Our love affair with thin is making us fat

Are millions giving up on keeping weight down, because we will always be 'gross' next to Kate Moss?
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The Independent Online

Toronto a fortnight back, we fell upon Tim Hortons, a ubiquitous coffee and doughnut joint. Waiting to board a boat to visit islands off Lake Ontario, we went in to order coffee. I wanted a cappuccino. An enormous and smiling young woman was serving. "What flavour?" she asked. "Just a cappuccino," I smiled back and she clarified. "No, what flavour? French vanilla or English toffee?" "Just plain please." "Can't do that ma'am." "You choose then," I said, conscious the line behind was getting bigger and impatient. "French Vanilla. It's my favourite. I've had four already."

Toronto a fortnight back, we fell upon Tim Hortons, a ubiquitous coffee and doughnut joint. Waiting to board a boat to visit islands off Lake Ontario, we went in to order coffee. I wanted a cappuccino. An enormous and smiling young woman was serving. "What flavour?" she asked. "Just a cappuccino," I smiled back and she clarified. "No, what flavour? French vanilla or English toffee?" "Just plain please." "Can't do that ma'am." "You choose then," I said, conscious the line behind was getting bigger and impatient. "French Vanilla. It's my favourite. I've had four already."

French vanilla was a hot-froth-and-sugar milkshake with an aroma of sweet air freshener. The unexpected flavour and taste of liquid sin felt good on the first day of our summer holiday. My daughter, 11 and normally averse to coffee, was enticed by the smell and she tasted some. That was it. The child was addicted and I think demanded the wretched drink at least a hundred times thereafter. She succeeded four times mostly because our hosts thought we were guilty of child cruelty denying her something as harmless as a glass of sugar.

It didn't take long for paranoia to push us to ever greater caution when it came to eating and drinking in Canada. There were days when I couldn't bear the thought of food at all. For the first time in years I have no additional pounds to lose after a vacation.

In the few years since we had last visited, vastly more metropolitan Canadians appear to have got significantly fatter or obese. Once, when you crossed the border between the US and Canada (even on opposite sides of Niagara Falls, for example) you knew you were in very different countries because of the divergence in body size. Americans in general were strikingly bigger and heavier than their neighbours. US power over the American continent was made incarnate and Canadians were quietly pleased that they weren't interchangeable with the fattening US citizenry. In the interim years their country has developed its own bold political and cultural identity which does not willingly submit to US might. Canada didn't join the Blair/Bush war adventure in Iraq.

And yet today, physically, Canadians are fast growing into Americans. Many are worried by this. Most of the friends and relatives I met were well on their way. The handful who weren't were either genetically lean or heavy smokers. Thousands of Ugandan Asians who were not entitled to enter Britain were airlifted into Canada in 1972. At various social functions I noticed how much bigger they were than the majority of British Ugandan Asians. Back in Uganda, only one girl in my circle had been obese. Not so now. At one wedding party a dozen acquaintances were buzzing around the dessert table. Ten puddings and sweets were on offer. All my former compatriots had loaded up on every one of the delights. And yet they talk endlessly of Atkins, and other diets and about weight gain. Politicians too are concerned that the health service could collapse if the trend does not slow down.

Britain, Germany and other EU nations, India, China and many others are becoming aware of this spreading problem and understandably because the figures in the US are scary. In 2003 the US surgeon-general, Richard Carmona, warned that obesity was a greater danger to the US than Saddam's supposed WMDs. Nearly a hundred million American adults weigh more than they should and 25 per cent of the population is obese. Annually, 280,000 deaths are said to be related to obesity.

Here too, obesity and weight problems have doubled since the 1980s and national alarm is well underway, especially as the young seem increasingly to be affected.

Interestingly, a study carried out by the advertising agency Universal McCann found that, whereas most overweight Americans hold themselves responsible for their problems, in the UK the blame is directed at food manufacturers. And of course the manufacturers we most hate are American. Concerned parents and others also rightly want food adverts controlled and better education. But we may need to think beyond these responses, to consider more deeply the cultures of affluent societies, their relationship to food, the images and desires which drive people to overeat.

Here is a theory to be tested: could it be that the West's love affair with ever thinner bodies is partly causing the explosion in obesity? That millions are just giving up on keeping weight down to a reasonable level because most of us will always be "gross" next to Kate Moss? Almost every day I feel I am not trying hard enough to get thinner. And on really bad days I eat chocolate to comfort myself.

How many chubby people do we now see on the most popular American sitcoms? The global projection of the American beauty is stick-insect Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City or Jennifer Aniston, she who dieted her way to "perfection". Great hair too, it seems is only given by the gods to thin women, if we are to believe commercials. As Paul Campos writes in his radical book, The Obesity Myth, "in the US today an almost unprecedented ideal of thinness reigns supreme". The ideal is so invasive that the most powerful cultural icon in the country - Oprah - had to prove her true worth by getting thin enough. And Roseanne Barr had to have her body sculpted and cut down to a beautiful size. Hepburn was a woman before her time - beautiful and anorexic, but if Monroe were alive today she would have to have plastic surgery surely.

In Canada, and here too, the pressure is incessant on people to shed all the pounds they can to prove they are in control, to earn love. Where did the lovely, kissable flesh of Sophie Dahl go? And what can we feel but pity for Geri Halliwell who worked so hard to tame her body only to revert to what she was, a normal, attractive, padded woman.

This is cultural imperialism of the worst kind. Once there was an array of beautiful body types and different global and personal preferences. Now people around the world are being forced to judge themselves by the sick beauty standards of the US and its acolytes.

Paul Campos believes there is a secret war being waged against the poor, blacks and Hispanics too, all of whom are seen as waywardly big for a country where the elite is disgusted by fat. In studies, most young Black and Hispanic women were happier with their bodies than white women. Policies are now being formulated to influence these women to change their body images, so they will join the rest of us miserable failures.

There are also concerns that the fight against fat focuses on dieting and not on getting fitter. This nicely suits the profit-seeking diet and pharmaceutical industries, but may be pointless. Dr David McCarthy, nutrition expert at the Metropolitan University in London argues that children are eating less today than in the Seventies but are also much less active.

Tackling the image makers is a necessary response to the obesity epidemic as is good public education. We must understand the dangers of forcing people into impossible slimness. The combination of injunctions and temptations pressing on people is only making the problem worse.

And, please, don't ever allow Tim Hortons into the UK. I know my daughter will not be able to resist gallons of French Vanilla cappuccino - and I have seen where that leads.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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