25 September 2009

Research: obesity scholars who ignore fat people

I was mooching around the library at Coventry University recently, I came across Fat Economics: nutrition, health, and economic policy by Mario Mazzocchi, W. Bruce Traill, and Jason F. Shogren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), and gave it a flick. It made my hair stand on end.

Call me weird but I'm strangely fascinated by high level theory books and reports about obesity policy. I think what fascinates me is how far an idea can go, how rarefied the discourse can become, how unselfconscious people are when they write or opine pretentiously and pompously about fat. Adding to my fascination with accounts such as Mazzocchi et al's is this kind of Emperor's New Clothes effect, that all this stuff sounds reasonable, although overblown, but then you realise it is based on a really wobbly foundation, that is: fat = energy balance, fat = dangerous dysfunction, and fatness = problem to be managed and eradicated. The minute you question these fundaments is the minute that works like Mazzocchi's, or Foresight, lose credibility because they don't critique their basic premise.

Unfortunately the authors of these works do not question those beliefs. Even more unfortunately, they get to be published by extremely well-regarded academic publishing houses, or by official government channels. This is one of the processes that keeps problematic ideas about what it is to be fat in circulation, almost beyond criticism.

The main thing that I want to talk about here though is about how works like Fat Economics make fat people abstract. These are works that do not include accounts by fat people, they are not written by fat people, and fat people have absolutely no voice in these works. It's like the literary equivalent of the headless fatty. Such works refer to fat people as 'the obese', a term which treats fat people, like me, as a nebulous blob of Otherness, with no power or thoughts of our own. Research like this contributes to the notion of fat people as passive and stupid, people whose lives need mediating and explaining by thin 'experts' who arrogantly eye us as interesting scum in a petri dish.

Standpoint Theory takes the position that the best people to talk about a subject are the people directly affected by it. As a general rule of thumb I think this is pretty good, although it's worth bearing in mind that many fat people have internalised cultural messages about the awfulness of obesity, and that fat people are a diverse group rather than one with a generic perspective. It also needs stating that body size is not a good measure of where someone is coming from, attitude counts for a lot and, certainly, there are some very articulate and sound thin people who are currently producing excellent work around fatness. So it's complicated, as ever, just adding some 'voices of the obese' to the mix might not be what is really needed here, a fundamental paradigm shift is what is actually required.

Fat Economics makes universalist claims but only tells part of the story because it does not recognise fat people as having agency or a legitimate voice, and it doesn't seem to take a critically reflexive view of its own claims (I only skimmed the book, so maybe there's a sentence somewhere, but I didn't see it). Imagine how differently it would read if it did take critical perspectives of obesity into account, or was able to own and name its own limited perspective rather than assuming it to be universally true.

What if the authors of Fat Economics had actually talked to some fat activists, or were Fat Studies scholars themselves? What kind of questions would they have been able to ask? What economic questions would you like to ask? Here are some of mine: How much does body hatred cost? What is the financial impact of fatphobia and discrimination against fat people? What is the cost of a Health At Every Size programme compared to a weight loss programme? How much is spent on promoting fatphobia? And on it goes, useful questions that may never be answered because of the limitations of the academy, the wilful ignorance of its researchers, and the lack of political impetus for funding such work.

How to cope with a fatphobic Facebook friend

Here's something you can use when one of your Facebook (or other online social network) Friends posts something fatphobic that gets on your tits. Responding to such posts can often feel risky. Perhaps having something like this can help us feel more brave in speaking out about things that offend us, especially when it's said by someone who's supposed to be a friend. Feel free to cut and paste it to your own Notes, edit it if you want to, and pass it on as a resource for other people to use when writing Comments.

Dear Facebook Friend,

I noticed that you posted something about fat people and I need to tell you that what you posted is not okay with me, in fact I feel insulted by it.

It may be that you are not aware that what you posted might be construed as offensive. Perhaps to you it is interesting, funny, strange, sad, silly, disgusting, or something else. You might be surprised that we could see the same thing so differently.

It would be great if you could take a moment to try and imagine what it might be like for me when I read your post. Maybe bear this in mind when you're thinking of posting things in the future. Even better would be if we could talk about our differences of opinion, and try and work out a way of getting on together without offending each other.

