Guest post: Greens health policy – my big fat perspective

Today is the first of a planned series of guest posts from bloggers, academics and wonks who follow particular issues very closely, and over time have developed a huge amount of knowledge in them. We’re kicking off with a post by Bri King, professional counsellor, academic and Fat Acceptance advocate. Her blog Fat Lot of Good focuses on issues related to the ‘obesity epidemic’, Health At Every Size and size-related discrimination. She gives us her perspective on the policy announced by Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday calling for tighter rules surrounding the sale of junk food and alcohol.

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Greens Health Policy – my big fat perspective

There has been a flurry of media reporting today regarding the Green’s call for a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising: advertising which is apparently going to ‘cut Australia’s growing obesity problem’. As a fat woman, mother, academic, Fat Acceptance advocate and professional counsellor I have issues with what is being attributed to the Greens, but maybe not the issues you think.

Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising. Advertising and commercialism in general leave me cold. As far as I am concerned, you can take all food and alcohol advertisements off TV and radio and out of print media, no skin off my nose. However what is being brushed over in the media reporting is that the levy applies to manufacturers who choose not to display nutritional information regarding their product. Aside from the implicit assumption that people are fat solely because of the type of food they choose to eat, having nutritional information attached to products would actually help people with allergies and specific medical requirements and so making that type of information readily available is a good thing.

Banning vending machines containing soft drink, crisps, chocolate and other sweets from schools isn’t a bad idea but to my knowledge there isn’t a plethora of vending machines in Australian schools anyway. Removing ‘junk food’ advertisements from TV during times young children are more likely to be viewing doesn’t bother me either.

The Greens are promoting the application of a French model (not the long legged type) that was adopted in 2004 to combat the perceived increase in fat French people. What is interesting that according to the OECD statistics available online, the number of overweight/obese people (over 15 years of age) in France increased a miniscule .8% between 2000 and 2006. There are no more recent statistics available and there are no statistics concerning those less than 15 years of age at all. The life expectancy of the French has also increased during those years, so how do we even know the French legislation is having any effect at all? We don’t. But adopting similar legislation makes us look like we are doing something and we all know we have to be seen as doing something about all the fatties in our country. Right? Wrong. But more on that later. I fully realise that this sort of legislation exudes the faint odour of the Nanny State and Big Brother and government intervention in the private lives of citizens and that does concern me to a point but I have bigger, fatter fish to fry.

What I take the most issue with is the blatant misrepresentation of the so called ‘obesity problem’ in Australia (not to mention the rest of the world). This misrepresentation (or blatant distortion) isn’t necessarily being perpetuated by Bob Brown or the Greens Health Policy. The blame for the distinct and very obvious ‘hate on the fatties’ slant falls directly at the feet of the media. The quotes attributed to Bob Brown do not mention the words ‘obese’, ‘obesity’, ‘obesity epidemic’ or even ‘overweight’. These words (and headlines) have been specifically selected by the media in order to stir up the obesity epi-panic because after all, doesn’t everyone love to hate on the fatties?

The medical profession diagnoses obesity using the BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI was never designed to be applied to individuals; it was originally designed for application to populations. The BMI does not take into consideration either muscle mass, hereditary factors, side effects of medication, ethnic origins or any of a host of reasons as to why an individual might be considered ‘overweight’. Not to mention that in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Americans became overweight and obese overnight when the CDC changed the arbitrary weight designations in the BMI. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that using the BMI to condemn a large (no pun intended) segment of the population is a colossal error of judgement, yet the medical profession continue to label people using this problematic evaluation.

Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think. There is a lot of fat-hating propaganda out there and if you take the time to analyse the studies and statistics that a lot of this misinformation stems from, you will see for yourself that the problem is not as much of a problem as we are led to believe, if indeed a problem at all.

What should be given a higher priority is encouraging and enabling people to have the option to eat a varied and nutritional food intake (if they choose to do so) and enabling people to participate in and enjoy physical movement (again, if they so choose). There is an old saying that ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. The same is true for people and ‘healthy diet’ and exercise. We cannot mandate individuals in terms of what they eat and what exercise they do. What we can do is ensure people have the choice, that socio-economic status and other factors do not have undue influence on what people eat and what activity they choose to participate in. We need to remember that health is not a moral imperative and until there is a ban on other so-called ‘chosen’ behaviour such as driving and sports, we should not deny fat people health care on the basis of their weight.

