Last week, EMAP announced the return of Celebrity Bodies magazine. The title was launched two years ago and was immediately condemned by then Minister for Women Tessa Jowell for encouraging dieting and contributing to eating disorders among young women. Celebrity Bodies’ stated aim was to provide readers with advice on “how to get a celebrity body” and it featured articles on how to slim down from a size 12 to a size eight. The magazine was withdrawn.
Last week Channel 4 joined the anti-diet chorus, screening a documentary about children as young as nine years old who diet obsessively and go to the gym. The programme was particularly powerful because it focused on children and their “loss of innocence” – eating disorders aren’t supposed to occur in Narnia and Neverland.
The theme of this programme – like the row over Celebrity Bodies – is that the media and marketing industries are helping to create a diet-obsessed self-loathing population.
When I was a child, mealtimes were war without the carpet-bombing. You ate with your fork and defended your plate with your knife. My diet was restricted to Alphabetti Spaghetti, Findus Crispy Pancakes and Spam, which my mother occasionally gave the exotic name of “bacon grill”.
My family’s serial food boycotts lay behind this limited range. Every food purchase involved a moral choice. Our family were forbidden to buy US (during the Vietnam war), Spanish (when Franco was in power) Chilean, South African and Israeli produce. My mother once accidentally bought a tin of South African pineapple chunks. A lengthy debate about the moral implications of eating followed. It was decided that as the purchase had already been made and the kids were on the verge of developing scurvy – all of the countries we boycotted happened to be major fruit producers – that the blood-stained fruit should be eaten, but not enjoyed.
I blame excessive consumer activism for the fact that I have to wear Cuban heels in order to qualify for the rides at Chessington World of Adventures.
For years, I thought that my restricted childhood eating was the major contributing factor to my lifelong obsession with diet. But the truth is that it has little to do with my upbringing, or the influence of the media for that matter.
The anti-diet establishment grew out of feminism in the Seventies, and the seminal book Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach.
Orbach’s basic argument was and is that people – mainly women – diet because the media, marketing and advertising industries distort their image of themselves and force them to try to become slim.
In this view, dieting is not a matter of health, but rather one of looks. It places responsibility for obesity and eating disorders on cultural producers, rather than consumers. Her answer is not to diet, but to “eat when you are hungry”. She and other anti-diet writers further support the view that being fat is acceptable. This view absolves people of personal responsibility for looking after their bodies, and has become orthodox in the media and among policy makers.
This view is not only wrong, but dangerous. The real reason we have become so obsessed with our bodies is not that the media has decided that we should be, but that we are simply getting fatter. According to the latest statistics, more than half of the women and two-thirds of the men in the UK are overweight.
It’s a bad thing not only because of the physical health problems associated with obesity, but also because of the psychological problems that come with not feeling good about yourself. This is not a matter of conforming to an idealised image of beauty constructed by the media, but one of conforming to an idealised view of health determined on many levels.
The reason we are fat has nothing to do with marketing, or media images, but because we are more affluent than ever before. Our diet is not restricted by availability and we have an unprecedented choice of food.
But this is not what makes the anti-diet lobby dangerous. The real danger is that their analysis focuses on the media and marketing and denies our congenital tendency to overconsume.
Because of their emphasis on environmental factors – the media, marketing and advertisers’ influence – Orbach and others in the anti-diet establishment deny our urge to eat too much.
It is this tendency to eat and drink to excess that makes dieting a necessary part of modern life in an affluent society. Dieting is not the problem, rather it’s a failure to diet. People who don’t diet continuously tend to go for quick fixes such as pills, surgery and bizarre food-group diets like the Dr Atkins, “eat as much lard as you can” diet.
The result is that most people who claim to be “on a diet” are not. They diet sporadically as an impulse brought on by guilt, or make token gestures towards weight-loss, hence the high sales of Diet Coke and MÃÂ¼ller Light.
In reality, I am so obsessed with diet because I, like the majority of the British population, have a cultural tendency to drink too much alcohol and eat too many fatty foods and a congenital tendency to eat and drink anything that is put in front of me.
The extent of dietary choice and the relative cheapness of food means that dieting must be an essential part of our everyday lives. If children think about diet and exercise at an early age and plan to go on lifelong diets in order to fight their urges, this can only be a good thing.
Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook