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The weighing game

The founder of the Weight Foundation on how dangerous dieting has become a way of life, and having an eating disorder a badge of pride.

Malcolm Evans

Topics Politics

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Now, it seems, even seven-year-olds are dieting. Yesterday, Jon Goldin of Great Ormond Street hospital in London said that the proliferation of images of skinny models means that a rising number of seven-year-olds are being treated for eating disorders.

Increasingly, we are running the risk of projecting our own food paranoia on to our children, while at the same time conveniently ignoring our own demons.

In the West we are stitched culturally in to a food-centric mentality as tightly as a haggis is squeezed into its skin. Cultural and commercial pressures conspire to keep us there, and the quality of political debate is far from savoury.

The nanny state has been getting up quite a head of steam over the past year or so. This ‘Slimming by Statute’ movement points its accusing finger at the usual bogeymen – big business, in this case the leviathans of the international food industry. Even better should they be American: the likes of McDonald’s and Coca Cola stand accused of seducing us into obesity.

And the right has its equally simplistic counterpoint. In their flurry of opinion pieces, right-wing commentators argue that only stupid, weak, selfish people get overweight (unless, like some authors, of course, they are sufficiently sassy and independently minded that they can choose to be overweight). The loathsome mass-market fatties are the new objects of ridicule, even the new enemy within. Opprobrium has moved on from the chavs to the fatties, whatever the reality and implications of the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ itself.

So people feel obliged to do something. At the governmental level we get a slew of vacuous worthiness. The US and Britain have been making aspirational announcements for over 100 years about the ‘ideal diet’ for their citizens. Down to the present day the public generally pays not a blind bit of notice to such exhortations, unsupported as they are by any excitement of hard sell from the diet industry.

And this is where all the action remains. For many long-term dieters it has ceased to have much to do with weight loss and has simply become a badge of ongoing food-related distress and confusion. It’s a Dantesque horror, hopping from one futile fad diet to the next with no end to the torment in sight.

It’s gone mainstream, it’s going more hardcore, and it’s getting them younger. Dieting started for those who could afford to be precious about food back in the Victorian era but it only really took off in the 1960s. It was a rebel thing women flirted with in their twenties when they left home – they picked at their food but they didn’t starve.

But by the 1970s they certainly did starve, as anorexia blossomed alongside Women’s Lib and the explosive growth of the dieting industry.

By the 1980s dieting was becoming just a way of life, with the rarely mentioned and rather unpleasant side effect of growing armies of women privately putting two fingers up to it all in the form of booming bulimia. By the mid- to late 1990s the cult of superwomen had moved on a bit and the ideal continues to be the average athlete who can juggle career, home, kids and weight distress.

These days the West is increasingly exporting its more extreme anorexia and bulimia to second-world countries and settling back into a comfortable and predictable phase of endemic eating dysfunctionality.

It has crept gradually down the age scale over the past 40 years, from the mid-twenties in the 1960s, on to mainstream teenage fashion and, by the 1990s, to the pre-teen audience. It then hit a problem: that of children being below the age of dieting understanding and hence dieting consent. But hardcore dieting is nothing if not ingenious in its expansionism and so it did something very clever – it got the mothers to take it right back to age zero, skipping the awkward years in between.

Mothers increasingly prefer ‘formula’ milk and prepackaged infant food because you can carry on the counting obsession. Forget the vagueness of some lightly steamed vegetables mashed up with a little mince or flaked fish – you know exactly where you are with labels. This is the highest achievement to date of the creeping process of nutritional dislocation which is paralysing natural feeding instincts.

It would strike one as utterly absurd if there was a whole industry and national obsession premised on uncertainty and quack advice about breathing. Yet this is how we have become regarding eating. For several millennia people have managed quite well feeding themselves.

It gets worse, as it is all being clouded over by a justification that says this is merely a concern with ‘eating disorders’. Just as it is remarkable how few poor people have genuine food allergies, so can the definitions and claims surrounding eating disorders become surprisingly elastic. Some people can die from the merest fraction of a peanut, and death by anorexia is a cruel torment – but the great unspoken in all of this is often the surrounding disingenuous whimsicality.

At a time when the most extreme phase of eating disorders in the West appears to be over, the definitions of what can constitute an eating disorder becomes more open. One only needs to cast around a selection of eating disorder websites to bear this out. Most people who have ongoing doubts about self-image and have any significant history of failed dieting can walk straight into the eating disorders camp. Illness is a third-party treatment issue; pathologisation is a lock-out to self-help.

The keys to unpacking and unpicking the nutrition conundrum need not be overly complex, nor the preserve of medical specialists. Many commentators now recognise that commercial dieting is the reddest of herrings with regard to lasting and relaxed weight control and is in a fact a major contributory factor to widespread obesity.

To some extent it is one of those ‘white bear’ things, whereby the more you try not to think about something the more it dominates your consciousness. A practical step is to loosen the three restricting bands which keep food and dieting fixations in place.

Ignoring any one of the emotional, cultural or commercial pressures will almost certainly condemn a problem eater to weight-control failure.

Apart from occasional celebration and a backdrop to sociability, eating needs to be food, not mood. Less widely appreciated than the unrealism of waif-thin icons is the need women especially feel to be involved with dieting – the need to fit in with friends and society by talking, living and suffering it. Hardcore dieting has sadly become for many a rite of passage into womanhood.

Similarly, men are increasingly under pressure to hop on the body beautiful bandwagon; manhood could be the next major eating battleground.

Good nutrition needs to be a background and enabling environment, not a constantly in-your-face (often literally) obsession. Mind-shifts do not occur in the stomach. Kids should not be made doppelgangers to their parents’ eating hang-ups, but rather be allowed to mature naturally out of their puppy fat.

Philip Larkin might just as well as have been referring to food when he wrote of parents, ‘They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.’ Today, when parents’ and adult society’s attitudes to food remain raw and unrefined, the future doesn’t look especially rosy for our children.

Malcolm Evans is founder and secretary of the Weight Foundation, a registered charity which researches dieting and problem eating, seeking to develop strategies for natural and lasting weight control.

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Topics Politics

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