Imagine for a moment, that I were to start writing and campaigning about obesity and its effects upon children.
The usual trolls would descend, claiming this to be somehow religiously motivated, would take some obscure Levitical verse as being my motivation and bang on that I believe in the ludicrously outdated notion of sin, in this particular case, gluttony. No doubt I’d also be accused of lacking compassion for the overweight and made to take responsibility for any fat person who felt ashamed, was driven to diet or who suffered from any bullying or mental health difficulties.
There may be no religious conviction underpinning the current crusade against obesity and sugar in particular, which is rapidly replacing tobacco as the next thing which must be banned or regulated, but certain health professionals are pursuing the cause of weight and obesity with a zeal which would put Torquemada to shame.
So, hot off the back of the mooted ‘sugar tax’, the normally sensible Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chairman of the select Health committe, appeared on Good Morning Britain to state that all primary school children ought to be weighed in school, a call which was promptly reinforced by Britain’s loudest self-proclaimed voice of reason, Katie Hopkins.
No-one is denying that obesity or sugar is bad for us, or that being overweight can have a negative impact upon health. According to the World Health Organisation, even being slightly overweight can increase the risk of health problems. And by and large we know that being overweight is a preventable condition, we all need to take more care over what we eat and increase the amount of exercise we take. Fewer saturated fats, less sugar and thirty minutes of regular moderate activity every day. Simples!
Except it isn’t. We know that people have a complex often psychologically unhealthy relationship with food, and that something which sounds so straightforward often isn’t. We also know that metabolisms differ and that in some of cases people really are unable to shed weight easily, for a variety of medical reasons and conditions. To attribute a weight problem to ignorance, laziness or some kind of psychiatric disorder is a glib attitude of the smug.
The idea of weighing children in school is a horrifying one, which will set them up for a lifetime of negative body image issues, overt paranoia about weight and creates fertile ground for a culture of bullying, which as most parents will know, teenagers do not need any encouragement with. I have bitter experience of this, though never technically overweight, I came in at the top end of the scale, and the regular weigh-ins were a form of torture, along with the inevitable playground comparisons and competition. The process was equally traumatic for those at the lower end of the spectrum. It’s no surprise that almost all of my school friends struggled with eating disorders and food issues at some point in their lives.
This is no longer the feminist issue perhaps it would have been a generation ago, although people of a certain age will remember Roland from Grange Hill, demonstrating that overweight children is not a new phenomenon. A quarter of people affected by an eating disorder at a school age are boys.
Clamping down on homophobic bullying in schools, telling children it’s okay for them to be exactly how they are, lacks sincerity and is undermined by measures which tell children precisely the opposite. You may not be able to help being gay, but to be fat or overweight is completely unacceptable and must be stamped out.
In many ways this current crusade about weight is linked to the culture of death. We are sending the message that your life is of more value and of a better quality if you are thin, whereas actually the stereotype of the fat happy person might actually have some truth to it, according to research, the obesity gene is linked to happiness.
If the state were to charge for contraception and abortions, there would be an outcry about how they were attempting to interfere with people’s personal lives, getting in the bedroom along with the usual ridiculous, hysterical and factually inaccurate rhetoric of poking about in women’s wombs. Acres of column inches would be devoted to how the state has no place as a moral guardian, attempting to dictate and impose moral values about how we should conduct our sex lives, the fact that they already do this in terms of nudging young women towards Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives, and men towards condoms, having escaped the attention of most.
Why is no-one questioning the ethics as to whether or not the state ought to be complicit in moulding and encouraging its citizens into a homogenous size and shape? Is there really so much difference between this and the proscribed haircuts and clothes of the North Koreans, or is state intervention in our eating habits and sex lives a necessary and desirable trade-off and inevitable consequence of the existence of the NHS? If we were all responsible for bearing the costs of our own health-care would the nation’s size still be seen as an urgent and pressing public health concern, which the government must instantly tackle?
One can’t help but wonder whether or not by advocating and supporting state intervention into eating habits, including the involvement of schools we are conceding yet more control of our lives and feeding a cycle of co-dependence. This is where Catholic Social Teaching, with its emphasis upon the family as first and primary educators, with ultimate responsibilities to their children and non-delegable duties, comes in.
An interesting comparison can be made when we look at the drive to get more children into Early Years and nursery education. A few weeks ago I attended an induction session prior to my daughter’s entry into primary school in September. The school had helpfully provided a list of expectations, things which children ought to be capable of achieving independently before they start. Incredibly, the list included whether or not they could recognise their own name. Not in written format, but did they actually know what their own name was. Would they know that the teacher was actually calling to, speaking to or referring to them if their name was used in a classroom situation. Another was were they able to use the toilet independently – were they potty trained?
It beggared belief that children may be starting school without these basic skills, but seemingly there is an increasing tranche of parents who believe that this is the state’s responsibility. No wonder the government is wanting to get as many children as possible into nursery care, in order to be confident that children have reached a minimum standard before starting school. As the state takes more and more responsibility for our diet, our children, our sex lives, the more dependent we become and instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, or encouraging other people to, the more we expect someone else with spurious qualifications (like a City & Guilds in bottom-wiping) to take control and sort it out.
Arguably state intervention in terms of prescribing our diet and lifestyle is far more intimate and invasive than moves to discourage abortion and promiscuous sex, yet the latter remains taboo, the former desirable in the minds and consciousness of the public.
What the current moral panic about sugar and obesity demonstrates is that religion does not possess the monopoly upon attempting to proscribe certain norms of behaviour and employing morality and shaming tactics to those who do not conform. The new pariahs are no longer single mothers, divorced women, prostitutes or sex workers, but those who are overweight. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between children who were removed from their mothers on account of their marital status and those who are forcibly removed from their parents on account of their size or parents’ couch-potato lifestyle. Their crime, in essence, being that of loving their children too much, or not being able to exercise tough love. Removing the child from their parents may conversely cause more long-term problems that it solves.
Stuffing down an entire tub of ice-cream or packet of tortillas in one sitting has become more shameful and sinful than a raunchy sex orgy with a group of random strangers picked up on the internet. When it comes to sex, ‘who are we to judge’: when it comes to food, you must be identified as being at risk, ridiculed, shamed and punished by higher food prices for wanting to do that which is wrong, bad for you and which fecklessness could cost other people money.
There’s an irony in that moderation is constantly touted as the key in terms of diet, but dare to apply that to the sexual appetite and you’ll be shouted down as a judgemental bigot.
Forget sex, that’s sorted. The new Puritans no longer care about who you choose to sleep with or how many abortions you have, how many families you break up by your freely chosen behaviour, how many embryos you freeze or how much strain you put on your body and your or the state’s finances by your choice to use IVF, it doesn’t matter how many children are affected by negative consequences of IVF, how many women you pay to bear children for you or how many kids you deprive of loving mum and dad or of a stable family.
You can do all of these things and should not expect to receive any negative judgement on any aspect of self-destructive behaviour. Unless of course, you are fat.