Thanks for reading,

Your Friend

23 September 2009

Research: how to read obesity reports - the evidence

Today is a day of smugness and glee for me because no sooner do I publish my beginner's guide to reading obesity research than the BBC publish a story which perfectly illustrates my case.

Turning a blind eye to obesity, by Clare Murphy, BBC News health reporter.

Shall we count the ways in which this report is a load of crap and further stigmatises fat people? Anyone else care to have a crack at it?

1. It starts with a dehumanised headless fatty.

2. It's based on an online survey, which is methodologically problematic, even more so given that there's no indication of sample size, sampling strategy or the demographic make-up of the sample.

3. It's not quite silly season, but it's not long until pre-Xmas and New Year, both busy times for diet organisations.

4. It's a survey that was commissioned for a weight loss company and reflects their interests, yet the interpretation is presented as hard scientific fact.

5. It makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims:

"Apparently we do not know what's normal any more."

"Meanwhile pictures of children too fat to toddle or the adults so large they need to be hoisted from his house have transformed obesity into a freak show rather than a shared problem."
"Many have found solace in the suggestion that Marilyn Monroe was apparently a size 16: sadly dress sizes have changed dramatically down the decades as our bodies have grown, and those who can squeeze into a size 8 today would not have been able to do so in 1940."

"Everybody knows..."

"Worrying," "potential harm": using unsubstantiated fear and threats which support the taken-for-granted belief that fat is a major problem that is going to get worse.

6. It quotes allegedly impartial medicalised obesity experts from organisations directly funded by weight loss companies and who therefore reflect the values of such companies. All the people here are members or former members of ASO or National Obesity Forum, and Dr Susan Jebb is also a 'health expert' for Rosemary Conley, the hip and thigh diet lady.

7. No fat people consulted, fatties are absent and abstracted here, we are a nebulous and dangerous problem - raaargh.

8. No alternative 'balancing' viewpoints, yeah, like that's ever going to happen.

9. No critical view of BMI, though such critiques exist and are easily accessible. This story even provides a tool to help you calculate your BMI.

10. There are other ways of interpreting the data:

No wonder no one wants to think of themselves as obese in a climate where companies like Slimming World and government policy is doing everything to turn fat people into social pariahs. This is part of the process of dehumanising and Othering fat people.

Goes to show the stupidity in basing health claims on body size. Clearly people feel perfectly okay despite being classified as too fat.

Trying to develop body anxiety and thus new Slimming World consumers in the pre-Xmas period.

Trying to consolidate Slimming World as a reliable provider of obesity data.

The solution to the problem of discrimination against fat people is not weight loss but a change in social attitudes.

Your turn!

22 September 2009

Research: how to read obesity reports

I've been reading quite a bit of obesity research recently and I want to share some of my thoughts about how fat people might read such research with a critical eye.

I know the idea of reading material that is intensely fatphobic is not everyone's idea of fun, but I think it is important that we dip in to this stuff from time to time so that we can: keep up with what they are saying about us; develop better research models for fat; develop a critical eye in order to distinguish between research that provides useful information, and research that makes things a lot worse for fat people.

You don't have to read heavy research reports to get a flavour of current obesity research. This is the stuff that also crops up in news report after news report. You know the type of thing, it starts with a sensationalist headline making some kind of preposterous claim about fatness, there's invariably a picture of a headless fatty, some quote from an obesity expert, and the reiteration that being fat is a very bad thing. What I'm going to say below applies to this kind of report as much as it does to the more formal scholarly publication.

Think of what follows as a mental check-list to help you read material that claims to be obesity science, it's like reading a food label to check for dodgy ingredients. Maybe approach this kind of material in the same way that you might do if you were lifting a rock to have a look at the worms and insects wriggling away underneath, all that stuff is interesting to look at but you're really glad that you don't have to live down there.

1. Check the date, is it silly season? This is the time of year when people are likely to be away on holiday and the media is increasingly desperate to find material to fill its dead air. More stories, especially salacious fat panic reports, get through that would otherwise flounder under quality control guidance.

