by Lotty Clare

Cw: fatphobia

Following the Prime Minister’s COVID hospitalisation and his revelation that he was ‘too fat,’ on July 27th Public Health England launched the ‘Better Health’ campaign as part of the national Obesity Strategy, encouraging people to lose weight and reduce the risk of becoming ill as a result of COVID-19. Whilst the research does indicate that being overweight increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, the government has received widespread criticism in its approach; namely that nothing is being done to address the underlying causes of obesity, and the broader, more pertinent crisis of health inequality.

The strategy is an attempt at a quick-fix before a second wave of this deadly virus hits. Some of the initiatives being rolled out include: calorie labelling in chain restaurants and on alcohol packaging; banning of TV adverts for high fat, salt and sugar content foods before the watershed; restrictions on buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) offers; incentives for GPs to refer overweight patients to weight loss programs; and NHS approved apps to calorie-count and reduce Body Mass Index. The policy document for the strategy recognises that economic deprivation is a significant factor in health and weight, but sets out no meaningful steps to address this.

Body Mass Index is essentially a calculation of a person’s weight and height to determine whether or not their weight is considered ‘healthy.’ It may be a relatively good proxy for looking at risk factors for groups of people, but on an individual level it is not in fact an accurate measure of health as it fails to take into account other indices such as muscle mass and fat distribution. Furthermore, fatness is sometimes wrongly conflated with being unhealthy. There are many fat people who are in fact fit and have no health issues, and the body positivity movement has achieved a great deal in dismantling false stereotypes and fat-shaming.

Calorie counting has also been proven to be ineffective in improving people’s health. Conversely, it can actually contribute to disordered eating, which millions of people in the UK already suffer with. There is a real worry that this focus on weight rather than holistic health, will give diet companies the green light to target young people with harmful fad diets, and further stigmatise fat people.

It is much easier to blow the fatphobic and racist dog whistle than to take a good hard look at racist economic marginalisation as being a risk factor for health problems.  

This intentional focus on the weight of individuals gives a permission slip for fatphobia and misinformation around fatness to run rampant. Victim blaming COVID sufferers for being ‘too fat’, rather than what surely amounts to criminal incompetence on the part of the government echoes the way they shifted the burden of the national coronavirus response onto individual citizens with the highly criticised ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ slogan.  

Officials often point to environment, culture and individual behaviour in order to explain the causes of being overweight.  Sometimes this emerges with racist overtones, like pointing to South Asian communities having higher levels of obesity and higher levels of COVID infections than White British communities because of their ‘culture.’ It is much easier to blow the fatphobic and racist dog whistle than to take a good hard look at racist economic marginalisation as being a risk factor for health problems.  

Of course, there are people of all socioeconomic backgrounds who are overweight, but levels of obesity are disproportionately higher in deprived and disadvantaged areas.  Whenever the topic of obesity surfaces, so too does class and income. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who has spoken about her life in poverty, wrote in blog post recently: ‘Whenever food poverty, obesity, or food in general comes into the media spotlight, I adopt a mental brace position, awaiting the onslaught of tweets… with their hastily-Googled prices of spring greens and potatoes, crowing about how! cheap! vegetables! are!’

I’d like to see Boris Johnson try to feed his family nutritious food, and lose weight whilst on meagre Universal Credit and see how he manages.

This kind of ignorant thinking is common; like the old trope that poor people are lazy and stupid because they don’t manage their money properly. This is a flawed neoliberal way of thinking believes that people should make rational decisions toward purely economic and egoist ends. Ironically it is the poorest people who are most economical, knowing how to make a little last longer. I’d like to see Boris Johnson try to feed his family nutritious food, and lose weight whilst on meagre Universal Credit and see how he manages. I’d like to see him try and lose weight living in a crowded council estate with no parks nearby. Or with a chronic health problem, on a zero-hours contract and let him see how difficult it is to provide decent food every day. I wonder how he would cope in temporary housing with no oven or fridge, trying to cook up healthy meals. Or see how he’d fare as an NHS nurse relying for months on food bank parcel low in nutritional value.

Being poor is not just about being cash poor, it is also often being strapped for time, or having poor mental health because of the incessant daily grind of living in Tory austerity Britain.  Many working class households rely on discounts, so restricting ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers are cutting an important source of affordable food. The government’s strategy does nothing to transform our food system or make fresh fruit and veg more accessible. Shaming lower income people with calorie labels if, god-forbid, we eat out at a Pizza Hut once in a while rather than a pricier independent restaurant, doesn’t help anyone.

Just last year, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty published a damning report stating that poverty in the UK is ‘systemic’ and ‘tragic’ and that the social safety net has been ’deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’  The UK has one of the highest obesity levels in Europe, as well as one of the highest levels of child malnutrition. About 4.1 million children are living in poverty in the UK, and in 2019 approximately 19% lived in food insecure households. If the government wants to take meaningful action towards tackling obesity, it is necessary to analyse it from a  food insecurity and poverty perspective.

If we have learnt anything from the many fault lines and flaws that the pandemic has unearthed, it is that social welfare, inequality and racism are  public health issues, and that individualist thinking fails when it comes to public health. Rather than promoting the idea that poverty and health issues are the result of individuals making the wrong decisions, let’s actually try to understand these issues for what they are: a political and ideological choice by the political class.

Featured image: Adapted from logo for the Better Health Campaign

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