Why we need to stop talking about obesity


A billboard has gone up in my little corner of bristol and it really pushes my buttons. it’s the one from Cancer research UK, the one that goes “OB*S**Y is a cause of cancer”

It made me so cross, when we drove past it yesterday I asked my husband to stop the car so I could take a picture of it, knowing I would be writing a blog about it.

“What’s the problem with it?” He asked. “Obesity does cause cancer and all they are trying to do is make people aware of it.”

My husband works in health and fitness and is therefore firmly embedded in popular thinking around weight being an indicator of health…..but I am working on him, and my message is filtering through…

I think I groaned (!) because I didn’t really want to go into it but he then said “If you can’t convince me, how can you convince other people?”

Good point I thought and when challenged, I tend to come up with the goods. “OK I said, let me explain.”

“How is this poster helpful? How does this poster help anyone? What is their point?” I spluttered.

“That approach will just get people’s backs up Lisa” he said…. and darn it, he’s right.

So I tried again,

“When they make a poster like this, they are blaming the individual.

They suggest that ‘obesity’ is a choice and that people in larger bodies are at fault.”

This is of course what lots of us believe about people in larger bodies, and this is because we reflect what most of our society/culture thinks to be true. We don’t question it, just accept it.

Sharron Davies MBE tweeted this week in reference to the recent magazine cover with Tess Holliday on it. “Normalising someone hugely overweight is a dangerous practice. The NHS cannot and will not cope! We have to help ourselves.”

Again, someone accepting the cultural narrative that fat is inherently bad and should not even be seen on a magazine because it ‘normalises’ obesity.

Back to the poster.

In actual fact, there is a huge body of research to show that weight is not a determinant of health, at least not in the way that we’ve been led to believe. Weight isn’t necessarily the CAUSE of ill health but there may be an ‘association’ between higher weight and ill heath (Bacon, 2010). The fact is, weight is extremely complex and involves a myriad of factors. Much of the research demonising ‘obesity’ has been funded or written by experts that have an advantage in perpetuating the myth that ‘normal’ weight = health, like corporations that sell us slimming products/groups, like pharmaceutical companies that sell diet supplements….

BUT, you cannot tell by a persons weight how healthy they are. Let me explain. You can be thin and unhealthy or fat and unhealthy. You can be thin and healthy or fat and healthy and all the variations in between. Many people that would be categorised as ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ have a normal blood pressure and other health measures. BMI as a construct is not helpful either.

We can make judgements based on a persons size but that does not mean we are correct in our assumptions.

So, when Cancer Research UK puts up posters to increase awareness of obesity being a risk factor, I groan because I know how unhelpful this is.

Even if the statement were true, how does Cancer Research UK think this is going to help people with ‘obesity’? Will this group of individuals think,

”Oh goodness, thanks for that, I’d better up my veg intake and head to the gym”,

or might they feel just that bit worse about themselves?

“It’s my fault”. “I can’t stop eating”. “I shouldn’t be like this”.

They might even sink further into a pit of despair about their situation and head for some comfort food.

That’s what I used to when I felt bad about my weight and my body.

“So what do you think Cancer UK should do with their advertising campaign then Lisa?” asked my husband. “They need to talk about the risk factors…so that people know…”

My response: “No they don’t. Why don’t they promote well being instead. Why don’t they encourage us to take care of ourselves, from a pace of self worth and self compassion?”

Why don’t they (and Public health in general) focus on respecting people of all shapes and sizes and encourage healthy behaviours, for EVERYONE, like exercise (or moving to feel good) and eating well because we deserve to treat our bodies well. Whilst we are at it, let’s tackle our culture that is so weight phobic that people like Tess Holiday get harassed all the time because of their size. It’s prejudice you know. And think about it, if we were more accepting of everyone, people wouldn’t feel judged all the time, they wouldn’t have low self esteem (because they think they’ve failed, at dieting, at being smaller) and they wouldn't need to resort to eating foods to make them feel better (albeit fleetingly).

If we want to reduce ‘obesity’ we need to stop telling people they are ‘obese’ and blaming them for it.

Firstly, they already know.

Secondly, labelling people isn’t helpful and it doesn’t have a positive impact on health outcomes and thirdly even the terms ‘obesity’ and ‘overweight’ are stigmatising terms in themselves.

Let’s help people rediscover agency of their bodies. Let’s stop sending them to slimming clubs (they don’t work) let’s help them understand WHY they eat in the way they do. Let’s help them nourish and look after their bodies from a place of compassion and not shame. Let’s stop blaming individuals for not looking after themselves and consider the wider societal implications.

It’s time we woke up to the idea that our current messaging around ‘obesity’ helps no-one, it makes for a divisive society where people are singled out and blamed for existing in their bodies. We don’t allow discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, disability, race why are we still doing to people in larger bodies?

I help people improve their relationship with food and themselves. My philosophy is based on a non-diet, Health at Every size philosophy. 

I do this by providing Mindful Eating, Eating Psychology and Body Image coaching either 121 or in groups both in person in Bristol, UK and online.

And I love public speaking too! So am available for talks, meetings and corporate sessions.