2. Google any experts that are quoted. Find out their interests, especially how they make a living. It is common for such experts to be paid employees or directors of weight loss companies, or organisations directly sponsored by the weight loss industry, such as the International Obesity Task Force, the Association for the Study of Obesity, the National Obesity Forum, and others. Decide for yourself how neutral or trustworthy an expert you think they are. Also, anyone who refers to themselves as an obesity expert is likely to be a bit of a dick, especially if they are not at all fat.

3. Think about how the news story came to be made. Journalists and editors may twist research findings for the sake of an exciting story (I have done this!). Think of the media as a distorting mirror for research, bear in mind that it has its own vernacular and pressures, that it is likely to simplify, reduce and mis-quote complex research findings, or that stories are often cobbled together quickly from a press release without much quality control.

4. Think about why the research is being done. What kind of starting out assumptions does it make about fat people? Does it begin with a paragraph or two about the perils of the obesity epidemic? Does it appear to question such an epidemic? What is it supporting? Do the researchers use Body Mass Index as a measure of health without any critical understanding of it? Do you think BMI is an accurate representation of heath? What does this tell you about the values implicit in the research? Do the research findings support these values?

5. Where are they coming from? Try and imagine how the researchers might answer if you asked them: do you think being fat is a problem? This can help you work out what kind of perspective they are bringing to their research, which is important but not always stated clearly. You could also ask: do you think fatphobia is a problem?

6. Think about what claims are being made by the research in terms of its scientific purity. Is it claiming to present truth or facts? If so, go back and reconsider the perspectives being put forward by the authors. Remember that 'truth' and 'facts' depend on what people think and believe; 'facts' made by the weight loss industry about fatness vary a great deal from 'facts' that I know about my own fat body, for example. Looking at the research findings, what other versions of the truth could be made?

7. Try and find out who is funding the research. Don Kulick writes in Fat Studies in the UK that all research about pet obesity is produced by pet food companies, for example. I know pets are different to humans, but it illustrates how funding can affect the scope of the research and its findings, which then get reported as facts. Sometimes you may have to dig a little for this information.

8. Think about the process by which the researchers got their hands on the funding. Try to imagine what they might have had to say in order to get the money. Might they have had to downplay any interest in fat politics, for example, or play up their support for the treatment and prevention of obesity? You can't know the answer to this for sure, but who gets the funding and why they get it, and what gets left out, is part of the context for obesity research. Also, what happens to researchers who have no funding?

9. How big is the research sample? By sample I mean the people who are being studied. One of the National Health Service Care Pathways for dieticians in the UK is based on research on a group of nine people. Do you think a study of nine people can make conclusive claims about all fat people? No! So size makes a difference in the outcome of the study.

10. What does the sample look like? If it's a sample of fat people, are they suffering from any prior ailments? This affects research claims made about fat people and health. Is there any acknowledgement or accommodation in the research of social influences on health, for example discrimination? How might discrimination or stigma impact on the sample or affect the findings? How representative is the sample of all the rad fatties you know?

11. How are variables defined and interpreted? Variables are the things that the research is studying, for example weight loss, ethnicity, activity. The way the research is set up means that although variables appear to be neutral, the way they are defined and interpreted is not neutral at all. Here's an example: Jane Ogden, a well-respected obesity expert, presented a paper about weight loss surgery at the Size Matters? conference earlier this year. She defined 'success' as someone who had lost weight after surgery. This means that cases could be defined as 'successful' where the person who had had surgery was suffering terrible surgery-induced health problems, as long as they had lost weight. That doesn't sound like a 'successful' surgery to me, quite the opposite.

12. Have a look at the source material cited in meta-studies about obesity. Such big studies are basically studies of studies, and they sometimes make pompous claims about being very reliable. But if they are based on source material that is not particularly reliable, for any of the reasons I've mentioned here, then their reliability too is questionable. It's also a good idea to see what meta-studies include and exclude, for example do they include material that is critical of taken-for-granted claims about fat? If they don't then they're missing out a lot of important stuff.

