I had grand plans for my first blog post, but then I read this article and, frankly, grand plans gave way to annoyance.
The article begins by suggesting that “when it comes to health, Australians are fat, unhappy and leading the world in self-deception,” citing a study that, according to Melbourne GP Dr Bert Boffa, shows that “sixty per cent of Australians are overweight or obese but only about 30 per cent realise they are.” The study also suggests that men are less likely to realise that they’re overweight than women; and older Australians are also less likely to realise that they’re overweight. I think that the gender gap in ‘self-deception’ is particularly interesting (and probably deserves its own post), but that’s not what I’m going to focus on here.
There are a lot of details missing from this article and I think that it’s important to acknowledge this before continuing. How were participants sourced? On what basis was someone deemed ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’? How was the ‘self-deception’ (or, conversely, self-knowledge?) of participants guaged? How many of the 13,000 participants in this international study (including people from 12 countries) were Australian and can this number really be used as the basis of claims about a country whose population is projected to be over 22,000,000 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics?
These questions aside, there are some definite problems with the way this data has been presented in this article.
Despite the fact that Dr Boffa acknowledges that “we’re one of the most long-lived nations on the planet,” and that the number of deaths typically associated with obesity-related complications and health issues are decreasing, as far as he’s concerned fat is still the problem here. Why? Because of the risks of a “tyranny of normality,” of course!
See, we’re meant to believe that in a country where the ‘obesity epidemic’ is not only the topic of a new scare-mongering media exposé every other day of the week, has been the reason for any number of changes in how we live our lives and view our bodies (willingly or otherwise), and has also been a topic of discussion in our Parliament as recently as February of 2011, being fat is not only seen as normal, but has become dangerously mainstream! The fatties have all but taken over, thrusting their bulging bellies upon the poor, disempowered minority of truly normal-sized people! Sure, a majority of people in Australia are meant to be overweight, but “people are sort of fooled by what’s normal.” In other words, just because there’s more of them that doesn’t make it okay for them to be that way!
Look, I’m not saying that there isn’t anything important to take away from this type of study. The fact that “Australians are suffering more chronic and disabling health problems” is definitely something that should be looked into – although the assumption that there is necessarily a ‘correlation is causation’ style of relationship between fat and diabetes is kind of silly, given that you don’t have to be fat to be diabetic. I do, however, see it as being highly problematic to couch these results in a conclusion that not only fails to acknowledge that thin people can – and do – also suffer from all of these very same problems, but that also tries to argue that fat has become normalised in a culture that, in reality, is actually quite vigilant and at times even downright vicious in its policing of our bodies.
This last point seems particularly important when you consider the second part of the study’s findings that are discussed in the article – “that depression is increasingly prevalent in Australia, with one fifth of respondents saying they had it.” Dr Boffa obviously assumes that people are depressed and anxious because they’re fat. Putting aside once again that there’s nothing to say that only fat people are depressed and anxious, isn’t it just as – if not more – plausible to suggest that overweight people are depressed and anxious because they’re constantly being told that they’re not normal? That, to me, seems to be where the “tyranny of normality” really comes into play!