You’ve probably already seen Cancer Research UK’s new campaign.
Virtually every bus stop, train station and magazine seems to feature the ubiquitous simulated cigarette-style packet which reads ‘OBESITY IS A CAUSE OF CANCER TOO’.
The campaign, which is presumably intended to remind people to avoid becoming or remaining obese, is as clumsy as it is unhelpful.
It implies that people are as in control of their weight as they are of whether or not they light a cigarette. In fact, body shape and size is around 70 per cent heritable – largely governed by genetics and hormones.
As a mental health campaigner, I believe the omnipresent fat-is-a-choice-and-it’s-bad rhetoric which has been absorbed and regurgitated by much of the population does monumental amounts of damage.
Not only does it add more gravitas to a burgeoning multi-billion pound diet industry with a 95 per cent failure rate, it fuels eating disorders and encourages the public to consider themselves ‘visual doctors’, firing casual micro-aggressions in the direction of fat people under the guise of ‘concern’ for their ‘health’.
Numerous studies, including a 2017 paper from East Tennessee State University, show feeling ashamed of our bodies decreases the chance we will exercise and make healthy food choices, so these billboards designed to shame obese people into compliance are demonstrably counter-productive.
I saw this first-hand while working on Channel 4’s Naked Beach. The show took ‘guests’ with critically low body image and sent them to live with body-positive ‘hosts’ with a diverse range of body shapes.
One guest, 21-year-old Darrell, had been very into sport but had gained a significant amount of weight after injuring his knee. The knee had healed, but the psychological scars hadn’t: Darrell was avoiding not only exercise, but social activities because of anxiety about the way he looked.
After spending time with the hosts, Darrell said he ‘accepted his body totally’. As a result, he began to engage in exercise again, no longer crippled with worry about other people’s judgment. He did lose some weight, but that wasn’t the point. Weight loss was a side-effect of his improved mental and physical fitness. This was not a one-off.
If our ultimate aim is to encourage the nation to adopt healthier habits, then the emphasis should be on facilitating and enabling them, using what we know about psychology and the role positive body image plays.
There is a misconception that anyone who is overweight is automatically unhealthy.
Around 60 per cent of the British public are ‘overweight or obese’ according to the rather arbitrary measures of BMI, while only 15-20 per cent are obese
As Anthony Warner (aka the Angry Chef) details in his book The Truth About Fat, if you’re in the overweight category your chances of developing disease are about the same as for someone with a ‘normal’ BMI, but your chances of recovering are actually better, making the overall mortality rate for overweight people lower.
Meanwhile, statistics about increased vulnerability to disease which in fact apply only to the 2.9 per cent of the population who are morbidly obese are often mistakenly applied to the ‘overweight or obese’ (60 per cent).
Many people viewing these billboards will not necessarily internalise this difference.
Further, the viewer is being invited to make comparisons with the widely-known damage caused by smoking, yet there isn’t a direct causal link between fatness and disease: just because more obese people are diagnosed with a certain type of cancer, it doesn’t mean that the cancer is inherently caused by the obesity. Both conditions may be caused by an underlying genetic factor, for instance.
As Megan Jayne Crabbe (aka Bodyposipanda) points out in her book Body Positive Power, it’s the equivalent of saying ‘yellow teeth cause cancer’ – It misses the behavioural element of the story.
Not even the most vociferous fat-positive activist would ever deny that being sedentary and eating large amounts of highly processed food is terrible for your health. What is being disputed is that a) this inevitably leads to excess weight; and b) all fat people lead this lifestyle.
The type of visceral fat which envelopes the organs and is harmful to health cannot be seen. Many thin people have it, lots of fat people don’t. Of course, that’s a message that’s hard to encapsulate in a poster.
Even if every single case of cancer were caused by obesity, this campaign would still be flawed. If the endgame is to help obese people to lose weight, this is entirely the wrong tactic.
These billboards – based on questionable assumptions – will serve only to make people ashamed of their bodies, which does nothing to improve their ability to change them.
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