13. Ask to see the original data and report, if you can.

14. Think about where the research has been published. Peer-reviewed publications are seen as the gold standard for reliable research, but there have been reports recently about fake journals, people being paid to put their names to dodgy research, and in-house publishers owned by the businesses benefiting from the research. Do some homework and decide on the reliability for yourself.

15. Become a fan of Bad Science and make sure you read this post.

16. Make time for self care after immersing yourself in the strange world of obesity research. Blog or share your findings, do something fun to get any residual fatphobia out of your system. Keep breathing.

Edited to add: I forgot to mention a few more things...

Health. Most obesity research is about fat and health because this is the agenda that most interests upholders of fat panic. Much of my comments here refer to health research. The fact that, aside from researching weight loss, other kinds of obesity research are sidelined also says a lot about what gets funded and what does not, and what is deemed important. If I was the boss of all research funds I would fund a far broader range of stuff, it would be interesting and useful, for example, to know more about the effects of fatphobia on people of all sizes.

Sampling strategies. How researchers find samples also affects the research outcomes. There are books about this, go and have a look at one if you can tolerate this level of geekiness. What I will also say, however, is that the sample is really important, so check for possible bias in it. For example, a study about people's attitudes to fatness based on a sample of fat women who go to Weight Watchers is going to have a different outcome to a study of fat women who go to NOLOSE.

Stats. There's some stuff I could say about statistical maths too, which I won't because I barely understand it myself. Suffice to say that there are different ways of manipulating statistical/quantitative data to provide different research outcomes.

One final thing, a really important thing. Studies may find a correlation, or a relationship, between a number of variables. So a study could find that there's a relationship between fatness and unhappiness, for example. But this doesn't mean that being fat necessarily makes you unhappy. A statistical relationship is just that, not a cause or an explanation.

18 September 2009

Interview: Scottee

What do you do if you're fat and gay as a goose? You can take the Christopher Biggins route and embrace everything that is camp and larger than life, or you can be a bear. Scottee chose a different option: self-expression via the queer avant garde. This performer /designer /social scene must surely be the sweet nephew of our dearly beloved Leigh Bowery, Divine David and Vaginal Creme Davis, and he's still oh so tenderly young and precocious.

What can I say? Scottee is a delight, he brightens every stage and page that dares to host him, and his performance is provocative, imaginative and also sincere. He's obviously got a heap of talent and an extensive address book. From early forays into the club scene with Yr Mum Yr Dad, via his backstreet abortion and tapestry performance at Gay Shame, to new projects in fashion, and other collaborations, he's one to watch. Here's some more...

I've been reading interviews with you online and it looks as though you're someone who leads a fabulous life of performance, dressing-up and parties. How true is this? How do you pay the bills? Also, what are you?

I am what you see I'm afraid: a full time performer. It's lovely that I can just focus on this and pay the bills at the same time, I'm really fortunate.

Can you say a bit more about what being a full time performer means?

Well, let's take this week for instance. I constantly tidy my flat and trawl though loads of emails (I love doing emails, I'm quite shy when it comes down to it, so emails are the best with me). Then I had a business meeting with Patrick Wolf, I'm directing his new video. I filmed a short for The Pixies for their next tour with my friend Judy Jacob, and on Thursday I'm hosting Mika's album dinner. This weekend I've only got one gig at XXL with the Tenor Ladies, then Sunday I think I have rehearsals but I'm not sure. So it's quite a good job when I write it all out like this.

What's The Tenor Ladies?

Tenor Ladies is my concept fatty band I started with fellow chub Sami Knight. We are both performers and have a real love for music from the age, which drag queens bastardized with bad lipsynchs at the Molly Moggs pub throughout the 80s. We are really bored of where music is now, Kate Nash cutouts with mockney accents singing about their boyfriend's lack of penis and the like, so we started Tenor Ladies. We are all about big hair, big voices and big bellies singing big numbers. Its not avant garde in the slightest, but I suppose by default that makes it avant garde. We've got our big winter showcase at the end of this month which I'm really looking forwards to.

Who are the fat queers you most admire?

