Plus-size fashion trend sending out wrong message, says obesity expert

Professor equates 'fuller figure' model trend to the way Hollywood once glamorised smoking with Bette Davis

Glamour plus: Hunter McGrady says she is proud to be part of the plus-size movement

Niamh Horan

The 'Plus-size revolution' has officially begun - with larger models walking the catwalk at New York Fashion Week and plus-size model Hunter McGrady gracing Sports Illustrated magazine's Swimsuit edition.

But Ireland's leading obesity expert, Professor Donal O'Shea, has raised concerns about the move to normalise models who are overweight and obese.

Augustus Gloop in the 1971 movie

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, after the 'curvy' models made headlines worldwide, Prof O'Shea said the plus-size movement was sending out the "wrong message".

"Do I want obese individuals to get fit and have a healthy sense of self-esteem? Yes I do, because that's an important part of their getting well. So 5pc of me thinks there is a positive message in this," he said.

"But 95pc of me is horrified. If we normalise obesity rather than tackle obesity and the drivers of it, then our already struggling health system is going to cave under the weight of the disease."

According to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ireland is on course to become the most obese country in Europe and Prof O'Shea has said this latest shift in attitude was society's way of dealing with the problem.

Augustus Gloop fattened up for the 2005 remake

"This is what society tends to do. We normalise something that isn't normal. It is a reflection of where we have gone as a society, weight-wise.

"We cannot afford to normalise being overweight and obese no more than we could afford to make smoking attractive back in the 1960s and 1970s."

Although Prof O'Shea explained that it was possible to be obese and physically fit and healthy - citing the example of sumo wrestlers who undertake gruelling fitness regimes every day from 5.30am to 11am - he said the vast majority of people did not fit into this bracket.

"Around 95-98pc of people who are obese are not physically fit and they are carrying all the disease risks that obesity brings: dementia, cancer and diabetes.

Warning: Prof Donal O'Shea Photo: David Conachy

"So the release of images of this normalises obesity and is dangerous. It is making socially acceptable a condition that is 'public health risk number one'."

Prof O'Shea, who has spent more than 20 years at the coalface of the obesity crisis, explained how Hollywood, TV bosses and the modern media had a history of normalising unhealthy lifestyles.

Hollywood glamorised smoking with classic stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn lighting up on the silver screen, and Prof O'Shea pointed out that modern-day TV and film bosses had done the same with our attitudes towards weight and drink.

"Desperate Housewives normalised having a glass of wine when women came in from work in the evening, as did stars such as Brad Pitt with a bottle of beer."

He said the same was happening with burgeoning waistlines: "There is a really good picture of the character of Augustus Gloop in the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which illustrates this. If you compare the character in the 1971 version with the 2005 remake of the film, you can see the shift in what was seen as 'an obese kid' then and now. It's ridiculous, the explosion at the extreme end of obesity, and you normalise it when you glamorise it.

"There are rare conditions where individuals have genetic problems but in general if your portion size is good and your overall energy levels and your diet is healthy, then you will not be overweight or obese, you will have a healthy weight," Prof O'Shea added.

In 2015, a study found the use of plus-size models in advertising campaigns may be fuelling the obesity epidemic. Published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, the study, entitled The Dove Effect and written by Lily Lin and Brent McFerran, consisted of five experiments that showed a sample of female advertisement campaigns that feature plus-size models in a normalised or positive way. After viewing plus-size models in a positive light, women ate more and reported less motivation to pursue a healthier lifestyle.

Meanwhile, speaking after the shoot, model McGrady said: "I'm so grateful that Sports Illustrated is promoting [plus-size models] because it's a movement that I'm so proud to be a part of."

This year's issue also features Ashley Graham, who is a size 18. Last July, she was body-shamed by fans for losing weight.

Six months later she changed her mind and said losing would be "disloyal".

She said: "A lot of who I am is connected to my size, and I am so happy with who I am."

How to talk to a family member who is very overweight

To a child or teenager: If they are a younger person than you, do not discuss it with the child. Discuss it among the parents and maybe older siblings and you change the family environment. You do a healthy grocery shop, you decide as a family that you are all going to go and get active for the sake of the younger person.

To an adult: The most important thing is to raise it sensitively. It is highly likely that the individual is aware of it and has tried to lose weight before. It would depend on the individual - but you could bring it up from your own perspective. Say you weighed yourself or that you were with your GP and they said you should lose a couple of pounds, and ask 'will we try and do it together?' You take the hit. Say you are doing something like joining Weight Watchers or Unislim and ask if they want to come along. If they don't, you should leave it at that. Say: 'Well let's see how I get on and if it goes well for me I might come back to you.' Seek their permission to revisit it so that you can go back four weeks later and say: 'Look I am down 4lbs, would you not come with me? I would love it.' If they say no to that then the time is not now because there is really good evidence that if the adult doesn't want to do something about it, nothing works. You wanting it for someone else is no good. You are only causing yourself stress at that point.