All jokes aside, there’s nothing funny about obesity
Someone I love very much is fat. Really fat. Technically, you’d say he’s morbidly obese, but “morbid” actually means “gruesome” or “being unduly interested in death”, which doesn’t apply to my friend at all. At least, I don’t think it does.
It’s hard to tell, because fat people don’t talk about being fat. Sure, they’re the first to dub themselves “chubster” or “jelly belly”, or “Sir Cumference” or “Lord of the Fries”. But it’s a tactic – much the same way gay people adopted “queer”, thereby cleverly disempowering the homophobes who tried to beat them with it.
It’s as if Roseanne Barr single-handedly silenced the plus-sized world when she said, “So you’re fat? Just be fat and shut up about it.” Well, she is wrong. (And not very funny. Much funnier is Dawn French, who says she’d have been a famous model had she been around when Rubens was painting. Kate Moss? She’d have been the paintbrush.)
Seriously, though, we need to talk about obesity. On a personal – not just policy – level. It’s all very well assembling taskforces and calling for bans on junk food ads, but if we’re not prepared to embrace it in a grassroots, one-on-one, “I love you, but I’m terrified you’re going to die” sort of way, we may as well succumb to death by burger.
If you’re fat, you’re going to look at my picture and think, what would she know? Fair enough. But I’m not wagging my finger, moaning about the blight on our health system and suggesting we put junk food in packaging decorated with images of clogged arteries. Talkback radio has that covered.
What I’m advocating is that we stop ignoring the elephant in the room. That, among families and friends, we acknowledge the battle and heartache that is obesity. Because I’d hazard a guess that the more you take your comfort from food, the less you take it from somewhere else.
A recent survey in the US revealed one in six women would rather be blind than fat. Another found that a third of women would trade at least a year of their lives to have the perfect body. Both are hideous sentiments, but also a measure of the slow, quiet desperation felt by those trapped by their girth.
New predictions that 83 per cent of Aussie men and 75 per cent of women will be overweight or obese by 2025 suggest that our strategies to stem the problem are failing. But new research also shows that our social networks have a huge bearing on obesity; if someone close to you becomes obese, your chances of joining them increase by up to 71 per cent, because people who socialise together tend to have similar eating and exercise habits.
It sounds simple, but what if we started talking? What if one woman said to her friends, “Let’s take champagne and go for a bushwalk to celebrate my birthday, rather than booking a restaurant.” What if the man I saw being innocently asked by his son why he was so fat actually bothered to answer him?
I once gathered 22 former Biggest Loser contestants for a photoshoot and saw first-hand the strength and freedom they’d gained by being open about their weight. They’d shed more than a tonne between them, but it was their shared stories (including a recipe for lettuce-wrapped burritos) that were inspiring. One modelled a bikini. “The last time I could fit into a bikini, I was four,” she told me, brushing away tears.
Talk of obesity doesn’t have to be patronising or preachy. Next time my fat friend jokes he’s in shape because “round is a shape”, I’ll probably still laugh. But I might gently ask if he’d ever like to be a rectangle.
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