‘SafeFoods’, obesity, eating disorders and shaming.


This is why I never, if left to my own devices, listen to the radio first thing in the morning. Who wants to be annoyed before they’ve had that essential first cup of tea? Also, who wants to feel guilty about the full-fat milk in their morning cereal? But this morning I’m staying with my family, and so ended up listening to the radio. Bad idea, because it was through this that I found out about SafeFood‘s new ‘Stop the Spread‘ ad campaign. On the radio was a representative from SafeFood, and one from Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland.

Here’s the ad that was being discussed. I’m going to give it a TW for fat/body shaming and pop it behind a jump. Not something to check out if you’re in any way vulnerable. I haven’t a transcript right now, but I’ll see about putting one together after work today.

Right. In this ad, we have ominous music, being obese/overweight seen as an epidemic, as a contagion. Close-up shots of people’s bellies, as a voiceover talks about higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Ominous music continuing with a shot, through a window, of a family sitting on their sofa eating their dinner, in front of the TV. A voiceover stating that if the ‘number around your waist’ is higher than 32 inches for women, or 37 inches for men, the epidemic ‘probably has’ spread to you.

Let’s analyse this a little, shall we? The purpose of this ad appears to be purely to let people know that they might be fat, and that there are certain health risks associated with that. The assumptions inherent in this are staggering- can anyone, in our society, truly believe that people don’t know when they’re fat? We have a culture obsessed with skinniness as the ideal body type, with selling us ‘solutions’ to our body ‘flaws’. I can’t remember the last time I heard of a ‘healthy eating’ plan that wasn’t code for a low-calorie diet- probably because ‘healthy eating’ is synonymous with losing weight in our society.

This ad also deliberately addresses what they call the ‘social contagion‘ effect- the idea that people are more likely to be overweight/obese if their friends, family members or spouses are. Instead of looking into social structural factors that may cause this, SafeFoods makes the assumption that we simply see our friends and families gaining weight and somehow, magically, become influenced to do the same. Not that, for example, people in similar social situations might live in similar areas, do similar jobs, have access to similar foods, have similar pressures, be similarly busy and similarly stressed and that the totality of these structural factors might lead to similar health and body issues within a person’s social sphere. Nope, it’s just that if my friend Betsy puts on weight, I’m going to suddenly decide to pile on the doughnuts because she’s just that cool.

The lack of awareness of the reality of what’s going on here is just.. staggering. The idea that people have suddenly, in the past decade or two, become lazy and stopped caring about our bodies is both insulting and ridiculous. If I’m in a situation where I’m working long hours, have a long commute without public transport links, responsibilities towards my family, and would like to see my friends once in a blue moon? I’m going to be more likely to just grab a sandwich from the local deli at lunch than to pile yet another thing on my plate to make myself a packed lunch every night. The problem here isn’t my (or your!) laziness. It’s the way our society is structured, it’s what kinds of filling, tasty foods we have access to, it’s the constant interplay of our responsibilities and priorities.

Sure, I could make a heroic effort, as an individual, to exercise every day and spend time preparing healthy and low-calorie meals for myself. But that’s going to mean less time with friends and loved ones, less time on hobbies, less time to sleep. And although an individual might be persuaded to make that effort and to keep it up over their entire life, we can’t expect an entire society to do so.

Yes, people were skinnier fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, we also had better and more extensive public transport networks, so people were more likely to get that extra fifteen minutes of walking every morning and evening. More people worked outdoors and in physically demanding jobs, so exercise was simply part of what we did all day, and not something that we had to make time for outside of work. These issues are structural, not individual, and need to be dealt with on the structural level.

And then there’s the shaming. As the BodyWhys representative* pointed out, we live in a society where eating disorders are a major problem. The response by the SafeFood representative to this was, in my opinion, absolutely appalling. She said- and I paraphrase- that eating disorders only affect a minority of the population, and that she is more interested in working to help the majority.