Hmm. I'm not sure there are many fat queers although I love Amy Lamé, she speaks a lot of sense, and is someone who I feel deserves a lot more gratitude. I think I'm more of a fan of the fatty per se. Dawn French is the best, of course, but that goes without saying. My ideal line-up would be Dawny, Hattie Jacques, Diana Dors and Mama Cass, all in 70s geometric print kaftans, eating my favourite Dors recipe 'Apricot Chiffon'.

What is Apricot Chiffon? I want some.

Its only Diana Dors TVAM favourite-on-a-diet classic. It's like a milky jelly, a blancmange with tinned apricots on the top. Who would have thought?

I'm aware of a trend in fat activism that's concerned with being poster children for healthy living and upstanding citizenship. I think this is to do with refuting ideas that fat people are greedy, lazy, ugly and the rest of it. What I love about the way you present yourself to the world is that you fully embrace a kind of fat grotesque, there's a lot of goo and wobbly chub and yuckiness in your performances, and genderfuck thrown in for good measure. What do you think? Are you consciously rejecting being a well-behaved fatty?

I used to be very uncomfortable with my body and getting it out, when I first landed on the playground/gay scene I got a lot of hassle form gay guys shouting abuse at me in Balans and the like, they made me fear my body but I don't really want to give them any more air time than needed. Us fatsos love to dwell when really we should be thinking about the finer things in life and living positively. If we give them attention they will flourish!

So it wasn't until I realised that if I use my body to my advantage it makes people listen to what I have to say. Usually people are more scared of my body than I am, when I learnt that there was no stopping me! Fat people don't have to be the shy geeks in the corner, we can be the liberated, loudmouthed, nuisance I've become! I want to reject all preconceptions that fat people are unhappy and unconfident, its time for fat rebellion.

What does fat rebellion look like to you?

Lady Gaga covered in custard and La Roux in batter. Eat them all and rid pop of slop!

Do you know Glenn Marla? I can't help thinking that you are doppelgangers and I'd love to see you collaborate or even just be in the same room together.

No I don't, but I've instantly befriended.

Who are your dream collaborators?

Dream collaborators would be Fenella Fielding, the age of the eccentric actress needs to return and she's genius in Carry On. Also, Lisa Stansfield, I do think she is the most beautiful woman to walk this planet and she sings like a dream. David Hoyle too, I could listen to the man talk forever!

I saw Fenella Fielding at Covent Garden Tescos about ten years ago. She looked exactly the same as she did in Carry On Screaming, except older. I like people who pick a look early on in their lives and then stick to it.

I saw her in M&S Covent Garden last year, I loved her three wigs and flash lashes – at lunchtime! She was buying vine leaves, I now buy them too.

Why is your t-shirt £40?

Well to produce XXXXL tees in the UK costs a packet, plus its an old French & Saunders joke: "Forty pounds for a bloody tee shirt, you must be mad!"

What are you working on now?

I'm working towards my solo show 19-21 November called Mess, at Stoke Newington International Airport. The show is about being afraid of our bodily functions and Jonny Woo, Dickie Beau and I will be spending December in Selfridges for a instore panto on stilts. Good huh?

What else would you like to say?

I've just read this back and I'm really old-fashioned! What 23 year-old likes Diana Dors!?

Find out even more:



16 September 2009

Research: Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices is still a load of rubbish

I've been revisiting Foresight this week, reading the second edition of the project report, published in 2007.

Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices is the name of a project commissioned by Sir David King KB ScD FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor to HM Government, who was then Head of the Government Office for Science. King commissioned the report because he was concerned about what he thought was the rise of obesity and its cost implications for the UK. The report has become the government's go-to resource in terms of developing anti-obesity policy and has sprouted an Independent Expert Advisory Group.

I wanted to have a look at Foresight again because I'm working on a paper about the war on obesity as a metaphorical conflict, and I'm struck by the repetition of the expression "tackling obesities" in the report. It makes me think of wrestling with an invisible foe, like something Captain Kirk might wrassle with on an old episode of Star Trek. This must be how the report's authors and advisors see fat people, a nebulous enemy that needs taking down by them, and not so far off from the supposed enemies of the war on terror. Obesities is pretentious too, but not as pretentious as 'obesogenic,' which this project may have coined.

