Obesity surveys are too much to swallow

Is the rising tide of obesity a real cause for
concern, or just a vehicle for media worriers?

Hello, to the fat of the land. And, according
to research published last week, that includes an awful lot of
people – in more ways than one. A fifth of adults and around 11 per
cent of children in the UK are clinically obese, putting us at the
top of the European calorie overload league. Welcome too, to 25 per
cent of the female population, who allegedly worry as much about
what they swallow as the state of their relationships (the two, of
course, are as closely linked as Delia and the perfectly boiled

It wouldn’t be January if we weren’t asked to
digest a bumper crop of statistics about our size and shape. So,
last week saw a double launch. First, was the arrival of Weight
Concern, a charity, which, according to the co-founder psychologist
Jane Wardle, hopes to challenge rising “anti-fat prejudice” since
the tripling of obesity since 1980 and news that obesity costs the
National Health Service £500m annually.

Weight Concern’s debut was followed by the
publication of What’s Eating Us?, a book written by Susie
Orbach, author 23 years ago of Fat Is A Feminist Issue.
Now, she warns, “We are facing a public health emergency in which
it is the norm to accept being messed up around food and

She illustrates the nature of our “dangerous
obsession” with various surveys. For instance, two-thirds of young
women say they are unhappy with their bodies; 48 per cent of women
aged 25-35 are on some kind of diet and 1-2 per cent of young adult
women are anorexic or bulimic (and both problems are among males

What these statistics express to me, however,
is less evidence of a public health emergency and more the urgent
need for a lot more lateral thinking in all areas of social policy.
On the issue of eating disorders, for instance, the small and
unnoticed miracle is not the numbers of young girls who succumb to
anorexia – but the very many who don’t in spite of the seductions
of fashion and diet. Likewise, 50 per cent of young women are,
apparently, sane and stable about the role of food in their

Policy makers, traditionally accustomed to
charting what goes wrong might begin to turn more of their
attention to the lessons learned from what goes right, often
against the odds, in ostensibly difficult lives.

How does one emotionally confused teenager
nevertheless resist succumbing to food mania? What gift does the
impoverished single parent have who rears two children to
magnificent maturity? What might be the attributes of the
step-families who bond well? The questions have been asked before –
but the appetite for answers has barely even begun to be

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