EVIDENCE FROM PROFESSOR SUSIE ORBACH TO THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE ON OBESITY 2003
I should like to draw the committee’s attention to three aspects of the debate which are often overlooked or misunderstood. The first is the role of the diet industry and the ways in which its practices contribute to the growing problems of obesity. The second is the dominance of an ultra thin aesthetic which dominates our visual field and undermines for girls, women and increasingly boys experience of their own bodies leading to disordered eating in general and obesity in particular. The third is the intergenerational transmission of eating problems and obesity.
The Diet Industry
On the face of it, the Diet Industry looks like a benign or even helpful player in tackling the growing public emergency that is obesity. Its products, its foods, its clubs, purport to provide support and sensible weight loss regimes to those whose food intake exceeds their energy output. Dieting can appear to be an obvious solution to overweight.
The Economics of Why Diets Fail
But there is a very high rate of recidivism with dieting. Latest estimates are that 97% of those who diet only 3% will succeed in keeping the weight off. Many of the 97% return for another go and dieting and its opposite compulsive eating becomes a way of life. The Diet Industry makes its profits on the failure of diets. If they worked, there would be no repeat customers, just satisfied customers.
Dieting and Metabolic Rate
The diet industry is selling its ideas to those who are not necessarily overweight. Research by Professor Liebel at Columbia University shows that repetitive dieting causes changes in the body’s metabolic rate. Set point theory shows how body metabolism slows, thus causing weight gain rather than the desired weight loss.
The Diet Industry is owned by the Food Industry
The diet industry is owned in large part by the same food companies that produce obesogenic foods. It purports to offer choice but is in fact segmenting the market into full fat foods and fat free foods for example for greater profits. The fat from the free diet foods has to be turned into saleable foods and becomes a stable of foods that are promoted as fun and indulgent.
The Target Market for Diets
The main effort of the diet industry is towards those who fail to meet the current thin aesthetic. The diet industry sells its products on the basis that those who use them will enter become acceptable, thus implying that individuals who are not thin are unacceptable, and with their new thinness they will enter into the glamorous world of the thin.
They target many people who are not actually overweight and they disturb their eating patterns producing chaotic eating patterns which can lead to obesity.
The Meaning of a Thin Aesthetic
It might strike a parliamentary committee as odd to be considering the psychological impact of a thin aesthetic on girls and women. But along with the more usually considered concern about poor nutrition and social class, obesogenic foods, the collapse of a nutritionally sound school meals service, the development of nutritionally suspect pre-prepared and fast foods, the thin aesthetic creates the conditions which give rise to obesity and the current obesity epidemic.
The Undermining of Girls and Women’s Sense of Self
A dominating thin aesthetic undermines girls and women’s experience and acceptance of their own physicality. Our TV screens are full of ultra thin women. While this has been described as simply fun or fashion, in fact, like smoking, it has devastating health implications. Girls and women identify with what they see. If they do not see a version of themselves from the estimated 600 advertisements beamed at them weekly (6000 per week in the States), they endeavour to reshape their bodies. The attempted reshaping sends girls and women into an undermining of their appetites which paradoxically instead of aiding them to slim, produces a situation where food becomes not simply a pleasurable response to hunger but a source of considerable tension and conflict. Food, especially calorie rich food becomes especially off limits and especially exciting and is eaten furtively and with guilt. This guilty furtive eating in turn produces more of the same kind of eating for many reasons (see attached books) with the result that attempted weight loss becomes a net weight gain.
Research from Professor Anne Becker at Harvard University shows how these thin images impact on ‘virgin’ territory. In 1995 commercial TV was aired in Fiji. Three years later in 1998 bulimia, a hitherto unknown condition, became a serious health issue for 11.9% of adolescent girls. Bulimia is a symptom of the disruption of eating in response to hunger, a disruption which forms part of the epidemic of cases which become obese.
Intergenerational Transmission of Eating Problems and Obesity
The current aesthetic of thinness and culture of dieting is absorbed by new mothers. They feel a great need to return to their pre-pregnant bodies. There is great concern too that children should not be fat. These two factors combine to create an ambience in the early nursing and feeding relationship which may bring tension and lay down emotional anxieties around food for children. Mothers may be dieting when they should be eating fulsomely. In attempting to restrict their own food they may inadvertently restrict their baby’s food or they may overfeed their babies and deprive themselves. Both responses and the many in between which express women’s troubled relationship to their bodies create a particular ambience to the earlier feeding environment which can be detrimental or indicative of the uptake of eating problems in children in later life.
Impact on Children
As children develop, they often observe their mothers restricting their food at times and eating chaotically at other times. Since children will tend to mimic what they have absorbed in their passage through childhood. As they become independent they may reproduce their parents’ food patterns which depend not on responding to hunger but on a guilty and confused relationship to food. Food can become a psychological tool used by children to soothe themselves or to express their own identity separate from the family.
Investigation and regulation of the diet industry. Does it contravene the Trades Descriptions Act?
Training for Health Visitors to pick up mothers and babies at risk of eating problems.
Encouragement to advertisers to extend the current aesthetic.