Psychology

Dear London Anti-Obesity Campaign, This Is How You Do It. Love, Florence.

I am fat.

If you’d asked me as a teenager whether I thought I’d grow up to be fat, I would have laughed in your face. I was anorexic, you see. At age 19 I was wearing clothes meant for 7-8-year-olds.

I have never had a good relationship with food. 

Talking about that with people who have never had food-related problems usually elicits pure puzzlement. To them, food is so simple. You just eat enough of it to keep you alive, plus a bit more sometimes if you’re feeling indulgey, or a bit less sometimes if you happen to skip a meal for some reason. But it’s not, like, a thing. It’s just eating. It comes naturally, like breathing or sleeping. Both of which I’m also not great at, actually, but that’s another story. I’ve mainly stopped talking to people about food, because those who don’t understand don’t understand, and those who do understand too well.

It’s not just a problem with food in the disordered eating sense, though. It’s also some kind of physical problem: my body (and my mother’s, and my grandmother’s, and my aunt’s) doesn’t digest food like it’s supposed to. We’re not sure exactly why, because when you’re fat and you go to the doctor and say “My body isn’t digesting food properly and I can’t lose weight” they tell you to eat less pizza and do more exercise, even if you’ve already told them you’re eating vegetables and swimming every day. They just don’t believe you. It’s exhausting.

They don’t believe you even if not believing you about something else recently led to you nearly dying and them having to issue an apology.

There’s all this narrative around losing weight that focuses on making fat people feel bad for being fat. A lot of us already do. While the body positive community exists, and there are plenty of people out there who are happy to be fat, many of us aren’t. But it’s often not as simple to lose weight when you’re fat as it is to lose a bit of weight when you’re more averagely sized. In order to get to the point of obesity, there’s probably something going on that’s a little bit beyond the norm, whether it’s financial troubles that make it harder to afford healthy food; or an eating disorder that’s morphed from anorexia into something else; or a messed-up digestive system; or a combination of several things.

Trying to make people feel ashamed and lose weight because of it doesn’t work. This has been demonstrated time and time again, yet still the anti-obesity campaigns in England yell at fat people to just lose the pounds. It feels like these signs are pointing and shouting as you walk down the street.

“Hey!” it seems to say, “If fat people just stopped eating fries, they’d stop being fat!”

Oh how I wish it worked like that.

For some people it probably does. For others it definitely doesn’t. In order to lose any weight at all I need to put myself on a diet of under 900 calories per day. That’s what they call a “starvation diet”. And while I’m doing that I also need to exercise twice a day at the gym. That’s very tiring when you’re eating so few calories.

Then when I go to the doctor, they tell me off for not eating enough. So I start eating 1200-1500 calories per day again, and then I gain weight, and then I go back to the doctor, and they tell me off for being fat. It’s like you can’t win.

Recently some body stuff has happened that means I might finally be listened to, so I’m going to the doctor tomorrow to see if we might be able to get this digestive problem sorted out, so that I could eat a normal amount, do a normal amount of exercise, and lose weight. The ultimate dream. In the meantime London’s obesity campaign has been toned down, following a lot of criticism.

I am skeptical about the usefulness of campaigns like these, to say the least. But while I was in Florence I went for a walk in the countryside, and I noticed how they do it. And it’s great. It’s positive. It’s encouraging. It makes you feel good for being outside and doing exercise, rather than like a blight on the landscape who should be ashamed of their size.

The first thing I noticed was this little map. As you can probably see, I was on a small road in the countryside. I’d turned right out of my hotel and started wandering around in the middle of nowhere, and I was enjoying myself but I had no idea where I was. So when I saw a map I went over to take a look. This showed a couple of possible routes to take.

Then I looked at the other side of the map.

This is so much better than the Cancer Research obesity campaign for a few reasons.

Firstly, It’s in a place where people are probably already doing exercise, and it acknowledges that rather than trying to shame them while they’re getting on the train to work.

It doesn’t scream “FAT PEOPLE ARE BAD AND THEY’D BE BETTER IF THEY JUST DIDN’T EAT CHIPS”. The writing is small but readable, and it’s undramatic. It states facts rather than making value judgements.

There’s a subtle but important linguistic difference. In the London campaign, the message was “Obesity causes cancer”. This makes it sound like if you’re fat, you kind of deserve cancer, especially when they team it with pictures of fast food. This sign just says “Prevention of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, asthma, diabetes and osteoporosis.” Obesity is listed as a medical condition that can be eased or prevented by exercising regularly. Framing it as a medical condition – which it is, by the way – makes it sound less judgemental and makes you more likely to read on even if you have one of the conditions listed on the sign.

It gives incentives in the form of points from the map: If you start here, then by the time you reach Romite you will have done 2,500 steps. That’s nice for a couple of reasons: first of all, the ultimate goal is 10,000 steps, but it doesn’t give you that one in case you can’t get there for some reason. Instead it gives you the point you’ll reach at 2,500 steps, and when you get there it gives you the point for the next 2,500, and so on. That seems fun, like a walking treasure hunt, rather than like someone’s standing behind you with a whip.

These little red people pop up on signs throughout the walk to spur you on.

It acknowledges that you may have done some of the work already: perhaps you’ve walked 10,000 steps today. Great! It implies. Now do a few stretches to cool down. Nothing about not having a nice glass of wine – we’re in Italy, after all – and no shaming about food or habits. Just a feeling of achievement.

And that is how you motivate people to do stuff: not with shame, but with enthusiasm.

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