Dear Professor Jane Wardle: Making more teenagers 'aware' of being overweight doesn't help

Take it from the teenage me who wasted many a lunch hour inducing vomiting in the school toilets for fear of looking like a fattie in a swimming costume

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The Independent Online

New research shows that 39 per cent of overweight teens believe they are “the right weight”. Here’s proof that, despite all the belittling and badgering of body-fascist media, some young people have managed to cling on to a sense of self-worth, and isn’t that cause for celebration? Not according to Professor Jane Wardle of University College London and one of the authors of the paper: “We need to find effective ways of helping too-heavy teenagers slim down and maintain a healthier weight,” she cautioned. “It’s vitally important that we find out whether it helps if they are more aware of their weight status.”

It doesn’t help. Take it from the teenage me who wasted many a sunny lunch hour inducing vomiting in the school toilets and missed out on too many fun group activities for fear of looking like a fattie in a swimming costume. It doesn’t help because while, sadly, most teenagers are hyper-aware of their “weight status”, the relationship between teenagers and their bodies is more complicated than these numbers suggest.

Most experts accept that weight is only a crude measure of overall health. This is especially true if we include in our definition of “overall health” a healthy mind. And for teenagers, most of whom are absolute basket cases, we definitely should. At that age, calm self-acceptance is a more useful life skill to cultivate than the perfect body mass index. It’s also much more difficult to arrive at when the messages coming your way are so contradictory.

On the one hand it’s insinuated by omnipresent advertising that true happiness is synonymous with a beauty standard even professional models find hard to maintain. On the other hand, the online culture with its positive body bloggers, #effyourbeautystandards hashtag and jokey “Dad Bod” trends presents defiant self-worship and a steady stream of selfies as the only alternative route to confidence. The latter message has the advantage of being more original, but both ultimately encourage a focus on physical appearance. Human beings are so much more than that.

We can be fat and healthy or skinny and unhealthy and the reasons behind our poor lifestyle decisions are varied and complex, but one thing is certain; those teenagers who are dangerously obese didn’t get that way simply because they haven’t yet learned to hate themselves enough. So instead of tackling a public health issue with shame and self-involvement, the message should be a simple one: nutritious food and physical exercise are good for everybody; now stop looking in the mirror and go and do something more interesting.

Masculinity in crisis (again)

I’m not entirely sure why LBC radio host Iain Dale felt it necessary to question the Work and Pensions Secretary on his Viagra use – is that an image anyone wants in their head? – but it seems it had some connection to Iain Duncan Smith’s strange gesturing during the Budget speech.

When the traditional cheers proved inadequate to the strength of his feeling, IDS opted for a fist pump. Not to be confused with the “fist bump”, which crucially requires the acquiescence of another party, the fist pump is a solitary move, a punch that goes nowhere, a violent act meekly restrained by a consideration for the surroundings. You don’t have to be a body language expert to conclude that this is the gesture of masculinity in crisis.

In case you do need further convincing, however, consider this list of famous fist-pumpers through history: 1) Tim Henman en route to another humiliating Wimbledon defeat in 2002; 2) Tom Cruise as he jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s couch in 2005; 3) the hyper-macho cast members of US reality show Jersey Shore in 2009-12.

There is also a precedent in politics. It was an over-excited fist pump accompanied by a yelp that put paid to the ambitions of 2004 US Democratic primary candidate, Howard Dean. So how should IDS express his excitement in future? Easy. Just don’t.

Disputes designed in

Mind how you go out there, scuffles have been breaking out all over. Is it, for instance, anti-social and provocative to recline your seat on a short-haul flight (see the recent air-rage case in New Zealand)? Should wheelchair-users have priority over parents with prams (current case being adjudicated by the UK’s supreme court)? And did I really deserve that dirty look for using the vacant disabled toilet, even though I was busting (long story)?

In fact none of these etiquette dilemmas really get to the heart of the matter. It’s not a general decline in civility that’s our problem, it’s corner-cutting design. Cramming more fares in to increase profits is an industry-wide trend in transport, and anyone who’s observed the ridiculous disparity in queue size between the Ladies’ and the Gents’ knows that something’s got to give.

Shrinking public space has caused us all to turn on each other, because there’s literally nowhere else to turn. So never mind anger management courses or techniques for conflict resolution: if we’re striving for a more peaceful world, we’re going to need more legroom.

A book I won’t be reading

I haven’t read Harper Lee’s new (old) book Go Set a Watchman and I don’t need to in order to have an idea of what’s in store. Let me guess: it’s a bit like To Kill a Mockingbird, only not as good.

That much is clear from the circumstances of its publication. Even leaving aside the dispute over whether Lee has been taken advantage of in her old age, we know the book was written some years before her masterpiece. We know she opted to set it aside on the advice of a trusted editor. We know this book would never have seen the light of day, had it not been recently “rediscovered” by her current lawyer. Many artists have unfinished work or sub-par juvenilia that is hidden away, but just because it’s buried, doesn’t make it treasure.

Despicable Maccy D?

Are the Minions toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals really teaching children profanities, as some parents claim? Activate the toy, listen closely, and it’s just possible to make out words which might, at a push, sound a teensy bit like swearing, if you really, really want them to. But who can begrudge these innocents their desire to believe? If only merchandisers really did put that much thought into the junk they sell to kids.

Twitter: @MsEllenEJones

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