power (as can be seen in my last post, New Zealand seems keen to follow in the US’ footsteps in terms of Coca Cola advertisements with an anti-obesity message).

Alerts came in on a whole range of topics – everything from obese adults in the US requiring counselling to a recent NZ Herald article on obese people being more likely to die in car accidents, according to research. Over the year, probably the most common topics that I was alerted to were New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas, the US Food and Drug Administration approving the first obesity drug in 13 years and many posts on the topic of childhood obesity, particularly in the wake of Let’s Move!, a programme aimed a reducing obesity in US children, spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama. For New Zealand, one of the most common themes was the Australia New Zealand Obesity Society granting the NZ Government the Couch Potato Award (which I spoke more about in this post) for lack of leadership in preventing obesity. Additionally, I came across many articles that ran counter to the anti-obesity argument (either stating the anti-obesity initiatives are inefficient and ineffective, or that they contribute to stigma against the overweight) – most common were articles about New Zealand’s first Fat Pride Conference and the Danish Government scrapping its tax on fatty foods. But for the articles in support of anti-obesity initiatives, the “method behind the madness” was to reduce health costs, prevent disease and save lives.

In the end, I made 15 large blog posts (well, 16 – I covered two topics in depth in one post) on topics that caught my eye and that I found the most interesting. From looking over those posts, I found they fell within four distinct themes: childhood obesity, advertising and sponsorship, support for the obese and access to healthy options and discrimination against the overweight. I shall discuss each of these in turn.

Childhood obesity

I discussed this topic from both a New Zealand, Australian and US perspective. The first post I did on this blog, “Veggies with that?”, talked about the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act 2012, stemming from the Let’s Move! programme, which requires all school lunches to be served with at least one piece of fruit or a vegetables, and for children to bring fruit and vegetables in their “packed” lunches. In my commentary on the article, I agreed it was important for young children to get the nutrients they need in the form of fruit and vegetables, but questioned if it was the role of Government to legislate kids’ school lunches, and how can a requirement like this be policed.

From a New Zealand perspective, my blog of September 15 2012, “We’re taking you down town, obesity!”, I examined a NZ Herald editorial piece by National MP Dr Paul Hutchison (also a former obstetrician and gynaecologist), who spoke of “arresting” obesity at birth. Meaning, that “an optimal start in life” and “hardwiring healthy habits from birth” is the key to preventing obesity in childhood, and then stretching on into adulthood. I examined some of the ways which could ensure a baby’s optimal health (as Dr Hutchison was vague as to his own suggestions), such as breastfeeding, feeding a baby natural produce rather than pre-packaged baby foods (which can be high in sugar and sodium), and making sure a mother, while pregnant, keeps her diet as healthy as possible. However, I also mentioned that breastfeeding can be difficult for some mothers and babies, that it is cheaper (for some families) to feed babies pre-packaged foods and that the physical complications of pregnancy are not necessarily conducive to healthy diet and exercise.

I discussed the issue again on a later post, “Promotions (or lack thereof) and babies (fat ones)”, after a Dominion Post article said research found that “Babies that were premature, small, overdue, first-born and whose mothers had severe morning sickness were more at risk of becoming overweight in adulthood.” The medical specialist quoted, however, was vague about how these conclusions were reached. The specialist suggested “targeted education for women in their reproductive years about the effects of being fat on unborn babies, a better understanding of optimal nutrition in pregnancy, and better awareness of overfeeding small babies past early infancy.”

Probably one of the harsher measures to combat childhood obesity I came across were authorities in Victoria, Australia removing obese children from their homes, which I discussed on my blog “Out of the frying pan…into the foster care fire.” Turns out, the removal of obese children from their families was supported by the American Medical Association, and the removal of overweight children from a Scottish family was threatened by UK authorities in 2011. On that post, I quoted this article, which stated that children placed in foster care have higher rates of emotional and behavioral disorders, earn less money later in life, and can be more troubled than those who remained with their families. Said the author, “we’d be swapping overweight kids for thin kids with serious psychological disorders.”

Advertising

In many of the “alerts” I received, advertising was a huge focus – in that TV advertising of fatty and sugary foods needs to be limited (or stopped altogether), especially where children are concerned. For my second post, “Taking the Mickey out of junk food – and fat kids?”, I talked about the Disney Corporation’s plans to cut advertising of sugary cereals, fast foods and soda on its children’s TV and radio channels, and launch “fun public service announcements” promoting healthy food and exercise to kids. I supported the company commitment to kids’ health – but was suspicious, as Disney had previously launched a ride at one of its theme parks that demonised larger people.

More recently, I blogged about Coca Cola’s recently launched anti-obesity ads in the US. I mentioned that these ads and Coca Cola had been panned, with critics claiming that the ads were “deceitful” and disingenuous, and were merely Coke going into “damage control” for its role in contributing to obesity. At present, Coca Cola Amatil is considering running similar ads in New Zealand.

