If you think the autopsy of a fat woman on TV will solve the obesity epidemic, you're wrong

It’s astounding to me that people can hear ‘Three-quarters of your society could be obese by 2035’ and react with: ‘This is clearly a problem at an individual level’

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The Independent Online

The obesity epidemic is out of control; 64 per cent of adults in the UK are overweight or obese, and that’s set to go up to 75 per cent by 2035. This is a public health emergency, and the only way we can solve it (probably) is by dissecting a fat person on TV.

That seems to be the thinking behind Obesity: The Post Mortem, BBC Three’s “televised first”, which has variously been described as “boundary-pushing”, “gross”, “necessary” and “a fatphobic freak show” by viewers. Addressing some of those concerns, Carla Valentine, an anatomical pathology technologist who was involved in carrying out the autopsy of the obese woman whose organs were carved up on air this week, said on the BBC website: ‘Gratuitous? As in done without reason’? I'd say it's absolutely not. Given the statistics and the fact that other ‘anti-obesity’ campaigns perhaps aren't having the desired effect it is certainly time to try something new.”

This sort of reasoning reminds me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend not long after we first met. He was standing outside a pub smoking a cigarette, and I jokingly informed him that “cigarettes are bad for you, you know”.

Obesity is on the rise

“Cigarettes are bad for you?” he replied, staring incredulously at the smoking stick between his fingers. “In which case, I’ll throw this one away right now!” And onto the ground it went.

The implication was clear: everyone knows cigarettes are bad for you, but that fact alone will never eradicate smoking. Nobody’s going around smoking cigarettes because they think it’ll do wonders for their persistent cough, or help them with their stamina in a half-marathon, or count as part of their five-a-day. Nobody’s under the impression that it’s a universally acclaimed positive lifestyle choice. A host of personal, social, cultural and psychological factors weigh in to the decision to start – and the decision to continue – which can’t be wiped out by a few stern lectures on throat cancer. We’ve been putting pictures of diseased lungs and warnings about impotence on fag packets for years and yet the damned things just keep selling.

But, you might say, the numbers of smokers in this country are going down. Obesity is on the rise. You saw the stats, displayed on the screen while a dead fat person’s body lay behind on the table: 75 per cent by 2035. There are so many people at risk of becoming morbidly obese that we simply must do something. These people have to be made to listen, and if they won’t be cajoled into it by snide remarks in the supermarket and constant jokes about fatties in the media, then we’ll serve them up a dead person’s damaged heart and water-logged lungs on TV. Then they’ll get on the treadmill!

It’s astounding to me that people can hear: “Three-quarters of your society could be obese by 2035” and react with: “This is clearly a problem at an individual level”. Can it really be, as the narrative of prejudice goes, that our society is steadily becoming more and more composed of lazy, greedy individuals who refuse to accept undeniable truths about public health? Can we really look at group where 75 per cent of it are soon to be obese, and refuse to accept that there are clearly social factors at play? Has our determination to distance ourselves from those morbidly obese people become so pronounced that it’s blinding us to really very obvious facts? Simply put, this isn’t just about individuals. With numbers like that, it can’t be.

Incidentally, it was announced only two weeks ago that both smokers and obese people are due to be banned from undergoing routine operations until they’ve lost weight or given up their smoking habit. The news prompted an outcry, and then the inevitable retort that we have a national health service and so we have to be “sensible” about where funds go.

The existence of the NHS in the UK does, in some ways, encourage us to be more judgmental of other people’s bodies and choices, and emboldens us to make comments about them. We’ve all read the tabloid fury about “your” hard-earned taxes being spent on air hostesses getting boob jobs, nestled up nicely against other articles about how the benefits system helped a family of 17 Muslim immigrants live in their own £10m mansion with a private gold-covered mosque in the front garden. Why should the contributions taken out of your salary go towards another hip replacement for an obese patient rather than more research into childhood leukaemia? Sometimes it can feel so downright infuriating that the NHS works for every British citizen without moral judgement. Maybe you should let that woman having a McChicken Sandwich down the road know that you hope you won’t be paying for her liposuction when your elderly mother’s been waiting two and a half years to get her cataracts sorted out.

Because – let’s face it – the subject of your ire will probably be a woman. Women are supposed to be decorative (according to very narrow standards), and to take up as little space as possible in the world: fat women break both of those rules. Fat men, well, we’re much more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Fat women are cows, pigs, dogs, more animal than human. They’re not fulfilling their function, so they don’t deserve the NHS.

This routine way of categorising women as subhuman if they’re not slim is what justifiably upset so many people about the choice of a California-born obese woman’s body for Obesity: The Post Mortem. We’re already used to people crowding round and bemoaning the state of fat women’s bodies, after all. And it’s hardly unusual to present a female body of any size as public property or the scene for a public debate: even when they’re alive, women only have to wear a short skirt to be told they’re “basically leaving a house with its doors open at night and expecting not to get burgled”.

The woman whose body we saw on BBC3 donated her body to medical science knowing full well that this was a way in which it might be used, and through this decision we can make a very broad guess about what she was like when she was alive: socially minded, utilitarian, concerned and compassionate about humanity, selfless even after a presumed lifetime of judgement. Some have said that her memory was insulted by the way in which she was unfeelingly examined by a group of medical professionals who didn’t discuss her “unique story and experiences”, but I don’t believe that.

Sadly, I also don’t believe her autopsy will be any more successful at halting the “obesity epidemic” than those pictures on the front of cigarette packets. Because the answer to skyrocketing rates of obesity isn’t found inside the body of a recently deceased American woman who happened to be overweight. It’s found in low pay and overpriced fresh food, night shifts, long hours, sedentary lifestyles, genetic dispositions, a cultural obsession with weight, aggressive marketing of high-calorie fast food to children, sugar-filled alcopops for teens. In other words, it’s found much closer to home.