Britain’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davis is in the headlines this month for her scathing attack on “plus sized” mannequins in stores and her comments that they may be “normalizing” obesity.
The comments were made as the chief medical officer spoke about her annual report on the state of health in the UK. In the report, Professor Davis says that she is increasingly concerned by the fact that three quarters of parents who have overweight children do not recognize they aren’t just fat but obese. This might not be surprising as, the report claims, the average person in the UK is now overweight — this particularly applies to men — yet when surveyed they claim they are about the right weight. This, Professor Davis says, is a worrying gap between perception and reality that is worsening our health.
Professor Davis claims that there are a number of causes for this, but chiefly she says the media and retail sectors are playing a prominent role in driving inaccurate body perceptions. Professor Davis says she has “long been concerned that being underweight is often portrayed as the ideal weight, particularly in the fashion industry,” but at the same time also says that she is “increasingly concerned that society may be normalizing being overweight.”
An example she uses is that of shop mannequins: “Larger mannequins are being introduced into clothes shops, ‘size inflation’ means that clothes with the same size label have become larger in recent decades, and news stories about weight often feature pictures of severely obese people, which are unrepresentative of the majority of overweight people.”
To combat this, she suggested that overweight people should “get off the sofa” and do more exercise rather than watching television. She points out that people are still falling far below the target of minimum of basic activity that is recommended to keep us healthy (about 2.5 hours at least). She also suggests that the government should give serious consideration to introducing some form of a “sugar tax” if the food industry refuses to take action on its own.
Professor Davis is certainly right to be worried about the fact that people have such a poor ability to gauge their weight and where they fall on the line of what is considered a healthy weight to that of being overweight, obese, or morbidly obese.
However, slapping some of the blame on so-called “plus size” mannequins seems wrong headed. While UK stores like Debenhams have recently moved to using size 16 mannequins (US 12), which is about the size that would fit the average woman in the UK, the majority of stores in the UK still use size 8 models (US 4) or size 10 (6). The perceived normalization of being overweight, then, isn’t being seen in stores across the UK as Professor Davis seems to be claiming. At least not from shop mannequins which continue to push the “skinny is desirable” meme. So what else could be going on here?
The clothes sizing inflation is an interesting point and that does deserve further data gathering. Team this with the fact that both women and men are so used to seeing media images of what we are told our ideals should be, in the case of men, 10 percent body fat or less and in the case of women, the curious an even dangerous obsession with the “thigh gap,” they have now lost all sense of scale to make a reasonable judgment about their own bodies. This, as Professor Davis points out, is exacerbated by the media labeling morbidly obese people to talk about those who are overweight, again skewing perceptions of what it means to be just slightly overweight, bordering on obese, or morbidly obese.
Sadly, the headline bait of Professor Davis’ comments about plus size mannequins means the media is missing the more interesting and likely more relevant points. For instance, the report argues that while size 16 might frequently be classed as the average size in the UK, we must fight against it being viewed as the default healthy target because, while for some women that would of course be a healthy gauge, that size will not be appropriate for all women and could in fact mean shorter women who are that size are obese.
The report also says that the significant health problems that are associated with obesity are often under-reported by the media and are not well understood by the general public, including what it’s like to live life with conditions like type 2 diabetes. These are all vital points that deserve and need to be addressed.
There is, though, cause to reiterate that in trying to address what is admittedly a highly worrying health situation, we shouldn’t risk fueling the media’s fat shaming rhetoric because that does nothing to help women or men, and may actually turn them off from addressing their weight or helping them get an accurate picture of just what their current weight means in terms of their long term health prospects.
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