Obesity has become the ‘concern’ of an awful lot of people recently.
After plus-size model Tess Holliday was announced as Cosmopolitan’s October cover star, people leapt out of their seats, choking on their biscuits as they went, to berate a world that glamourised such a disgusting body type. I wrote about the internet’s horrible reaction to a woman doing her job at the time, and although most people have found better things to moan about in the weeks since the news broke, there are still those *hrhumm Piers Morgan* who can’t. stop. banging. on. about. it.
Their miserable and bullying agenda has been fuelled further this week by the announcement from Cancer Research UK that, assuming rates keep going the way they are at the moment, obesity is set to be the biggest cause of preventable female cancers by 2043, overtaking the current biggest cause: smoking.
No doubt this study and the findings have been released in the hope that the government will soon start to take our sugar intake as seriously as they take our cigarette intake. They reference how smoking rates decreased when people weren’t allowed to smoke indoors anymore, and how they fell again when displaying branded cigarette packets in shops became illegal.
This particular observation made me laugh. It felt as if they were going to follow it up with some similar suggestions they’ve come up with for their healthy eating agenda, since it worked so well for the anti-smoking campaign…
We’ll send people outside to eat their pudding! Hide the Mars Bars behind the cashiers in the supermarkets! Sell Celebrations out of black bin bags! Fine people for eating doughnuts on the street!
For the last few years scientists have looked into the two habits – trying to establish which one is worse for you, which one is killing more people. Everywhere I look the findings are inconclusive, both everyone agrees, neither one is very good.
The only massive difference is that smoking is on the decline, and obesity, is on the way up.
After years of hard work the powers that be were finally able to get people to give up the fags and now they’ve got to work out how they’re going to improve obesity statistics.
Not as simple, if you think about it, since big posters saying “STOP EATING” would be every bit as disastrous as they sound.
I don’t envy anyone in charge of this particular mission.
And since I don’t have any answers for them or helpful suggestions at all (beyond taking a long hard look at a size zero society, an overwhelming lack of education and a country rife with mental health problems of course), this isn’t what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about instead is the way that smoking is perceived versus the way in which obesity is perceived and ultimately, the dangers of expressing faux health concerns for either.
Smoking, for a start, was always thought of as pretty cool. I know it’s not now. I know we’re over it. But it was.
In 2007 I had my first cigarette and for the next ten years I smoked continuously. And yes, I thought I was pretty cool.
Of course, eventually, the novelty wore off and I stopped feeling like a regular Freddie Mercury every time I lit up, but I never once considered giving up for the worry that people would think I was uncool for doing what I was doing – even as smoking did fall out of vogue.
Around the same time as I had my first cigarette, I began a love affair with junk food that would last the next five years and become just as important to me as the cigarettes.
Although I was never obese (I don’t think), I did become quite overweight. I carried it well but I was pushing 13 stone by the time I left school, which put me right at the top end of the ‘overweight’ category of the BMI scale.
I had a fundamental lack of understanding of food, I very rarely did any exercise because I felt self conscious in gym clothes and didn’t know where to start, I was upset and turning to food as a means of cheering me up and it was all starting to take it’s toll. My formally non existent sweet tooth had become the most influential one I owned and my waistline expanded as it did.
So by the time I was eighteen, I was the (not so proud) owner of two terrible habits.
My love for shit food and my need to fill my lungs with smoke.
One of these things was making me cry myself to sleep.
One of these things left me feeling as if no one would ever love me.
One of these things made me hate what I saw in the mirror.
And it quite clearly wasn’t the smoking.
My body had become something that I hated, and although I often cursed the cigarettes when I got to the top of a long flight of stairs and had to stop for a sit down as I caught my breath, it was the food, and my unhealthy relationship with it that I despised.
I couldn’t look at my stomach, my legs, even my face. I hated photos of myself, I hated tight clothing, I hated looking at my profile (of my body, not my Facebook – which I had successfully curated to only show the very best of what I had to offer).
I wasn’t even obese yet and I knew that I didn’t look ‘right’. I wasn’t fitting society’s standards of what beautiful looked like.
Smoking? Kate Moss smoked. Barack Obama smoked. Smoking was fine. Cool, normal, fine. Whatever.
My weight? Not so much. Role models of my size, at that time, were few and far between. Fewer and further even than we have now, with the likes of Tess Holliday making their beautiful mark.
When I was17, a photo of me appeared in the Daily Mail. In it, I was smoking.
There were over 500 comments on that article – the vast majority were attacking me, viciously and personally, for my weight and my appearance. The ones that mentioned the cigarettes only seemed to worry that I probably smelt. Not that I was hurtling towards a premature death.
The comments about my appearance, by the way, I can still hear echoing around my head as I look in the mirror all these years later. And three stone lighter.
See, I’m writing about all off this with hindsight.
Three years ago I lost about 40 pounds. Seven months ago I gave up smoking.
Yes, yes, by science’s reckoning I am now destined to live forever.
Who wants to hazard a guess as to what I get asked the most: how did you give up the fags? how did you lose all that weight?
It is the latter. Every time, it is the latter.
When Tess Holliday was announced as the cover star for Cosmopolitan, the excuse most people gave for their ‘concern’, was her health. More specifically, our healthcare system and the cost of her bad habits to us hard-working tax paying folk.
This really pissed me off.
Not just because she’s American and therefore not even remotely burdening the NHS, but because last month the cover girl was Mila Kunis – a woman I have seen smoking numerous times.
Where were our health concerns then?
Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable female cancers and yet it’s the woman with the SECOND biggest cause of preventable female cancers that we are worried about???
Give me a fucking break.
The conversation that surrounded my smoking was entirely different to the one that surrounded my weight.
For that shoot alone Tess was accused of promoting obesity. Just for existing, she was accused of promoting obesity. She is good for nothing else. That’s it. Her weight is what defines her.
Mila? Oh, yes, she smoked, but she’s a mum and an actor and a business woman and a wife. So much more to her than one unhealthy habit.
The way we view smoking is entirely different to the way we view obesity.
We don’t like obesity. Obesity isn’t cool. It isn’t aesthetically pleasing. It isn’t something we should be striving towards. It isn’t okay. It isn’t allowed.
We still have a huge problem with obesity, and I just don’t mean our health.
Obesity and smoking are not the same. They are not remotely similar. They’re not even friends.
The two things cannot be connected.
Because people don’t cry themselves to sleep over the way smoking makes them look. No one (apart from Carrie Bradshaw when she met Aiden in Sex And The City) has worried that she’s unlovable because of the addiction to cigarettes. No one has been told to kill themselves because they like a Marlborough Light.
The mental health issues connected to obesity and unhealthy relationships with food can never be underestimated.
The similarity between the two things ends with the fact that neither one is very good for you.
And that’s not what most people care about anyway.
When you are trolling someone for their weight, you are doing it because you are an arsehole, not because you are worried about them. Have some integrity will you and stop shoving this ridiculous double standard down our throats, ‘cos we ain’t buying it.
If the government want to implement sugar taxes, if they want to work out a way to hide sugary treats in supermarkets, fund better campaigns to get people into weight-watchers or into the gym then all power to them.
But can we not, PLEASE, even try and bring the same dialogue we brought to the anti-smoking campaign to the conversation surrounding obesity.