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!


DivaJean said...

Rinse and repeat.

These obesity news stories are a dime a dozen-- I swear they must have an article generator button back in their newspaper offices somewhere to fill in empty spaces with same old same old garbage.

Then they wonder why newpapers are going out of business everywhere...

Emerald said...

Sigh. I saw that report earlier, and I think you've covered most things I can think of.

One thing: I'm struck by the sheer inaccuracy, these days, of the idea that our definition of 'normal' has gotten bigger. Read the comments on any of the recent reports on 'plus-size' (12 and 14) models, and it becomes clear that many people out there - men in particular, it seems - now regard anything above a 10 as 'a bit fat' and anything above a 14 as 'grossly obese'. That's not how it was back in the 80s when I was a teenager. I actually think there's good reason to believe that the definition of 'normal' is shrinking.

Harpy said...

Charlotte, the Fat Nutritionist has a good blog post on Marilyn Monroe and her dress sizes: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/the-body-of-marilyn-monroe/

Emerald, I reckon normal is shrinking too. Have a look at the 1980s models featured in those cheesy Robert Palmer video clips. They're positively zaftig compared to models and It Girls today. They were tall and slim but actually looked powerful rather than fragile. (Even if the models are not actually weak or fragile, they're usually depicted as such.)

Anonymous said...

The fearmongering of this one was quite shrill, I thought. It amped up the moral panic stuff to 11 (there are STEALTH FATS out there who DON'T CARE and aren't wearing sackcloth and ashes in penance - quelle horreur!)

Diane said...

why do you feel it's necessary to consult a fat person about whether obesity is a problem? does anyone consult cigarette smokers about the health risks of nicotine?

Charlotte Cooper said...


1. What has fat got to do with smoking?

2. I think the concept of Nothing About Us Without Us is a powerful and useful one.

3. I'm not a smoker but I also think it would be good if smokers were consulted about public policy, I think inclusion and engagement are a good thing.