Eating disorders are but one extreme response to a situation where we are all told that our bodies are imperfect, flawed, not good enough. Where it is entirely normal to feel unhappy with our bodies. Where it is strange and unusual to not feel that way. Eating disorders are a symptom of a society which is structured in a way that makes us fatter, and which shames us for not being thinner. Telling people that obesity is a contagion? That they are not only harming themselves, but also everyone around them, if they have a waist measurement greater than 32 or 37 inches? Doing this, in a society which already talks about fat as if it is disgusting? In a society where it has been shown that shaming people about their bodies makes them less likely to exercise? Dismissing, in a sentence, the experiences of people with eating disorders? Completely ignoring the experiences and needs of people with eating disorders whose waists are larger than that magic number?

I wish I found it surprising. Instead, I’m simply disgusted.

*I’m not sure who exactly was speaking for either organisation. If anyone knows, please let me know!

**Need to go to work very soon. Will look up citations later! However, very definitely there. Anecdata, though, in the meantime: ever been to a gym as a squishy person? Felt self-conscious, eh?

16 thoughts on “‘SafeFoods’, obesity, eating disorders and shaming.

  1. I’m between minds about these ads. On one hand, there are huge misconceptions about what is over-weight or obese.
    I don’t think the ads *mean* to imply people don’t know if they are over-weight or not. Obviously if people are carrying a few extra pounds they will notice. It’s the difference between carrying a few extra pounds and still being a healthy individual, and the general public realising that you don’t need to be “huge” to suffer the same health risks we associate with being over-weight/obese.

    But, these ads are far too vague for such a complicated issue. A woman in her 50s who gave birth to twins 20 years ago could easily be perfectly healthy for her age and still be greater than 32 in.

    A better ad campaign would in my opinion, would focus on the benefits of small changes.
    Say before and after pictures of a man who swaps the chocolate bar he has for lunch for an apple. How much calories he’d save and how much weigh he could expect to lose if he kept everything else the same.

    Or beauty product themed ads. What to look younger? Have clearer skin? etc etc. Drink water. Eat some vegetables.

    Although I do think there should be some shock-inducing ads in the evening. The where your seat belt ads really made a huge difference. They just need to be done carefully.

  2. The thing is, though, people already know these things, how to make small changes, drink more water, etc. It’s not just at the information is out there, it’s actually hard to avoid. The most acute cases, of course, being women’s magazines, chock full of “helpful” tips for being healthy aka having the perfect bikini body.

    Clearly, this isn’t working. There’s nothing in this add that isn’t out there in abundance. These types of campiaigns have been around for how many years now? And has anything changed?

    I don’t know what the solution (or more accurately, combination of solutions) is, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that yet another guilt-the-fatty ad isn’t it.

  3. Hiya! I stumbled across your blog a while back (I’m not sure if I know you in Realer Life Than the Internet, but we seem to have a few friends in common). Great post – I completely agree with you. I’d heard the radio ad but the video is even more ridiculous. Mostly I really despise the pointed focus most media puts on weight being equal to health. It’s not! There are many people whose waists are wider than 32″ who eat ridiculously healthily & cycle everywhere, & size 6 girls who eat nothing but red meat & don’t exercise. Also, some of the so-called epidemic carriers in this video seem to be at “healthy weights” (whatever that means) & are just wearing tight tshirts so their tiny pooches are showing.

    I really think they’re going about this the wrong way. The focus should always be on healthy eating & exercise rather than on weight. And of course there are people who either can’t or don’t want to eat healthily or exercise, & they certainly shouldn’t be shamed for it. Gah. Anyway, my point was hello & well said. 🙂

  4. The more I think about Sinead’s comment, the more I think she’s right about what the ad was trying to convey. I don’t agree with how they went about it, but obviously if you weigh 300 pounds, there will be a doctor stuffing the word diabetes down your throat. If you’re say, 20-50 pounds overweight you really may not think about the effect that excess fat could be having on you nor is a doctor really going to say anything either because it’s not an immediate danger. That being said, I think it’s stupid to think there is a magic number on a tape measure for every human being that conveys “health” just as there’s no perfect weight that conveys “health”.

