Tuesday 25 June 2019

Body shaming and cotton balls for dinner - how not to tackle obesity

Obesity expert Professor Donal O’Shea has taken to the airwaves recently to warn of an existential crisis facing the country – fat people with self-confidence. Photo: PA
Obesity expert Professor Donal O’Shea has taken to the airwaves recently to warn of an existential crisis facing the country – fat people with self-confidence. Photo: PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Obesity expert Professor Donal O'Shea has taken to the airwaves recently to warn of an existential crisis facing the country - fat people with self-confidence.

Speaking about a recent increase in the numbers of plus-size models, Prof O'Shea told Newstalk it was a "dangerous trend" that "glamorised obesity".

"If you put significantly obese people out there as the socially acceptable norm, then it becomes that.

"It becomes like Brad Pitt having a Budweiser, it becomes James Dean smoking, it becomes attractive and acceptable," he said.

You heard it here first. Fashion is now a gateway drug to a lifetime of obesity and chronic health problems.

The theory is that if an image of a plus-size model infiltrates the pages of a magazine, or appears on a TV commercial, we'll all suddenly ditch the diets and pile on the pounds.

One wonders when was the last time Prof O'Shea picked up a copy of 'Vogue' magazine or watched models strutting down a catwalk in Milan or Paris?

Because the notion that uppity plus-size women are taking over the industry is laughable.

In fact, the total number of "plus-size" models who took part in New York Fashion Week this year was just 27, out of an army of hundreds.

It may have seemed like more because these women got disproportionate coverage in the media. Why? Because they stood out; they look different; their presence was notable.

While Prof O'Shea was obviously dismayed to see these women confidently posing with the best of them, he probably didn't read the account from one "regular" model of her battle to stay thin.

Having subsisted on a diet of cigarettes and coffee for much of her career to maintain her seven-stone weight, 5ft 11in Sannie Pedersen is now eight and a half stone - and is routinely told she is too fat when she attends castings.

She told 'The New York Post' that one designer was so appalled by her body shape that he derided her as "obese" when she turned up to meet him. Perhaps that's why she knows fellow models who eat cotton balls for dinner.

Prof O'Shea wasn't advocating heroin chic or anorexia as a healthy lifestyle choice for women, but the problem with his comments about the fashion industry is that they're clueless.

The words "plus-size" are bandied about a lot these days, but the description has lost all meaning. It's a generalisation, which means anything bigger than size 10.

When Calvin Klein hired a plus-size woman to model his underwear for the first time in 2014, it spawned international headlines.

In the event, he chose Myla Dalbesio - an Amazonian size 14 with a washboard stomach. Her casting caused such a backlash that she ultimately distanced herself from the description, instead saying she was "normal-size". She's since lost weight.

'Vogue', bless them, attempt to reach out to "normals" every year with their "shape issue", which is supposed to celebrate women of every size.

Instead, what invariably happens is that one token fatty, who exceeds a size 12, has the honour of gracing their pages alongside renowned plus-size cover-girls like Angelina Jolie and Gisele Bundchen.

Despite all of this, Prof O'Shea seems to believe that obese models are now so ubiquitous that they pose "a major threat to the health of this country".

As well as being nonsensical, his comments were damaging. Suggesting that it's not "socially acceptable" for women whose body shape does not conform to conventional standards of beauty to be visible in media sends an insidious message.

It tells those who are struggling with their weight that they are ugly, they are repugnant and they are dangerous - that they should hide away and be miserable until they are more 'normal'.

Worse, not only are they endangering their own health by being too heavy, their very presence in the media could imperil the health of the entire country.

In effect, they are some kind of human pathogen whose very existence poses a danger to the community.

While Prof O'Shea likened advertising that includes obese people to that of cigarettes or alcohol, there's a big difference. Cigarettes and alcohol are dangerous products; they are not human.

It also should be pointed out that despite sanctimonious moralising from well-meaning doctors, some plus-size women are not racked with self-loathing and despair. Amazingly, some are quite content, love fashion and their body-positive message provides inspiration to other women.

That unapologetic message is that women's self worth should not be determined by their dress size and that, even if you're not a size zero, it is still possible to be happy, fashionable and beautiful.

Further, if labelling a body shape as "socially unacceptable" is supposed to act as a catalyst for change, it could just as easily backfire, causing feelings of isolation and depression that lead to overeating.

Speaking to this newspaper yesterday, Dr Francis Finucane, who runs the only publicly funded obesity clinic outside Dublin, said blaming plus-size models for increased obesity levels was "a distraction".

"It is essential we move away from negative stereotypes around obesity being a personal choice, a moral failure and a sign of weakness.

"I am [more concerned] about the length of time patients have to wait to see me and access other specialty services such as psychology, surgery and structured lifestyle programmes," he said.

Instead of demonising a relatively small number of plus-size models for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, we should be focused on the structural inequalities that are associated with obesity - namely, poverty and poor education. But, that would be much more complex than finger-pointing.

Irish Independent

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