In my blog of August 2, “Baby, it’s toxic inside…”, I wrote about the graphic advertising campaign endorsed by the Western Australia Government, taking the viewer inside the “stomach” of an overweight person. These ads were heavily criticised by Australian eating disorder specialist Lydia Jade Turner, who stated that “fear-based messages could inadvertently encourage weight and shape concerns, a simplistic view of weight and health, and weight stigma” and that messages about weight control can be harmful, for young people in particular.

I also made two posts, “Some sporting good junk”, and Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Mac?”, which talked about the London Assembly’s and a New Zealand nutritionist’s (respectively) concerns about McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics.

Access and support

A question that keeps coming up for me is what can Governments do to improve people’s access to healthier food options and affordable exercise regiems. Here is New Zealand, for example, we have the Green Prescription, which can secure discounts to gyms and pools, the Push Play initiative and nationwide community gardens and orchards.

This article (and some others I’ve seen) suggested the New Zealand Government remove GST from fruit and vegetables, so that they are cheaper for lower income families (and the cost of fruit and veg in NZ has increased significantly in the past couple of years). The current National Government does not plan on doing this. In this post , I talked about an the Wellington City Council Pacific Advisory Group’s plan to plant fruit trees in a Strathmore playground (I wrote the linked articles about the fruit trees for class), so that lower-income families can get healthy snacks for free. Said PAG’s Fetuolemoana Tamapeau, who I interviewed, “Our politicians should not be arguing about our kids getting healthy food.”

In this post, I explored (among other things), the issue of a “fat tax”, which could (in the opposite effect to GST fruit and veg) discourage people from purchasing fatty and high calorie foods. I have seen this solution proposed to the NZ Government several times. However, in my post, I discussed the problem with the Danish fat tax (the world’s first), how it was not an economically viable solution, it caused stress for farmers and retailers and it resulted in Danes popping across the border to buy their favourite treats more cheaply.

Regarding the question of support for the obese, in my blog of October 3, I discussed the Government possibly helping to provide treatment services for overweight individuals with an addiction to food. At the time, the National Addiction Centre suggested that a large number of Kiwis struggle with compulsive overeating (and thus are overweight/obese), but receive no Government-funded support. I agreed with publicly-funded treatment – but pointed out that those with smaller bodies can also struggle with food addiction.

Discrimination

Finally, I did several posts about something that worldwide governments don’t appear to be doing much of – and that is protecting the rights of the overweight who face discrimination in their daily life. Or at least, if they, or other activists, do attempt to bar such discrimination, their efforts are met with criticism and suspicion.

A prime example was a move by members of the UK Government to criminalise to criminalise discrimination based on body size and appearance, which I discussed here. It’s plan to amend the British Equality Act to make weight-related discrimination punishable by law, along with discrimination based on sex, race and sexual orientation, was cooly received by the media. I noted on my blog that a new law may be difficult to enforce – but hoped the subject raised awareness about the damage caused by discriminatory behavior, especially considering the link between weight-related stigma and poor health (see this study, which I linked to above).

On September 1, I blogged about the fact that America’s overweight and obese have almost no voice in Government, despite being a substantial voting block (more than one third of adult Americans are classed as obese). In the same post, I mentioned discrimination against the overweight (particularly women) in the American workplace, and that studies have found that size-related prejudice is as prevalent as racism in the US.

In this blog, I wrote about German research (published on Stuff.co.nz) which found that larger employees were less likely to be hired or considered for a promotion. While I found the research methodology problematic, I was concerned that overweight New Zealanders turned down for jobs on the basis of size would not be able to pursue legal action, as discrimination based on size and appearance is not punishable under our human rights legislation.

Finally, in my blog titled “Of talkshows, fat presidents and elephants in the room”, I wrote about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
, following his controversial interview with Barbara Walters. It has been suggested that Governor Christie will not be voted US President (for which he plans to run in 2016) as many Americans believe he will not handle the job due to his “poor health”. This despite the fact he has not demonstrated any major health problems (save for asthma) and has had a very active career as a lawyer, lobbyist and US Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

As a conclusion, I have enjoyed keeping this blog for the most part, and hope to continue with it once I finish my journalism course. It has been an emotionally-draining experience, given my attachment to the subject and my own weight-related struggles. But still I have learnt much, both from those who support and promote anti-obesity interventions, and those that oppose them. I continue to be perplexed that anti-obesity initiatives continue despite evidence of the tenuous link between weight and health, saddened that the overweight get very little support and protection from our lawmakers and politicians, and disgusted by the prejudiced and callous attitudes of commenters I see online. Yet, I am encouraged when I see people who oppose these interventions, and believe they are, in fact, harmful standing up and making their views known.

It will be interesting if, at any time in my future journalism career, I have to write about an anti-obesity initiative. I wonder how I will handle it, and if I will be able to write a fair and balanced article without being clouded by my emotions and beliefs and my critical attitude to such interventions. As I often said in my blog posts…time will tell.

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