A lot of people think fat is a choice. ‘Eat less and exercise more!’ we are told. Unfortunately it isn’t always that simple, despite the media proliferation of diet plans and the simplistic lamentations of some health professionals. It doesn’t matter if fat is a choice or not, because this sort of simplification misses the point altogether. The point is that fat people (just like thin people, average people, black people and every other sort of person) deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. End of story.

So if the Greens were to get their policy up and running and they did raise the estimated $4 million dollars a year, they would be best to implement a Health At Every Size paradigm which encourages people to adopt a varied and balanced diet based on mindful eating and to engage in physical activity which they find pleasurable rather than punitive – regardless of weight. The Greens policy has the potential to enact positive benefits for the Australian population but it also runs the risk of continuing to demonise fat people, a group of our society who are already deeply stigmatised and marginalised. While the Greens will never be in government they do have considerable influence on the passing of legislation and Bob Brown and his party need to remember they represent all Australians, not just the thin ones.

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2 Responses to Guest post: Greens health policy – my big fat perspective

  1. Rockstar Philosopher says:

    (anfalicious from lj here 🙂 )

    “Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think.”

    I find that comment interesting; I’m not sure how to parse it… You don’t know how much of a burden I think overweight people are, and I’m out of touch with the common man enough to not know if my opinions are in line with what ‘people’ think.

    For me, personally, I think that there is some burden. Just like smokers are a burden, drinkers and drug takers are a burden, bushwalkers who get lost are a burden (hello tim holding), amature sports people are a burden… All of these lifestyle choices increase risk and the likelihood of needing the health system. How large is that burden? Well, we are told that being obese does significantly increase things like heart problems and diabetes, and I don’t see any reason not to believe that.

    Having said all that, I wouldn’t look on an obese person as a tax burden and I would be disgusted by people who do. *bad analogy alert* My partner works in the disability field; these people cost the tax payer a lot of money and will never be of financial benefit to wider society. But their dignity is a human right and they deserve to have the opportunity to live with the same levels of happiness the rest of us do.

    So, hopefully I can move on without fear of being thought of as a “fatty hater” or something 🙂 (we’re all beautiful)

    I think there should be a tax on junk food; as a junk food eater, drinker and smoker I’m supportive of sin taxes, I like the idea that I am still free to choose to do these things, but that it is discouraged through the cost and that a large part of the cost goes back into support services that I may need (and if I don’t need them then the money is there for those who do, whether they indulge in my sins or not). I also support the traffic light system for schools with red foods banned and yellow foods restricted (disclosure: I’m a high school teacher). I also support banning advertising directed at kids; ANY ADVERTISING. Especially young children who are unable to differentiate between genuine need and need creation.

    With junk food, there’s also the very real risk that our food markets will become so distorted like America where we end up that the only way those living on the poverty line can feed their kids is at McDonalds. We need to ensure that good quality home cooked meals remain the best way to feed a family on a budget. Whilst I’m not big on getting all worked up over someone’s looks, I think being healthy is important (which is why just looking at obese people as the problem doesn’t work, I know some big people who eat well and likely won’t have health problems, then i have a friend who looks fit, but had a diet related stomach ulcer explode at 25 and another in his mid 20s looking at a liver transplant).

  2. Excellent post Bri, and thank you to Conscience Vote for hosting it.

    This sentence really stands out to me:

    “Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think.”

    I think this is one of the misconceptions that bothers me the most. That by measure of my being fat, I am somehow costing the rest of society money, while I watch my tax dollars climb yet receiving very little by way of benefit for the amount I put in. I am more than happy to send my tax dollars off into the country to do good for others, but I’ll be damned if I’m going tolerate being accused of being a drain on the system simply because of the size of my body.

    Perhaps if all of the so-called burdens on society withheld their contribution, there might be some change in attitude?

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