We're happy to be the fat of the land

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The Independent Online
JANICE BHEND is angry. 'How dare Virgina Bottomley say there are too many overweight people? It's a load of rubbish and far too simplistic.'

The Health Secretary incurred the wrath of Ms Bhend - the size 18 editor of a newly launched 'positive' magazine for the larger woman - after she described obesity as a serious problem in Britain.

Latest figures estimate 13 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women are obese, a sharp increase on five years ago.

The rise runs contrary to the Government's desire to reduce obesity as part of its Health of the Nation strategy.

Her nannyish remarks of last week have been criticised by doctors and larger people for reinforcing existing prejudices that it is impossible to be fat and fit. Being large, they say, is not always a sign of gluttony, or of a tendency to sloth.

Ms Bhend, the editor of Yes] magazine, said: 'There are all sorts of reasons why people are big - genetics, health, psychology - and all sorts of reasons why they can't or won't, or shouldn't lose weight.'

Between one third and a half of British women are thought to measure size 16 or above, and Ms Bhend is outraged at the implication that larger people - she dislikes the negative connotations of 'the f- word' - only have themselves to blame. She claims they are the last easy targets for prejudiced abuse which is no longer acceptable if it were applied to women in general, racial minorities or the disabled.

But the 'big is beautiful' faction is fighting back. A growing mood of confidence has led to the founding of groups such as the dating agency Plump Partners, and Planet Big Girl, a monthly club night in London, where chocolates are distributed to the chunky dancers.

Support for larger people has also come from the medical profession. Dr Tom Sanders, a reader in nutrition at King's College, London, agrees that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and fast food culture have contributed to the nation's weight gain. But he also says the Government's definition of obesity is an arbitrary one.

'We regard plumpness as unhealthy which is wrong. Studies have shown plump women live longer, age better and don't show wrinkles.

'You can be fat and fit, but the question is how fat? A lot of people can be a couple of stone overweight and very fit - look at the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Ian Botham.

'The health risk of obesity pales into insignificance when compared with smoking.'

Shelley Bovey, author of Being Fat Is Not A Sin, says some men see rotundity as a positive asset. 'A barrister told me if you are large you have more presence in court, your argument 'carries more weight'.

'For men the stigma is to be a seven-stone weakling, to be big is linked with reliability and solidity. For women it's taken as a sign that they have let themselves go. Virginia Bottomley hasn't done her homework. Obesity is largely genetic and of itself not a health risk. For large people as for anyone else the quality of diet is terribly important, as is exercise.'

Mrs Bovey argues larger people in Britain should follow the example of their counterparts in the United States, where the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance is a powerful lobby group.

While obesity has just been declared a protected category under federal disabilities law, in Britain there are numerous cases of alleged fatism. This month a 22-stone fitter was banned from work until he lost two stone, and before that a Welsh couple with a combined weight of 45 stones were told they were unfit to foster children.

Trying to slim can also be dangerous. Dr Bridget Dolan, a psychologist at St George's Medical School, south London, cites research which found 95 per cent of diets fail in the long term. Reducing food intake slows the metabolism, so when the diet ends, and food intake increases, the metabolism is running at too slow a rate to burn it off. Weight is regained, often more than was lost, and muscle tissue wastes away. Over time the metabolism is wrecked.

Fatness used to be a sign of prosperity - and still is in some African and Arab countries. In Europe thinness first became fashionable during the Twenties with the vogue for flat- chested flappers.

It re-emerged in the Sixties with models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, and today models like superwaif Kate Moss have made it hip again to be ultra-skinny.

Women whose physique is outside this 'norm' feel intense pressure to slim. A survey among the mostly female membership of Diet Breakers, formed to help overweight people accept their size, revealed 85 per cent felt they had been compelled to diet by the fashion and advertising industries.

The same predicament does not affect men. While women typically wish they were half a stone lighter, men give their ideal weight as half a stone heavier.

Nevertheless, in one area at least, life has become easier for larger women. Many clothes retailers now provide smart ranges for size 16 and over, which are regularly featured in the fashion pages of women's magazines.

This is good news for Simone Ive, a size 18 model with the Hammond Hughes agency for plus size women. She was too big to become a conventional model despite her good looks and 5'9' height, but six years ago she won a modelling competition for larger women and now works on television and in London department stores.

'When I was trying to be a 'skinny model' I didn't eat a great deal. I used to take laxatives, I wasn't anorexic or bulimic, but I could have gone that way very easily.

'Then when I started with the agency they said I'd have to put on weight.

' I'm much more content with the size I am now. I weigh 11 1/2 stone and people tell me it's nice to see a model who looks like a real person, not

a stick.'

(Photographs omitted)