Flat White

Big is not beautiful or why fat is a feminine issue

12 January 2018

11:49 AM

12 January 2018

11:49 AM

Not so long ago American feminist, Naomi Wolf, did an international lap of honour to celebrate 25 years since the publication of the runaway feminist bestseller, The Beauty Myth. At the time of publication, I was a staff writer on The Australian and I can remember having a stand-up argument with the male health editor about the book. Beauty, I argued then (and still do) is not a myth. He, I think, thought I was jealous of the wholesomely attractive author. It did seem to me that a good-looking young woman arguing that beauty was a con while she benefited from her own was a tad disingenuous.

Now older and a bit wiser, the hypocrisy of the left does not surprise me. What has also stayed with me from that time is Wolf’s address at a luncheon in Melbourne to a packed female audience when she told us that Elle McPherson, aka ‘The body’ for good reason, was a symbol of skinny female body types that young women the world over were starving themselves literally to death to emulate. It was hard to imagine anyone in the modelling world who was a better advertisement for female health than the shapely and athletic looking Australian supermodel. Wolf couldn’t have chosen anyone further from the ‘heroin chic’ bones-sticking-out-of-the skin look that had a passing moment on international runways during a particular nadir in fashion.

The myth of The Beauty Myth was that a generation of young women was committing harakiri by extreme dieting in order to copy supermodels. The researchers who did the research Wolf based this claim on said she got this the wrong way round because their research actually showed women are more influenced by their peers. In the book’s year of publication, 1991, when Wolf claimed, after Gloria Steinem and some other feminist writers, that 150,000 women a year in the US were dying from anorexia, the actual figure was 54 deaths. What escaped Wolf’s notice was that by 1991 the rates of obesity had begun to surge. In the same year, medical researchers calculated that no less than 280,000 people died of obesity-related diseases.

But left-wing feminism’s preoccupation with anorexia has never allowed it to focus on what obesity is doing to women. Obesity, it was argued in Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue, published in 1978, was a way of women taking back their power by refusing to be slender Barbie dolls for men. And this is certainly the case for sexual minority (lesbian) women who have renounced the patriarchy and all its pomps by their preference for a heavier female body type which has translated into an obesity rate of 49 per cent.

In the last fifty years, the obese have grown from a small proportion of the population – less than ten per cent – to nearly 28 per cent of Australian women by 2014. The salient point is that healthy weight individuals now represent only a minority with the overweight and obese making up two-thirds. In the wealthy west, there are no great differences between men and women, but there are significant differences between socio-economic groups. You are more likely to be obese if you are black, poor, uneducated and female. Globally, it is estimated there are up to 200 million more obese women than men and women make up the majority of the super or morbidly obese.

Inequality between men and women, as is found in the Middle East, also expresses itself in much higher rates of obesity for women. It’s pretty hard to work out in a burqa or other confining garb and having men harass you in public as you attempt to exercise is generally off-putting. In some areas of the Middle East, the people who measure such things can find no statistical link between obesity and activity in women because women do so little – in one Saudi Arabian province 99.5 per cent of women, for example, did no exercise.


There are reasons, common to both men and women, which explain our lateral expansion over the last 50 years. Not least of these reasons was the decision by health authorities from the late seventies to decree all animal fat as pernicious to health. Eggs were the enemy. Red meat became public enemy number one and from Miami to Melbourne we were urged to fill up on carbs like bread – up to 11 servings of wheat-based products a day according to the food pyramid. We were also herded towards margarine – love those trans fats – and industrially produced vegetable or seed oils. Even McDonald’s was forced to comply and switched from lard to vegetable oil. When animal fat was proscribed as the devil, food manufacturers replaced the fat in their products with liberal doses of sugar. The rest, as they say, is history. Everyone got much fatter.

There is a story within the story too about how our dietary authorities came to accept that ‘fat makes you fat’ without any proper scientific evidence. It was the work of one very persuasive self-promoter, American physiologist Ancel Keys, who did a flawed observational study of small groups of people (none including any women) in countries which appeared to support his thesis, The Seven Countries Study. Keys belittled anyone who dared criticise his view, including the quiet British professor, John Yudkin, who wrote Pure White and Deadly about the toxic effect of too much sugar in our diet.

Keys convinced US Senator George McGovern of the rightness of his cause and McGovern’s Senate Committee published the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Scientists who produced results that did not confirm the new orthodoxy that fat did horrible things to your arteries didn’t get their papers published or didn’t get promoted. Does this ring any bells?

This is a truly global issue. The US didn’t just export disaster movies like The Towering Inferno in the 1970s, it exported its new dietary rules, outlawing animal fat and, by extension, promoting ‘fattening carbohydrates’ like bread, rice and potatoes, the very foods people up till then had been told to eat in moderation to be a healthy weight. Everywhere that highly refined carbs like flour and sugar have replaced traditional foods from the Pacific Islands to American Indian communities, obesity has followed and women have been particularly badly affected.

Women have distinct disadvantages when it comes to obesity, having ten per cent more body fat than men and less muscle which burns fat. Marriage and child-birth impact women’s weight for the worse along with the boredom that comes with being stuck at home child-rearing. Women consistently have less leisure time than men and do less exercise, notwithstanding doing much of the housework, albeit most of it anaerobic. A female yen for snacking and comfort eating a la Bridget Jones, the proliferation of calorific fast-food, less home cooking, giant-sized portions and of course bucket loads of sugar in almost everything from savoury tomato sauces to yoghurts have all played their part.

The result is that so far from aping supermodels, the average woman has never been further from the feminine ideal. In the space of 50 years, we have gone from hourglass to barrel-shape and the average woman is now less than two centimetres taller but at 75 kilos, 20 per cent heavier than she was in 1960. Even the order of magnitude of the severely obese has changed for the worse with the average severely or morbidly obese woman now 18 per cent heavier at 138 kilos.

If you thought this would be the occasion for left-wing feminists to rise up and urge their sisters to defy the bulge, you would be wrong. Inevitably perhaps, as the majority becomes overweight or obese, there comes a new aggression about being overweight or obese. So we saw one Australian group protesting against Facebook until they were allowed to put up a photograph of a large woman in a bikini to advertise a ‘fat positive’ event.

The mantra of the fat acceptance movement is ‘healthy at any weight’ which is a proposition unsustainable by hard facts and disproved by numerous studies. Any suggestion of education about obesity is invariably dismissed as ‘fat-shaming.’ The Live Lighter government television campaign which featured a sexless interior depiction of a stomach cavity of roiling fat deposits coating the major organs was criticised thus.

Obesity is the second largest preventable cause of death after smoking. In Australia, it is the primary cause of chronic disease in women. It is linked to type two diabetes, heart disease and at least ten types of cancer. Yet the left would have you believe that being fat is a new form of diversity and all shapes and sizes should be celebrated.

Their obsession with appearance or body image means that they refuse to acknowledge that there are major health costs, both to individuals and to societies. It should be a simple enough point – to remain fit and active for as long as possible we all need to maintain a healthy weight. Unfortunately, being fat and proud of it is just another strand of the left’s identity politics.

Helen Verlander is a Canberra-based writer and author of Fat is a Feminine Issue.

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