I also wanted to revisit it because I noticed recently that two Health At Every Size proponents were using the Obesity System Map fairly uncritically. I think this map is baloney, and that Foresight is no friend to HAES, so I wanted to have a look at the report again and try and see it from their points of view. Could it be a useful tool?

There are more problems with this report than I have time to write about today, but I want to mention a couple of things.

The report is wrong, and wrong in the most amazing ways, because it starts from a popular position that is simplistic, and also wrong. Remember the parable about building a house on firm foundations? This house is built on sand.

King commissioned the report with the explicit belief that obesity is a problem and the implicit assumption that fat people could not also be healthy. I don't think obesity is the problem, I think social attitudes towards fat people go a long way in affecting people's health. I think my health as a fat person is threatened by a health service that tries to withhold treatment from me until I lose weight, or tries to coerce me into profitable but unhealthy weight loss regimens; or the stress and social repercussions of being stigmatised or discriminated against, and the internalised self-hatred this can engender. I think my health is more threatened by these things than by the wobble of my belly, and that the cost to the nation of obesity-related health problems is really about what hatred costs the nation. I also know that the size of one's body does not necessarily correlate with the health of one's habits.

Foresight is fixated on energy balance (calories in + calories expended = body size), a polite, 'scientific' way of blaming fatness on gluttony and sloth, even though they also make confusingly inconsistent genetic claims for fatness. They build fantastically complicated Obesity Systems Maps around this assumption. If this was a project about how to make people eat less and exercise more then it would be more successful, I have no problem with proposals to increase the availability of good quality food, or opportunities to ride my bike. Unfortunately the project is built on the assumption that fatness is synonymous with an energy balance that's out of whack and that therefore fat people must be prevented from existing and eradicated because they cost too much. Rather than working with fat people in a compassionate and respectful way, this is a project that seeks to further disempower, punish, scapegoat and marginalise fat people for daring to exist, instead of using state resources to manage the social systems and structures that contribute to poor health in the first place.

Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices fascinates me because it says more about state power and its manifestations, values and beliefs than it does about me and my life as a fat person.

The report claims scientific purity a number of times and seems oblivious to the idea that science is also a product of ideology, or might be influenced by such worldly entities as, perhaps, corporate sponsorship by the diet industry. It astounds me that the report can claim to be objective when the list of reviewers and advisors includes professors, Knights, a Lord and a Dame, so firmly is this work entrenched in the values of the establishment and the upper class. This class background is particularly problematic given that a large chunk of the report is concerned with the question of What To Do About Poor Fat People? As is so often the case in obesity research, the notion of nothing about us without us is irrelevant, fat people are absent and abstracted. The battle cry of the war on obesity is that it is a war against obesity, not "the obese" (a term which also abstracts and dehumanises us!), but how does one make the distinction?

In Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, the modern world is characterised as a no-good place fast heading for chaos where fatness is linked with climate change. The past is a better place where there were allegedly fewer fat people. Progess is suspicious, the authors decry investment in a potential magic bullet treatment for getting rid of obesity, the way to get rid of fatness lies in solid, puritanical and moralistic endeavours such as taking personal responsibility for the problem, enacting self-surveillance and doing hard work over a lifetime. Whose values are these?

There's a sense of omnipotence hubris about the text, a belief that what is decreed at this high level must surely be a universal law. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Yet the authors overestimate their power because they are unwilling and unable to address their critics, and they are far removed from the grassroots movement of people who are busily dismantling their fortress. They know we exist yet they misread us. In the project report there is a tiny mention on page 30 which states: "Obesity has become stigmatised, triggering the appearance of 'fat and proud' movements in the USA." They suggest that this is a debate about appearance rather than health, which is not true, neither is it true that such a movement only exists in the US. I'm intrigued that they call us 'fat and proud' because of course that is the name of my book, though not the name of fat acceptance/size acceptance/fat rights/fat lib, whatever it is this movement is called. And also, of all the possible fat politics resources they could reference, they choose to cite this rather sorry site. My feeling is that, for now, their ignorance is our gain, let's just carry on with our work.

