‘Are you beach body ready?’ This was the question posed by supplements company ProteinWorld in 2015 on billboards around London, which also featured Australian model Renee Somerfield in a bikini.
The backlash began almost immediately, culminating in hundreds of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), 71,000 signatures on a petition to remove the adverts and a protest in Hyde Park. Opponents even sent death threats to ProteinWorld staff, claiming the advert was ‘sexist’, ‘body-shaming’ and promoted ‘unrealistic body images’.
The ASA eventually ruled the advert was not offensive or socially irresponsible, particularly as the model featured had a BMI within the healthy range. The campaign was eventually barred from reuse due to unsubstantiated health claims on ProteinWorld’s website, but not before activists had defaced hundreds of posters around London.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan moved to ban ‘body-shaming’ adverts from public transport over fears that they “could demean people, especially women”.
In a flashback to 2015, social media was again dominated last week by claims against an organisation not of body-shaming generally, but ‘fat-shaming’ in particular. However, the target for these accusations was not another supplement company, fashion magazine or clothing store – it was Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer research charity.
The charity hadn’t used a skinny model in an advert, or been caught implementing prejudicial hiring practices – it had attempted to draw attention to the growing body of evidence linking obesity to markedly increased risks of cancer.
A recent analysis of population trends by Cancer Research UK projected that over 70% of millennials will be overweight or obese by middle age. The UK is already the fattest nation in Europe, with 63% of adults and 28% of children overweight or obese and rates doubling over the past two decades – the fastest increase of any developed nation.
News that obesity was linked to poorer health outcomes was hardly new, yet despite a wealth of evidence dating back at least 20 years that obesity can cause cancer, and recent studies expanding the number of cancer types linked to bodyweight to 13, only 15% of the British public recognise this connection.
To raise public awareness of the issue, Cancer Research UK released a video and billboard campaign styled around cigarette packaging, which in many countries including the UK must carry warnings of the health dangers of smoking. Almost immediately the campaign was picked up on by thousands of individuals accusing the charity of ‘fat-shaming’, with some even pledging to stop their donations.
The figurehead of this group was Sofie Hagen, a London-based Danish comedian who describes herself as a preacher of ‘fat liberation, fat acceptance and fit positivity’ who ‘shamelessly glorifies obesity’. Within hours, her series of tweets about the campaign had been liked and retweeted nearly 2000 times, with over 5000 responses – including by Cancer Research UK, which assured her that the campaign was a warning of the links between obesity and cancer, not an attack on individuals.
Many people have been staggered by the vitriol and sheer scale of opposition both to Cancer Research UK and their message, with some questioning whether ‘common sense’ knowledge about the health impacts of obesity has failed to reach younger generations.
Others pointed out that while clearly a committed ‘fat activist’, Hagen may have been using the furore to publicise her latest show and a book release, which she tweeted about in the midst of her series on the advertising campaign. The general consensus seems to have been that Cancer Research UK just touched a particularly sensitive nerve, and that realistically speaking almost everyone accepts that obesity is unhealthy.
Right, is anyone currently working on getting this piece of shit CancerResearchUK advert removed from everywhere? Is there something I can sign? How the fucking fuck is this okay? pic.twitter.com/b7eU7lulms
— Sofie Hagen (@SofieHagen) February 28, 2018
The Fat Acceptance movement
However, a potentially dangerous undercurrent in the discourse on weight and health has in fact been swelling – mainly online – for some time. The ‘fat acceptance movement’ has its roots in the activism of 1960s New York, aiming to counter anti-fat bias in social attitudes. This concept was certainly valid, especially at a time when obesity rates were significantly lower – however, in recent years certain sections of the movement have seemingly corrupted its initial aims drastically.
Rather than focusing on social bias against people deemed medically overweight or obese, many of these new movements seek to challenge the scientific consensus that weight has any impact on health, and even encourage obesity among both adults and children. On blogging sites like Tumblr, fat activists directly advise readers – many of whom are children – to overeat, ignore medical advice and that any dieting is dangerous.
Meanwhile, a veritable industry has been created out of the movement, with fat activists charging hundreds of dollars for an online course on ‘breaking up with diet culture’ or raking in advertising revenue with articles likening dieting to foot-binding.
Pseudo-scientific organisations seek to lay a veneer of technical-sounding jargon over false claims such as Health At Every Size (HAES), helping ensnare many with cynical appeals to authority. In an attempt not only to legitimise the movement but also to pre-emptively stamp out criticism before it can even occur, activists often stretch to equate ‘fatphobia’ with racism, homophobia and even anti-capitalism – the latter by touting the enormous revenues generated by the diet industry ($61bn per year in the US alone by some estimates, although diet soft drinks account for the majority and activists often neglect to mention that the fast food industry alone is worth $200bn, with the food industry coming in at $5.4trn).
Many even claim that being overweight can actually promote health including prolonging life for cancer patients, a view that appears to be the result of a poorly-interpreted study on patient weight at death. The study failed to take into account that many patients wasted significantly as a result of their disease, and when initial weight was taken into account the best health outcomes were enjoyed by those starting at a healthy BMI.
Controlling for other variables, these people were also less likely to suffer from cancer in the first place, developed cancer later in life and had more healthy life years after diagnosis than overweight patients. The misinterpretation of these results forms part of what was known as the ‘obesity paradox’, which stated that overweight (but not obese) people are healthier and live longer than those of normal weight – a conclusion which has been thoroughly debunked.
It is tempting to put these views down to a vocal but miniscule minority of fat activists, who have little sway over public health campaigns or the general discourse around weight. However, various interpretations of fat activism are now taught through Fat Studies courses in most US universities, and in recent years UK universities have sought to catch up with courses and seminars on the subject. With weight and diet such a sensitive and central issue for most people, it is easy to prey on those looking for an easier approach to losing weight in particular – the success of fad diet peddlers is ample proof of this.
However, a point has now been reached where even the most basic science on weight and health is being not only ignored, but actively opposed – even in mainstream media read by millions of people every day. When added to dubious or completely false ideas about weight loss such as setpoint theory, metabolism speed or ‘calorie quality over quantity’, it is no surprise the public is so confused about what ‘health’ even means, let alone how to stay healthy.
Critics of fat acceptance will claim that obesity impacts on everyone through increased healthcare and insurance costs, lost economic productivity and other aspects of a shared society. However, at its most base level, if an individual wants to deny science, or threaten their own health through obesity, that is their right.
Where most would agree that fat acceptance becomes unacceptable is when it impacts on the lives of others. Through co-opting positions of authority to spread these views to unsuspecting children, attempting to shut down public health initiatives, or by promoting unscientific and dangerous advice – such as obesity being actively healthy – fat activists have helped mislead the public to the point where many are genuinely unsure on what constitutes a healthy weight or diet.
Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, summed up this position when she stated; “This [advert] is not about ‘fat shaming’. It is based on scientific evidence and designed to give important information to the public. Only 15 percent of people are aware that obesity is a cause of cancer. Cancer Research UK has a duty to put that message in the public domain.”
The converse is also true; just as ProteinWorld’s ‘beach body ready’ ad was pulled because it made health claims not supported by science, do authority figures not have a duty to avoid claiming that obesity is healthy?