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Obesity: confessions of a hypocrite

October 2, 2018

Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the British Labour Party. Until recently, and without much justification, I regarded him as Labour’s version of Boris Johnson: a bit of a loudmouth, something of a buffoon. Unsurprisingly, given that he’s not in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle, you don’t see him in the media that often.

A few days ago I saw a video in which he proposed a ban on on-line betting during live sporting events. Although I’m not a fan of the latest version of his party, I’m totally with him on that. I regard online gambling as socially corrosive. Though I wouldn’t ban gambling outright, I’m repelled by advertising, aimed at mainly at young men, that suggests that gambling is fun, followed by the message that “when the fun stops, stop”, a sentiment as sincere as the government health warnings on cigarette packets that were forced on the tobacco companies.

These are the same young men, presumably, whose standard of living and earning power has declined significantly since the last financial crisis, and who struggle to raise the cash for a deposit on their own homes, condemning them to live for the foreseeable future in rented accommodation. Unless, of course, the ads are targeting rich young men, with the intention of making them considerably less rich by helping them to develop a profitable (for the bookies) gambling addiction.

Addictions of any sort are not fun. Not gambling, not booze, not heroin, not even sex. They might provide a short term hit, but they’re a long-term drag. They take you over. Without them, you wander around with an unfulfilled need that sometimes causes you to do things you’d never dream of otherwise.

One such addiction is to food. Often enough people go overboard on stuff that doesn’t do them any good. Fizzy drinks, crisps, cakes, burgers. Overeating isn’t generally classified as an addiction. Try telling that to someone who would die for a kebab. Or to a cheese addict like me.

I do my best to pass no moral judgement on people who wreck their livers through drinking, empty their bank accounts to pay gambling debts or end up dead in a crack house through an overdose. Equally, I’ve always liked to think, I don’t look down on those who overeat and end up like giant sloths. How could I, a man who weighs 18 stone?

Being over six feet tall, I’m often told, usually by kindly female friends, that I “wear it well”. Not when I look sideways in the mirror, I don’t. I’m under no illusions, even if others might claim to be.

But do I think of myself as a lesser person because of my allegedly imposing physique? Absolutely not. I am what I am and I do what I do, and if that’s not enough for those around me, then they’re welcome not to do business with me, befriend me or have anything otherwise to do with me. Honestly, I don’t care.

Which brings me back to Tom Watson. Until a year ago, the first thing you noticed in unsympathetic photos was the large belly struggling to escape from his suit. Since then, he’s lost seven stone. That’s nearly a hundred pounds in US dollars, and forty-five kilos in Euros.

Watson decided to change his body shape in such a drastic manner because he developed Type 2 Diabetes. The result is spectacular. Granted, he doesn’t share the lean and hungry look of some of his colleagues on the Labour front bench, who would be on my casting shortlist to play Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But, he does look, well, normal.

Now suddenly I’m no longer seeing an Oliver Hardy lookalike, but a good-looking guy in middle age who comes over as a credible politician.

Why suddenly credible? Is it because there’s a hypocrite lurking inside me who says I can’t take seriously a politician who eats and maybe drinks too much? Is that why I can’t take other fat politicians seriously, and why I look with a combination of sympathy and contempt at grossly overweight people I see on the streets, in restaurants and in offices? Am I feeling a contempt that should actually be directed at me? Perhaps, though I’m ashamed to admit it.

Fat people are in one sense or another widely viewed as deficient. Morally weak. Shamed by society, by the media, by the medical profession. And even I, a person who should probably be subject to the same judgements, find it hard to ignore their size and shape. When I was an employer, did I hire fat people? Yes, just as I hired people from ethnic minorities and others whom “society” marks out as different.

But did those fat people rise in my company to positions equivalent to those of their “normal” colleagues? No.

I liked to think that the reason was simple. A matter of talent. But when I look back, I wonder to what extent I was driven by a sneaky prejudice: that in a sales-oriented company people bulging out of their clothes would not be as credible in front of our clients as those who fitted nicely into an off-the-shelf suit or a skirt and blouse from Topshop. The exception was me. But I was the boss, so I was allowed.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing. The powerful, who can afford the best tailors, can still get away with being fat. Think of Trump and some of his associates. These guys are middle-aged or, as in Trump’s case, positively elderly.

But now look at the CEOs of tech companies, and the politicians from Generation X and below. Scrawny gym buddies, most of them. Young models are still killing themselves to reach size zero. Young men are popping steroids in a compulsion to be ripped. Yet statisticians tell us that each successive generation is getting fatter. You see the evidence in the streets of Britain and the malls of America. Even in South East Asia, a region where a generation ago you would be hard put to see any overweight people, young or old.

Is the prejudice against fat people also a gender thing? Do powerful men assess women on the basis of sexual attractiveness? And vice versa? Absolutely, whether it’s just sex hormones at work or some hard-wired partner selection instinct that looks for people with the best genes.

And to what extent does culture come into play? Why do some cultures prize fatness in women, and others don’t? And why is it that in times of plenty we demonise obesity, whereas in lean times it was a sign of prosperity? Why is it that we celebrate fat people in some occupations – opera singers, for example, and character actors – and not others?

Go to a bookshop and you can find twenty books exploring the subject – who, why, when, where and what. Oh, and how much, because we’ve made an industry of fatness.

Speaking as a recovering hypocrite, perhaps we shouldn’t be so keen to judge others. Fat people shouldn’t look down on alcoholics. Alcoholics shouldn’t despise opioid addicts. I shouldn’t refer to Donald Trump as a walrus. Most of us have dependencies of one sort or another. Perhaps if we concentrated more on helping those who want to be helped – because not everyone wants to be rid of their addictions – and recognised more clearly our own deficiencies, we might end up a little happier ourselves.

And I sincerely wish Tom Watson a happy life, even though I suspect that his career in the Labour party may not contribute much to his future well-being.

From → Social, UK

  1. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    Well said, sir — and, as usual, well written

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