17 December 2008

Media: search filters and fat panic

I was just mooching around The Guardian's search pages and filters just now and I noticed some stuff that I'm going to share here. It would be really interesting to compare these search results with those of different media outlets, maybe in different countries, from different political perspectives (The Guardian is a centre-left newspaper in the UK).

I searched on "Obesity" to see where and when fat panic stories were published this year. Sure, the search may have picked up stories that aren't entirely hostile to fat people, but Obesity is a pretty loaded term, not really acceptable amongst fat activists, and is generally used to support the idea of fat being a problem that needs to be cured by weight loss.

So I searched on Obesity and then I started playing around with some of the search filters.

Publication year interested me. One of the reasons that there is just one meagre result for Obesity in 1998 could be because Guardian online was only just beginning at that point and there wasn't much content available. The growth in the number of Obesity results in ten years is really startling, however, almost doubling each year between 1999 and 2004, with a millennial plateau in the middle. Apparently we are in the grip of an Obesity EpidemicTM, although these results suggest that it is more of an epidemic of fat panic reporting.

2004 was a significant year because it coincides with the World Health Organization's report, Obesity: preventing and managing the global epidemic, which is likely to have kicked-off this current wave of fat panic. The number of Guardian results for Obesity in 2004, their highest ever, seems to bear that out.

Publication months for 2008 confirm my suspicions about fat reporting peaking in January, the month of new year diet resolutions; and July, the beginning of the journalistic Silly Season, where any old crap gets published because everyone's on holiday, and also the season of beach body anxiety.

The section results for 2008 show how Obesity has infiltrated areas where you might be somewhat sceptical about there being a connection. Journalists, got a dreary story? Jazz it up by adding a pinch of fat panic! Hence the multitude of Sport and Environment stories, and entries in Money, Art and Design. Needless to say, there are no results for "fat liberation" or "size acceptance."

Finally, the juxtaposition of hard news and Sponsored Links seems particularly telling. It made me think about how weight loss industries, and private eating disorder clinics, are cashing-in on the back of fat panic in the media. This screengrab seems to illustrate this idea really well.

14 December 2008

Anti-obesity campaigns: Healthy Towns, another missed opportunity

I'm late to the discussion about the Change4Life Healthy Towns initiative, but I have a few comments.

Dudley, Halifax, Sheffield, Tower Hamlets, Thetford, Middlesborough, Manchester, Tewkesbury, Peterborough and Portsmouth have been given £30 million to promote cycling, walking, healthy eating and green spaces in a bid to curb obesity levels.

In theory I have no beef with the idea of more cycle facilities; cycling any distance in London for me means negotiating cruddy drivers and dual carriageways. I know two cyclists who have been killed on the roads in the past two years. Better signage for walking would be great too, I love London Underground's JourneyPlanner, which has opened up new routes and walking in the city for me. Access to good quality and affordable fresh food, who could argue with that? Likewise green spaces. Sounds great, right?

There are a couple of fundamental problems with Healthy Towns, however, which change things for me.

Firstly, the framing of these initiatives as part of a response to a global obesity epidemic perpetuates fat panic, positions "obesity" as a problem to be eliminated, promotes the idea that fat is costing the NHS a packet, and negates me and my kind.

Secondly, "health" is not really defined, apart from through obesity statistics. Health is multi-dimensional and extremely subjective, and the reductive tactic of allying it to bodyweight is, well, quite stupid. I suspect that Healthy Towns is a euphemism for "Towns Where We've Got Rid of The Fatties So they Can't Clog Up The NHS With Their Revolting Bodies And Cost Us a Fortune". Doesn't sound so friendly now.

Thirdly, 30 million does not buy a huge amount of infrastructure redesign amongst ten municipalities. I think it's likely that local authorities will try and do things on the cheap in a really muddled and ill-conceived way. I expect to see more instances where, for example, a local council does a deal with a dieting company, as has happened in East London, and where my council tax is funding Newham's association with Slimming World. Pardon my cynicism but is the commercial weight loss industry really the best advocate of my health? Nope.