    One thing I would really like to comment on though is your idea that society’s body image is actually causing full blown eating disorders. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for ten years. At my heaviest I honestly could afford to lose some weight. At my lightest I was told by my therapist that I was going to drop dead if I continued down that path and I knew she was right. I also happen to be in the entertainment industry, which is a very scary place to be if you’re not a size 2/0. Now, as much as I do think it’s wrong that you can’t find a real woman on tv to save your life (and if you do they turn into a twig within a season), I don’t think the entertainment industry is to blame for true eating disorders.

    There are a few different categories of people. Category A will say “I could stand to get in shape and maybe lose a few pounds.” They’ll cut out the junk food and start exercising more. They’ll prolly lose what they want and in the end, keep it off because that’s how you go about things in a healthy manner. Category B is, what I feel, affected most by the entertainment industry. They’ll say “I’m a freakin cow because so and so used to look human and now I can count her clavicles. I need to do that.” Person B will then go on a crash diet, fail immensely, and prolly pack on more pounds while continuing the cycle until eventually giving up. Why? Because it’s very hard to actually force yourself to have a disordered eating mentality. For the majority of the population, no matter how much you want to lose weight, a little voice/drive kicks in and forces you to eat. You can’t sustain the crash diet because you just want to look thinner like the celebrities. You’re honestly not willing to do anything and everything to achieve it. You choose crash diet over slow and steady, bad choice, but it seems like the quicker option so you keep hammering away hoping it’ll eventually work. Now Category C is the people with true eating disorders. They will do anything to lose weight and I do mean anything. But I think using society as an excuse is complete bullshit and I can only say this after ten years and some good therapy. I had an eating disorder before I joined the entertainment industry, before moving to Hollywood, yet when I got here it was the easiest excuse. “Everyone is doing it!” No, not everyone is starving, puking up what little they eat, and eating entire packages of laxatives as a punishment for slipping up. Eating disorders are about control and about trying to deal with all the shit going on in your life. Body image gets completely lost. I would honestly sit at work counting my bones (just in case they suddenly disappeared for putting that honey in my tea because I was going to black out), and use “I’m too fat” as an excuse for not doing anything in my life, including audition, which was supposedly why I lost weight in the first place! At a size 2 I would’ve been fine in Hollywood, but in the end it wasn’t about that at all, it was because my entire life was falling apart and that’s how I chose to deal with it.

    I know this was major over-share and I honestly have no idea if you’ve dealt with an eating disorder yourself. But I did want to share my opinion and am open to any comments/dialog that ensues 🙂

  5. My intent isn’t to linkspam, but I read Ragen Chastain’s Body Size is not a Diagnosis immediately prior to reading this one, and I think there’s a good connection here. “Overweight” and “obese” are descriptors for someone’s weight-to-height ratio and/or their outward appearance. They do not actually describe a person’s eating patterns, exercise habits, or overall health.

    • I love relevant links! In fact, I’ve been thinking of doing some relevant linkspamming, so it’s all welcome.
      And couldn’t agree more with regards to the difference between someone’s weight/height ratio and their lifestyle.

  6. “If I’m in a situation where I’m working long hours, have a long commute without public transport links, responsibilities towards my family, and would like to see my friends once in a blue moon? I’m going to be more likely to just grab a sandwich from the local deli at lunch than to pile yet another thing on my plate to make myself a packed lunch every night. The problem here isn’t my (or your!) laziness. It’s the way our society is structured, it’s what kinds of filling, tasty foods we have access to, it’s the constant interplay of our responsibilities and priorities”

    EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES – Go get a job that isnt so demanding on your time and stop blaming “SOCIETY”
    We all have choices about how much time we work, what we eat. Stop trying to point the finger at others. That is the whole point of this ad, pointing out the denial people have!

