Who Are You Calling Fat? – BBC 2


Hopefully, the message people will get from this programme is the damage that society’s attitude towards obesity has on people’s self-esteem and mental health, and the need to be kinder.  Society thinks that it’s OK to abuse people because of their weight.  It really isn’t OK to abuse people for any reason.  It was all a bit OTT, as reality TV programmes always are; but it was very interesting to see the different views, from the people who said they’d always been made to feel that being overweight meant that they weren’t good enough (yes, Babs, I felt every word you said) to the “body positivity evangelists” who wore bikinis in the street and asked people to draw hearts on their midriffs.

Some of the previews for this programme were talking about people “identifying” as being fat. No. You don’t “identify” as being fat. Other people identify you as being fat. It’s the kid who sneers “Yeah, well, you’re fat,” when you object to their pushing in in front of you in the schools drink queue. Or who writes “Lose weight” in your primary school autograph album, instead of a nice comment or a funny joke like the other kids put. Or who tells you that, if you were a cat, you’d be called Flabby instead of Tabby. It’s the complete stranger who winds down their car window and yells “Oi, fatty,” as you’re walking down the street. It’s the school nurse who puts you on the infamous school Fat List. It’s everyone who tells you that you shouldn’t eat this or you shouldn’t wear that. Because you’re fat.  It’s OK, the whole post isn’t going to sound this self-pitying!  In case anyone actually reads it.  It’s just starting off like that because I find the idea of self-identifying as fat, if we’re taking “fat” to be an insulting term rather than just a descriptive term like tall, blonde, etc, really weird.

All that negativity, and all that abuse.  That’s why there are now “body acceptance coaches”, “body confidence groups” and “fat positivity activists”, like Victoria, the rather bossy woman who dominated this programme.  According to them, the word “fat” can be “reclaimed” as being positive: otherwise, it should be replaced by terms like “larger-bodied”, “plus-sized” or “living with obesity”. Part of me was thinking “Bloody hellfire, the snowflakes have really taken over the asylum here,” but part of me was thinking “Why was there none of this when I was growing up?” and, as Babs kept saying, wishing that it was that easy to think like that.  But Victoria in particular was so aggressive, shouting down everyone who tried to say that there could be physical health problems associated with obesity, even a man who’d had to have his leg amputated.

It was hard to know what to think.  But I hope that the programme did make viewers think.  And maybe think twice before the next time they have a go at someone because of their weight.

Some people don’t actually mean to be unkind.  The school nurse probably thought she was being helpful.  Sally Davies the so-called health expert probably thinks she’s being helpful when she goes on and on about “the war on obesity” – which makes it sound as if she classes overweight people in the same category as terrorists.  Maybe Sadiq Khan thinks he’s being helpful when he goes on about how food adverts should be banned from the Tube because fat kids cost the NHS money.  What are they both going to do next, insist that overweight kids wear torn clothes like medieval lepers?  I take their points, but the language they use is appalling.

A lovely lady I met on holiday once told me that I reminded her of her daughter. It sounded like a compliment, because presumably she loved her daughter. Then she added “She’s a big girl, as well”. If she’d said “She’s got brown hair, as well,” I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, I suppose; but everyone makes it clear to you from an early age that Fat is Bad.

Fat is lazy, dishonourable Billy Bunter. Fat is the ridiculously named Alma Pudden, who’s humiliated in Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s books. How I loved Fatty in the Five Find-Outers books – a fat kid who actually got to be a hero! He’s been renamed Freddie in modern reprints.  Because “Fatty” is seen as an insulting term.  Another rare positive portrayal of a fat person in children’s books was Bess, one of Nancy Drew’s friends.  But I gather that Bess has now been rewritten as slim. That really annoys me.  Even the Chalet School girls, who were supposed to be nice to everyone, poked fun at fat classmates like Nancy Wilmot and Hilda Jukes.  Even Jane Austen did it.  She made a nasty crack in Persuasion about it being funny for fat people to feel the same emotions as anyone else does.

In Julie Welch’s Too Marvellous For Words, she mentioned that her best friend always stayed out of class disputes because she was fat, and knew that anyone she disagreed with would just fling that at her. That’s very typical. If you’re a fat kid, someone will always throw “You’re fat,” at you. So you feel that you’re automatically at a disadvantage. You don’t get involved. You’re nervous that new kids will dislike you because you’re fat. You’re reluctant to go to out of school clubs where there’ll be kids from other schools, because you’re fat.  And then Cancer Research spend a load of money donated in order to fund research into cures for cancer on adverts telling everyone that, hey, if a fat person gets ill, it’s their own fault.

And the praise if you actually lose weight!  OK, fair enough, that’s acknowledging how difficult losing weight is, but it’s also making you feel, all over again, that Fat is Bad.  I got more compliments for losing weight than I ever did for getting a first-class degree.  What does that say?

If anyone’s read this far, yes, I know this probably sounds like a whingefest.  It isn’t meant to.  I’m just trying to make the point about the effect that all this has on people’s self-confidence.  No-one should be made to feel that they’re a bad person because of their weight.  But they are.

