Polly Toynbee Guardian/UK 18 August 2016
Why is anyone surprised that a Conservative government has yet again caved in cravenly to industry and produced a shaming non-policy on childhood obesity? That’s what Conservatives do in any clash between business and the environment or general wellbeing, a bias towards profit neatly disguised with a pretended objection to “the nanny state” taking over from personal responsibility.Labour agonised for far too long over banning smoking in public places. Even Dublin and Glasgow had proved it could be done: that changed cultural attitudes towards smoking overnight. The obesity crisis is galloping ahead, exactly as predicted a decade ago, with a third of children leaving primary school overweight. This is far harder to tackle than smoking.
Forcing food manufacturers to cut sugar, fat and salt should be the very least the state should do – but it would still be only one step in the right direction. Banning the advertising of junk food during breaks in children’s programming would help, alongside simple labelling, instead of the deliberately baffling small print.
Attitudes towards food run deep emotionally, psychologically and socially. Obesity is no one’s choice, as everyone wants to be thin: young children now worry about body image, and rates of anorexia – obesity’s evil twin – say explicitly enough is that fat is a social class issue. Most of the seriously obese are poor. This is tiptoed around, but those with a body-mass index in the red zone, those whose children risk swelling up at a young age, in danger of losing limbs and eyesight to diabetes as they grow up, are the poorest. The hyper-rich are called “fat cats”, but privilege is usually thin and sleek, its body well-exercised by gyms and personal trainers on diets of kale and goji berries.
Poverty is a marker for most obesity. Reports suggest the poor find it harder to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, home cooking, swimming pool and gym fees, ballet and judo lessons for their children. All true, but that’s only part of the story. To be obese signifies being poor and out of control, because people who feel they have no control over their own lives give up. What is there to struggle for if there is no chance ever of a job that will pay beyond bare subsistence? With no prospects, drinking, smoking and eating the wrong things become small compensations in lives with very little else.
Most people have social incentives not to give in to temptation – and even then we often fail – but those who have nothing are likely to give up more easily. From every social signal, poor children know from their first day at school that they are low in the pecking order and that gap between them and the rest widens with every school year, as their self-esteem falls away.
Those on the margins eat themselves into an early grave. It is inequality and disrespect that make people fat. Look at the historical figures: obesity took off in the 1980s, up more than 400% in the years since inequality exploded. The link between inequality and obesity is stark around the world: among developed nations, America is the most unequal society and the fattest, with Britain and Australia next on both scores. Europe is better and the Scandinavian countries best of all.
Where the status and income gap in a society is smallest, so are the waistbands. Turn to that great classic of inequality research, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and chapter seven documents how wider income gaps mean wider waists.
There is a tendency to fat-shame the poor, a vicious cycle in which people are blamed individually for both their obesity and their poverty. But the social facts suggest Britain would get thinner if everyone had enough of life’s opportunities to be worth staying thin for. Offer self-esteem, respect, good jobs, decent homes and some social status and the pounds would start to fall away. [Abridged]