    • Uh huh. Because we live in a wonderful, perfect world where we all have the choice to not work demanding jobs, the economy is booming, and society as a whole has no impact on our lives. It’s lovely that none of us have bills to pay, or dependants to care for! It’s fantastic that we all have access to tasty, healthy food! It’s wonderful that none of us have disabilities or illnesses that impact on our energy levels or abilities to be everything to everyone all the time!
      Gosh, I love living in PerfectLand, where none of us have any responsibility for anything other than ourselves!

    • Uh, there’s a difference between blaming society and wanting society to stop blaming you.

      Actually, since how much subcutaneous fat is located in your body is not, really truly not at all, a moral issue, the idea of anybody assigning blame to anybody over it is… frankly, weird. Not unusual, alas, but deeply odd once you stop to think about it.

      • Thank you thank you thank you thank you for this! It’s not a moral issue, and I wish people would quit acting like it was!
        Now, saying mean things about people based on what their bodies look like? That could be considered a moral issue. What with being Not Nice. Having those bodies? Morally neutral!

        • Come to think of it, this ad does rather imply that by harbouring those evil nasty fat cells you’re basically forcing everyone you love to develop morbid obesity and die.

          Which might be a moral issue, if it wasn’t so silly.

  7. I agree with everything you said. Also, I found it super weird that the camera zoomed in to a little extra flab around the people’s stomach that isn’t even really fat.

    I weigh 93.2 pounds, and I’m 23 inches around the waist. And I’ve got that flab. Everyone does. (Unless you’re super toned I think.) It’s not a problem.

    • Seriously! Also, it’s kind of a good thing for a person to have a bit of flab. I know that when I was super-skinny, I had far less energy and whatnot than I do now that I’ve some reserves for when I don’t eat every couple of hours. Not that I could do anything about it then (I ate like a horse!), but from purely a health & wellbeing perspective, I’m way better-off now that I’ve a bit of squish.

  8. Sinead and Erin: I’d like to point out that a lot of overweight people do actually eat veggies and fruit. And yes, we drink water too. And sometimes, it doesn’t do a bit of good. Sorry, but that’s a sore spot for me, because my doctor doesn’t believe that I have ever seen a veggie in my life.

  9. I saw a comment of yours on Greta’s blog about ideals men are supposed to live up to and recognised the nickname from a discussion yesterday on BlagHag so thought I’d stop by and check out your blog.

    I’ve always been a bit pudgy, and have often wanted to go to gym and lose a bit of weight and be a bit healthier. Every time I’ve been though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, especially with all the men around pushing weights and generally looking like the pantheon of Greek gods. It’s not that anyone says or does anything, it’s just that I feel that I should look like that and so I never end up going back (also gym is not particularly fun).

    I have however recently taken up squash, which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying, it’s a fun way to get a bit of exercise and I get to catch up and talk nonsense with some friends after work. I don’t always have time for it, but it makes me feel good about myself whereas gym always made me feel worse.

    • Hello! I remember you from BlagHag yesterday too- I think I ‘liked’ your comment, even 🙂

      And I so get what you mean about feeling uncomfortable at the gym. When I used to go regularly, I didn’t just find it boring as all hell. I also seemed to always be the only short, slightly squishy woman in a gym-full of ripped guys twice my size. Intimidating, to say the least! There were a couple of times in my life that I had access to smaller gyms that were pretty much empty at certain times of the day, and I used to feel far better about going during those times.

      I think that things like squash (or in my case, biking to work and climbing up walls) are about so much more than just exercise. Like you said, they’re about hanging out with people, having fun. I also think that you’re engaging so much more when you do sport- you can’t spend the entire time feeling self-conscious, you’re concentrating on what you’re doing, and there’s tons of mental stimulation coming at you the whole time. The focus isn’t on getting-fit, it’s on hitting-the-damn-ball, or grabbing that awkward handhold. You’re also not just making your body look a certain way. You’re making it be able to do things. I think there’s something important there.

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