Like most reality TV programmes, this one, in which various overweight people/people living in larger bodies/people living with obesity were put in a house together and expected to discuss weight-related issues, got rather annoying as people burst into tears and went on about their “journeys”.  But it was very interesting to hear what they had to say.  As I said, I felt every word that Babs, the woman who said that she couldn’t look in mirrors and would only go swimming at times of day when she knew that the pool would be virtually empty, said.  I could sit here all day writing boring anecdotes about that.  Let’s just say that the only mirrors in my house are the hand mirror in the bathroom and the door of the bathroom cabinet. I also got everything that the stand-up comedian whose act consisted of poking fun at himself said.  Get in there first with the fat jokes, before someone else makes them.

I found it much harder to relate to the people talking about themselves as “evangelicals” in terms of “fat positivity”, but I think that was largely because some of them were just so aggressive. When someone who’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes tried to make some valid points about the health risks associated with being very overweight, they cried down everything he said as fearmongering, fat-shaming, internalised fat-hating or food-shaming.  Refusing to acknowledge that someone else may have a point isn’t helpful.  But I do think that that was attack coming from defence – because overweight people are always being attacked.

Most programmes about weight issues involve people trying to lose weight. This one was much more helpful in that it was actually discussing the impact that being “larger-bodied” had on people’s lives. As several of the housemates pointed out, and, oh, how I sympathise with this, it’s all very well saying that you should eat less and exercise more, but it really isn’t that easy. Believe me, I know. I have spent most of my life trying to lose weight, since I was 7 or 8. I even managed to make myself ill: I had dangerously low iron levels at one point, because I was only looking at the calorific value of food, not the nutritional value. I can go away for a weekend and put on four pounds, and then, try as I might, I cannot shift it – and, believe me, I try.

Look at the enormous diet industry. Would that really exist if losing weight was all that easy? It’s such a horrible cycle of trying and failing and self-loathing, and taking into account that, and all the bullying and negativity which most overweight people have to endure, I can see where the “fat positivity” brigade are coming from. But it simply is not true to say that there are no health issues associated with being significantly overweight.

I don’t know what the answer is.  I know how damaging the negativity around weight issues is.  Ironically, I can’t take anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication, because, when I did, it made me put on weight – it’s a common side-effect – and so I ended up feeling worse instead of better.  It has to be better for people to feel positive about their bodies than to hate themselves because of their bodies.  But dismissing the issue of physical health problems caused by being significantly overweight is inappropriate, and even dangerous.

There was a lot to think about here.  I just hope that viewers *are* thinking about it.  Because the crux of it was the nasty remarks, the nasty attitudes, and how people react to them.  It’s not considered acceptable to abuse people for any other reason.  So why do so many people still think it’s OK to abuse people for being overweight?  The second episode made it clear that weight problems are almost always at least partly genetic.  It also discussed the fact that many people turn to food because of problems in their life.  And it discussed the lack of support in health services for people who want to lose weight.  They even got politicians involved.

The group weren’t able to reach a consensus.  Some felt that more help was needed for people wanting to lose weight, and that children should be better educated about nutrition.  It actually really annoys me when people come out with the “better educated” line.  It’s so bloody patronising – it’s that whole attitude that being overweight is somehow synonymous with being thick.  More help, yes, but lose the patronising stuff.  But, again, as some of the group said, it’s about time, and money … and about the fact that diet and exercise doesn’t always work.  I go to the gym twice a week.  I walk at least two miles a day, sometimes double that.  Shouldn’t I be as thin as a rake?!  I’m anything but.  Whereas I know plenty of people who never walk further than from their front door to their car, eat biscuits at their desks all day, and are stick-thin!

The “fat positivity” element felt that this was some sort of social cleansing, trying to eradicate fat people from society.  I think that was a bit melodramatic, but, the more you go on about the need to lose weight, the more it makes overweight people seem bad.   Schools giving lessons about trying to maintain a “healthy” weight – imagine the grief that overweight kids are going to get in the playground after that?  As if they don’t get enough grief already.

About the most sensible comment came from Baroness Walmsley, one of the politicians called in.  She said that the most important thing is to end the stigma about being overweight.  Why’s that stigma even there?  “Living in a bigger body” was seen as a positive thing at one time, and still is in some cultures, as an indicator of being able to afford food.

Anyway, whyever it is, it is.  But please don’t be cruel.  It’s an Elvis song, “Don’t be cruel”, but “cruel” is also the word that a very sweet girl in my class at primary school used when she overheard someone else calling me names for being fat: she told them that they were being cruel.  It’s not a word that little kids usually use – we must only have been about nine – but it was the right one.  Whatever anyone’s views about the health issues associated with weight, nothing makes it OK to abuse someone and make them feel inferior.  Hopefully this programme, if it did nothing else, made that crystal clear.



3 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling Fat? – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Long-distance running could be an effective means of losing weight and getting fitter. It definitely worked for me. Finishing a marathon (in less than 4.5 hours) is very satisfying.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have great admiration for anyone who runs marathons! But it’s so much training. This was another point made by one of the women in the programme – it’s all very well talking about exercise, and cooking meals from scratch, but it’s not easy when you’re at work all day and then you’ve got housework to do. I go to the gym twice a week, but a patronising dietitian once told me that I should go every day, and was very sneery when I said that I just couldn’t do it, unless Mary Poppins came round and cleaned the house by clicking her fingers, and I never saw my family!!


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