Harriet Walker: Another excuse for being fat: it's all my culture's fault

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British women are the fattest in Europe, crows the newly released "world obesity map". This warns that the average female body mass index (BMI) here is 26.9 – that's to say, clinically obese. I can't be the only one not surprised by the findings. French women are stick thin; Swedes are preternaturally tall and beautiful; the Germans got all the nice breasts, and so forth. Of course, the UK's women are the fattest in Europe; they always have been.

From the plump and deliciously rounded milkmaids of yesteryear to our own Marilyn substitute Diana Dors, from Boudicca to Barbara Windsor, the British female has never been sylph-like, nor is she meant to be. Our national dish is meat and potatoes; we invented the pasty, the Eccles cake and the Cadbury's Creme Egg – what did we expect?

Henry VIII sent his slim Flemish wife back, remember, in favour of a buxom homegrown wench, and we'd all much rather gawp at Helen Mirren in a bikini than, say, some whippet-thin Parisian socialite in hers. I grew up in Yorkshire and I can assure you, being 5ft 8ins and athletically built is pretty much akin to having three eyes and a hunchback up there.

It is, of course, genetic as well as cultural. A nation of labourers and villains invaded by ritzy, sophisticated Europeans, our base DNA fibre is riddled with the short, lumpy and generally bumpy code. And every so often you see someone a bit taller and thinner, whose female forebears might have met a Roman centurion in a Saxon nightclub aeons ago.

But what else does the obesity map tell us? That the world is fatter than it used to be – that much we could have guessed – but that, proportionally, nothing much has changed. The UK male weighs in at joint fourth on the fat list, behind Ireland, Spain and Andorra. (To all those delusional naysayers who think you eat less when you have tapas – here's the unavoidable proof that you're wrong.) It seems the leitmotif of Jack Spratt and his wife lives on.

We're surrounded by idealised visions of sveltesse and health, bombarded by weight-loss products, gym memberships, toning tables and thighmasters, and we just get bigger and bigger, thanks to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. Again, no surprise: the obesity map is an allegorical Hieronymous Bosch landscape of wealth and excess clamping their jaws around poverty and neediness, with Americans weighing in at the top and Bangladeshis among the thinnest.

But before we settle back into our easy chairs to stuff our faces guilt-free and call it national identity, maybe we should pause. These new statistics indicate that, while we're certainly not predisposed to look like many of our European counterparts, we're not yet at the levels of our friends across the pond. What isn't natural, historical or traditional is a culture of enormous portions, gargantuan-sized clothing and lives played out in steel reinforced beds with helpers to oil your chafed bits. We can make allowances for inherited appetites but not for the ones imposed by modern consumption.

Earlier this week came news that some ambulance fleets are being upgraded, to the tune of £90,000 per vehicle, to cater to the needs of obese patients. Wider beds, bigger and sturdier vans, strengthened stretchers. It goes without saying that if you're heavy enough to bend a car, it isn't just because you're big-boned.

There's an almost constant apportioning or shirking of blame with regards to the obesity crisis, and it is far from clear who's right and who's wrong. What is certain, though, is that our consumption is our own responsibility. Ironically, excessive and unhealthy eating is the one aspect of the modern quotidian about which we cannot and should not be spoon-fed an agreed ideology. It's our own business what goes on in our kitchens – while that might mean not judging people by their size, it also means questioning the allowances made for the most extreme cases.

We British fatties might not be European in outlook, but perhaps we have something to learn from Brussels – and I'm not just talking about sprouts.


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