Jemima Lewis: Fat people need understanding, not derision

It is a strange fact that the more porkers there are, the less forgiving society becomes towards them
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The Independent Online

I have a friend, apparently sane in most respects, who says he doesn't like fat people "because they are unhappy". I've always thought this was rather like saying you don't like black people because they are oppressed. Perhaps fat people would be more chipper if they weren't constantly being judged and found wanting by self-righteous bigots.

In any case, I hope my friend is feeling pretty ashamed of himself now. A team of British scientists has just announced that it has discovered why some people are predisposed to porkiness: it's not lack of willpower, or inner sadness, but a gene called FTO which affects one in six of the British population.

People who carry two of these genes are half a stone heavier than the average, and 70 per cent more likely to be obese. Those who have inherited just one FTO gene will also struggle to stay at a comely weight: they are 30 per cent more likely to become obese, and 25 per cent more at risk of diabetes.

The scientists - evidently fearing a mass stampede to the sweetie counter - were quick to point out that biology isn't necessarily destiny: we can still control our weight by eating sensibly and taking exercise. Nevertheless, their finding is a useful corrective to the prevailing trend of anti-fattist contempt.

It is a strange fact that the more porkers there are in Britain, the less forgiving society becomes towards them. The skinny rich look with regal disgust down upon the - now literally - lumpen masses. Those of us with the money, culinary know-how and determination to keep our FTO genes at bay derive a self-congratulatory thrill from television programmes such as BodyShock or Fat Club, whose protagonists look like human landslides.

There is an increasing impatience and disgust towards those who "let themselves go". Corpulence no longer suggests, as it once did, the good life - but rather a life of TV dinners, slack-jawed parenting and pies shoved between the school railings.

Last year the food critic Giles Coren (another noisily anti-fattist friend of mine; are they trying to tell me something?) made a programme called Tax the Fat, in which he argued that the obese were costing the Government £4bn in healthcare, transport and benefits, and should be penalised accordingly. "Being fat is a choice," he declared. "A choice to consume dwindling resources, to use more energy, to take up more space."

We now know it isn't as simple as that. Not that we should have needed scientists to tell us. You only have to look around you, at your colleagues or friends, to see that people are built differently.

The skinniest girl at my office is Ali, a 30-something beauty with eyes like a Manga heroine and a body like Lily Cole. Ali begins each day with a bowl of cereal and a chopped banana, followed by a Twix. For elevenses, she might stave off the hunger pangs with an almond croissant or a chocolate muffin. At lunch she inhales a salad or sandwich, before noisily unwrapping another king-size chocolate bar.

Come tea time, the smell of toasting hot cross buns fills the office, prompting groans of longing from her less metabolically blessed colleagues. Before long it's time for cake - and being a generous sort Ali buys a big one, with plenty of butter icing, and leaves it sitting on the kitchen counter, where it beckons to the weak-willed passer-by like a courtesan reclining on a chaise longue.

To know Ali is to know that life is unfair. But of course, that's something that all FTO carriers learn along the way. If fat people are indeed unhappy - and everyone is, in one way or another - it is because they know they will never be able to tuck in the way Ali can: with pure, guilt-free abandon. And knowing they can't just makes them long to even more.

This is why, as a separate scientific report showed last week, diets don't work. They only make the dieter even more obsessed with what he or she can't have. "To promise not to do a thing," observed Mark Twain, "is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing."

It is no coincidence that the seriously obese - especially women - often report that they have been dieting on and off since childhood, at the instigation of a body-conscious mother. Once food has been turned into something naughty, it is even harder to resist. It is easy for the naturally slim to talk about willpower: they have never truly had theirs tested.

Eventually, the scientists who discovered FTO may invent a drug that cancels its effects, making the naturally fat deflate like pricked balloons. Humanity will move one step closer to the homogenised ideal of physical beauty. In the meantime, could we please have a little more understanding for those of us whose genes tend towards the rotund? It's not easy battling your biological destiny - especially on an empty stomach.