Discussing fat bodies in relation to health is a lot more complicated than some people seem to think. The body positive and plus-size community fight daily against a thin-centric media and society that not only tells us that we’re unhealthy, but we’re also morally wrong for being fat. The language and imagery used in adverts for everything from protein shakes to supermarkets takes aim at fat bodies and tears them down.
So when this billboard by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) appeared, it understandably caused a backlash.
What exactly is the message they are conveying? According to CRUK’s research, three in four people do not know that obesity can cause cancer. There is absolutely zero imagery on this ad, nothing apart from the CRUK logo at the bottom. There’s not a certain shape or size of body shown, and no specific profiling of gender. There’s no image to illustrate what obesity looks like, and there’s no body type they are saying is inherently unhealthy and at risk. In fact, in a very different way to many other adverts accused of fatshaming, CRUK’s doesn’t target anyone specifically but simply presents a fact (or rather, what they consider to be a fact… we’ll come to that soon).
Earlier this year, Lush Cosmetics came under fire for a series of Instagram adverts about obesity and health, that on the surface appear similar to the CRUK billboard. The difference here? Lush is a beauty company that sells nice-smelling bath bombs and organic shampoo. They are not a health charity, and don’t particularly have any place in telling fat people what they should or shouldn’t do with their life. To be told by a group of doctors that there might be a problem is one thing – to be criticised for your life choices by the same place you buy your moisturiser from is something different.
“CRUK relies on BMI as the main indicator of obesity – a method known for its unreliability and general ineffectiveness at measuring what constitutes a ‘healthy’ weight.”
As a health organisation, CRUK have a responsibility to report the ‘facts’ around things that can cause us harm – but adverts that make scientific claims should be properly backed up and not left open to misrepresentation and misinterpretation by the laypeople in advertising. Unfortunately, even if the science were sound, adverts like this fuel a fatphobic audience who may feel that this gives them the right to comment on other people’s lifestyles.
And even if you look at the research that CRUK is using as their references (linked here and here, because they didn’t make them all that easy to get hold of), it’s not exactly solid. It relies on the body mass index (BMI) as the main indicator of obesity and representation of body fat – a method known for its unreliability and general ineffectiveness at measuring what constitutes a ‘healthy’ weight, classifying the very short, the very tall, or the very athletic incorrectly. We must also consider that correlation does not equal causation, and while other factors can be controlled for when analysing data, we still cannot tease apart a causal relationship. CRUK’s studies show smoking still plays a part, and don’t seem to take into account genetic predispositions.
So often those with a fatphobic rhetoric fall back on the sickening excuse, “I’m just looking out for your health!” The problem is, you have no idea about a person’s health unless you are a) said person, or b) said person’s doctor who has just performed a full health check. Unsolicited comments from strangers on a fat person’s health may even make them less likely to actually seek professional advice when it’s needed. It’s almost as if these people don’t really care about your health in the first place…
“Adverts and campaigns that profile fat people and target them with hateful messages are not concerned for their health.”
The use of the word ‘preventable’ should also be one that we are concerned about. This fuels another important string in the bow of those peddling fatphobia: that it’s all our own fault. None of the research referenced by CRUK says that the increased weight in it’s participants was ‘preventable’, and many different medical conditions can cause weight gain or make it harder for you to lose weight. And that’s before you consider that a possible improvement in physical health may come at a detriment to mental health.
Ultimately, fat people are not unaware that they are fat. We are bombarded with fatphobic messages in the media every day to make sure that we don’t forget. If our lifestyle is unhealthy, we already know this, and not because of our clothing size but because of the way we feel in ourselves. Adverts and campaigns that profile fat people and target them with borderline (or outright) hateful messages are not concerned for their health – they’re just being hateful. Vague and downright inaccurate reporting of health effects just feed this – the big cereal companies were pulled on it, CRUK shouldn’t also get a pass.
Fatness is not a moral shortcoming, nor is it automatically a terminal diagnosis. Absolutely no one should feel like they have to lose weight unless they want to, and their decisions should be informed by more than a few words on a billboard.