Guest post: Greens health policy – my big fat perspective

Today is the first of a planned series of guest posts from bloggers, academics and wonks who follow particular issues very closely, and over time have developed a huge amount of knowledge in them. We’re kicking off with a post by Bri King, professional counsellor, academic and Fat Acceptance advocate. Her blog Fat Lot of Good focuses on issues related to the ‘obesity epidemic’, Health At Every Size and size-related discrimination. She gives us her perspective on the policy announced by Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday calling for tighter rules surrounding the sale of junk food and alcohol.

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Greens Health Policy – my big fat perspective

There has been a flurry of media reporting today regarding the Green’s call for a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising: advertising which is apparently going to ‘cut Australia’s growing obesity problem’. As a fat woman, mother, academic, Fat Acceptance advocate and professional counsellor I have issues with what is being attributed to the Greens, but maybe not the issues you think.

Personally, I don’t have much of a problem with a levy on junk food and alcohol advertising. Advertising and commercialism in general leave me cold. As far as I am concerned, you can take all food and alcohol advertisements off TV and radio and out of print media, no skin off my nose. However what is being brushed over in the media reporting is that the levy applies to manufacturers who choose not to display nutritional information regarding their product. Aside from the implicit assumption that people are fat solely because of the type of food they choose to eat, having nutritional information attached to products would actually help people with allergies and specific medical requirements and so making that type of information readily available is a good thing.

Banning vending machines containing soft drink, crisps, chocolate and other sweets from schools isn’t a bad idea but to my knowledge there isn’t a plethora of vending machines in Australian schools anyway. Removing ‘junk food’ advertisements from TV during times young children are more likely to be viewing doesn’t bother me either.

The Greens are promoting the application of a French model (not the long legged type) that was adopted in 2004 to combat the perceived increase in fat French people. What is interesting that according to the OECD statistics available online, the number of overweight/obese people (over 15 years of age) in France increased a miniscule .8% between 2000 and 2006. There are no more recent statistics available and there are no statistics concerning those less than 15 years of age at all. The life expectancy of the French has also increased during those years, so how do we even know the French legislation is having any effect at all? We don’t. But adopting similar legislation makes us look like we are doing something and we all know we have to be seen as doing something about all the fatties in our country. Right? Wrong. But more on that later. I fully realise that this sort of legislation exudes the faint odour of the Nanny State and Big Brother and government intervention in the private lives of citizens and that does concern me to a point but I have bigger, fatter fish to fry.

What I take the most issue with is the blatant misrepresentation of the so called ‘obesity problem’ in Australia (not to mention the rest of the world). This misrepresentation (or blatant distortion) isn’t necessarily being perpetuated by Bob Brown or the Greens Health Policy. The blame for the distinct and very obvious ‘hate on the fatties’ slant falls directly at the feet of the media. The quotes attributed to Bob Brown do not mention the words ‘obese’, ‘obesity’, ‘obesity epidemic’ or even ‘overweight’. These words (and headlines) have been specifically selected by the media in order to stir up the obesity epi-panic because after all, doesn’t everyone love to hate on the fatties?

The medical profession diagnoses obesity using the BMI (Body Mass Index). The BMI was never designed to be applied to individuals; it was originally designed for application to populations. The BMI does not take into consideration either muscle mass, hereditary factors, side effects of medication, ethnic origins or any of a host of reasons as to why an individual might be considered ‘overweight’. Not to mention that in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Americans became overweight and obese overnight when the CDC changed the arbitrary weight designations in the BMI. It doesn’t take Einstein to work out that using the BMI to condemn a large (no pun intended) segment of the population is a colossal error of judgement, yet the medical profession continue to label people using this problematic evaluation.

Fat people are not the burden on society that government, health professionals and the media would have us think. There is a lot of fat-hating propaganda out there and if you take the time to analyse the studies and statistics that a lot of this misinformation stems from, you will see for yourself that the problem is not as much of a problem as we are led to believe, if indeed a problem at all.

What should be given a higher priority is encouraging and enabling people to have the option to eat a varied and nutritional food intake (if they choose to do so) and enabling people to participate in and enjoy physical movement (again, if they so choose). There is an old saying that ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. The same is true for people and ‘healthy diet’ and exercise. We cannot mandate individuals in terms of what they eat and what exercise they do. What we can do is ensure people have the choice, that socio-economic status and other factors do not have undue influence on what people eat and what activity they choose to participate in. We need to remember that health is not a moral imperative and until there is a ban on other so-called ‘chosen’ behaviour such as driving and sports, we should not deny fat people health care on the basis of their weight.

A lot of people think fat is a choice. ‘Eat less and exercise more!’ we are told. Unfortunately it isn’t always that simple, despite the media proliferation of diet plans and the simplistic lamentations of some health professionals. It doesn’t matter if fat is a choice or not, because this sort of simplification misses the point altogether. The point is that fat people (just like thin people, average people, black people and every other sort of person) deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. End of story.

So if the Greens were to get their policy up and running and they did raise the estimated $4 million dollars a year, they would be best to implement a Health At Every Size paradigm which encourages people to adopt a varied and balanced diet based on mindful eating and to engage in physical activity which they find pleasurable rather than punitive – regardless of weight. The Greens policy has the potential to enact positive benefits for the Australian population but it also runs the risk of continuing to demonise fat people, a group of our society who are already deeply stigmatised and marginalised. While the Greens will never be in government they do have considerable influence on the passing of legislation and Bob Brown and his party need to remember they represent all Australians, not just the thin ones.

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