Imagine a £3 million investment in Health At Every Size instead. Strategies to improve people's health that take a holistic view and which don't base health on an outmoded chart don't have to be expensive. If I was in charge of that money I'd spend it on:
  • Assertiveness skills classes so that fat people can learn to self-advocate for their health within a system that seems intent on denying us access to acceptable standards of care.
  • Systems for training health professionals to deal with fat people sensitively and helpfully.
  • Fat-friendly swims, fat-friendly social groups, fat-friendly yoga or trampolining lessons.
  • I'd set up collections of fat liberation materials within local libraries and make them accessible online, and in ways that reach people who are not library or internet users.
  • Oral history projects encouraging fat people to know about their community, their history, projects that enable people to feel empowered, less alone.
  • Accessible equipment, big kayaks, scuba gear, stuff that would make activities fun for people, with subsidies for shops selling large-sized gear.
  • Grants available for people exploring HAES through community projects, grants, research.
  • Good quality, non-judgmental counselling services and supportive resources for people dealing with fatphobia, self-hatred, dieting fallout, etc
  • A regular dance party.
Oh, the list goes on.

Finally, the whole shebang reminds me of Ruth Levitas' work on social exclusion. In 2004 she wrote about the ways that social exclusion is influenced by political ideology, she describes the ways that it was positioned under New Labour in the UK during the mid-1990s by charting a chronology and identifying themes within social exclusion. She argues that in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s social exclusion was understood as multi-dimensional, connected to poverty and social inequality, and that its proponents sought to reduce inequalities through greater rights and a redistribution of resources, which she called RED. By the 90s this model was supplanted by two new approaches: Social Integrationist Discourse (SID) sought to integrate people into work as a means of addressing social exclusion, whilst Moral Underclass Discourse (MUD) characterised socially excluded people as morally distinct from the rest of society". Levitas is rightly critical of SID and MUD because they neglect how work is structured under capitalism (eg poor working conditions, McJobs), they stigmatise and shame people, and they support the idea that the state is essentially meritocratic. and that social inclusion can be achieved by hard work and opportunity.

I think this process is happening with Healthy Towns, and that Change4Life is on the same trajectory as welfare reforms of the recent past, a stick and carrot approach to social health, with the emphasis on the stick. Referring back to Levitas , these strategies are typically modelled on SID and MUD in that they propose a neoliberal agenda in which frighteningly deviant bodies are rehabilitated into the mainstream through the hard work of diet and exercise – never mind the evidence that diet and exercise are themselves problematic in relation to slimming down fat people.

Meanwhile, Tower Hamlets, one of the Healthy Towns, is a neighbouring borough to my own, and I'll be keeping an eye on developments there.

13 December 2008

LighterLife: are people dying?

Let’s take a moment to mourn Jacqueline Henson, whose inquest this week revealed that she had died after drinking a huge amount of water as she tried to follow the LighterLife diet. Heartbreaking evidence concerning the circumstances of her death were provided by her husband Brian, who said that the diet had been going brilliantly, "she loved it because she was losing weight. She was over the moon." On the night she died, Jacqueline’s 18 year-old daughter Chantelle found her unconscious.

This is not the first time that LighterLife have been implicated in a death. Matilda Callaghan died of a heart attack after living on LighterLife’s very low calorie diet for six months. One death might be described as a tragic accident, but two is plain careless.

In both cases LighterLife denied any liability. Regarding Ms Henson a spokeswoman claimed that the company states clearly how and when water should be drunk. As for Ms Callaghan, LighterLife boss Bar Hewlett told the inquest that "Miss Callaghan had been obese since the age of 12 and could have died at any time." She made a longer refutation in an open letter after the case was heard. Apologies for the vile blog I have linked to.

Despite their claims of innocence, there is a growing body of evidence against LighterLife, as reported by the BBC and the devil’s Daily Mail; Jacqueline Henson’s sister has also hit out at the company. And then there’s TOAST, secretly funded by LighterLife as a supposedly independent anti-obesity charity, and promoting their programmes, whilst also in receipt of government cash.

In any other sector, except perhaps the arms trade, it would be astounding that a company with this kind of record would have any credibility left. Weight Loss businesses are a law unto themselves, however, and LighterLife continues to enjoy good business. As well as sponsoring 2007’s Guild of Health Writers Awards, they also benefit from the UK’s lack of regulation in the counselling and psychotherapy industry. LighterLife recruits counsellors through the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy’s magazine, Therapy, which is available to the organisation’s members. LighterLife’s counsellors are trained and accredited with the BACP, who are playing an instrumental role in the development of an official UK register of therapists which is likely to be introduced within the next few years. Accreditation and BACP membership means inclusion on that register. Nobody seems to think that this is a problem, even though it is questionable, given the evidence cited above, whether LighterLife adheres to the BACP’s ethical framework.

One would think that companies that push very low calorie diets would be unsustainable because the products and practises they promote are doomed to failure and are really risky. Yet I’m stunned to see that Optifast is still a viable brand, as is Slimfast, and LighterLife also keeps popping right back up, despite the various PR disasters. How long can they go on? How many more deaths will there be?