By the way, if you want to have a look at any of these reports, they are massively funded so you can order a range of high production value booklets, CDs, posters and other assorted crap from the project's website and they will be sped to you by courier immediately! For free! I'm not making this up. I could paper my walls with this lovely, thick, heavy, glossy stuff if I had a mind to.

14 September 2009

LighterLife: government advisors despite reports of deaths

A number of bloggers and news outlets have covered the outrageous and awful death of Samantha Clowe, who suffered heart failure whilst following the Lighterlife diet. I won't repeat what they've said here, but I extend my sympathies to Clowe's friends and family.

Lighterlife is a very low calorie diet, which is implicated in a fast weight loss that is even more unsustainable than allegedly 'sensible' diets, and which can lead to serious health problems. Lighterlife has been implicated in the deaths of at least two other women following the programme, but the company refutes this relationship in news reports, they assert that the deaths were caused by the person's fatness rather than the diet. This position is also supported by erroneous yet common-sense beliefs about fat that you encounter all over the place, that it is an automatic death sentence. The result is that Lighterlife's sales have not been affected by these horrendous deaths, and that everyone from Colleen Nolan to a bunch of dykes on a lesbian messageboard that I frequent are following the programme.

An aside: I urge people working within obesity science to develop a standard methodology for showing that it's the diet not the fatty that's at fault. Perhaps we in the fat rights movement could think about pooling some money to support such research.

There isn't very much that is happy in the story of Lighterlife, but one small ray of hope is that the story is now being taken up by the British tabloids. Lighterlife's PR output is very hot but barely a match for the vicious, cruel, merciless probe of, for example, The Daily Mail. That paper's use of fatphobia to expose some of the workings of Lighterlife, and the diet industry in general, is questionable, but it's good to see them involving their readers in a story of diet industry corporate greed that is being fed by the clueless, innocent, trusting people who buy into the product. For once the paper's standard tone of shock and outrage is appropriate here.

Could this be the beginning of the end for Lighterlife? Selling a product associated with sudden death is not a good business plan. Other very low calorie diets have also been discredited, such as Optifast, on which Oprah Winfrey lost and regained a lot of weight in 1988. But don't get too excited, no doubt the diet industry will sprout more health-endangering products, like a Hydra, you cut off one head and another grows in its place.

I want to add some detail that The Daily Mail has missed. Despite the scandal associated with Lighterlife, you will find them listed on a 2006 .pdf easily found via Google, but now removed from the website. This is a list of all the companies and organisations supporting, and supported by, NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. NICE is the body that provides scientific evidence for healthcare policy in the UK. Maybe there's a more up to date 2009 document too, want to try and find it?

There's more, the National Obesity Forum, who are one of the 'expert' obesity organisations beloved of the UK government obesity boffins, mentioned Lighterlife as a Useful Contact in the Care Pathway and Toolkit section of their website (now removed). Lighterlife is also one of the sponsors of the Association for the Study of Obesity (.pdf, 344kb), another 'expert' obesity organisation that has close ties to government and statutory health providers in the UK.

I've written before about how Lighterlife bankrolled TOAST, a fake obesity charity, and J. Eric Oliver's 2006 book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic has a great discussion about how the diet industry are implicated in what is presumed to be impartial obesity knowledge and science, so none of this should be a surprise.

But it's no less shocking when you see with your own eyes how companies like Lighterlife, and really they are only the tip of the iceberg, have so much influence, despite being implicated in their users' deaths. It is also shocking to think about how statutory organisations and government departments, paid for by you and I, support such companies with apparently no safeguards against unethical business interests. For them, involving the diet industry in obesity policy is regarded as a good thing, it is framed as tapping into commercial expertise. There is no critical understanding of how the diet industry is implicated in obesity, in creating markets based on self-hatred and stigma in which to push defective products that lead to legions of 'failed' yo-yo dieters and a myriad of health and social problems.

Samatha Clowes, Jacqueline Henson and Matilda Callaghan are three women who died who were also Lighterlife customers. It disgusts me to say this but there will probably be more deaths as companies continue to push very low calorie diets. For these three women, I am calling on the government and the NHS to sever links with commercial weight loss organisations and to implement tighter restrictions on who they seek advice and support from.

Perhaps you might consider telling your official representatives to do the same.