In her usual abrasive style, Katie Hopkins’ latest click-bait project is ‘to fat and back’ – she is putting on 3.5 stone in weight and will then lose it again, to show us how easy weight loss is and how there is no excuse for being fat. Some journalists appear to think there is something in it whilst others are a little more sceptical.
To me it seems obesity isn’t a simple matter of will power. You can’t will yourself thin any more than you can will yourself out of depression or addiction. The evidence shows diets don’t work, and once obese it is very hard to revert to lower weights again and sustain it. It is much better to aim for a healthier diet and lifestyle than a smaller body. And despite widespread understanding that fatness is associated with poor health outcomes, it is very hard to change, and often reinforced by stigma and shame. Your ability to change the pattern will depend on how long it has been around, your biology and what caused it to start in the first place, as well as your commitment to change, support network and what else is going on in your life. In Clinical Psychology we look at the biological, psychological and social contributors to particular behaviours or symptoms and make a formulation of how these interplay, so it is frustrating when people with no expertise pronounce easy solutions which ignore these factors.
If a thin person with very negative ideas about obesity puts on weight for three months, they will find it unpleasant, find losing weight rewarding, and have all the previous factors that made them thin before to revert to. If she is being filmed and paid then she has financial and performance pressures to succeed also, her reputation and career to maintain, as well as a wardrobe to return to. She has the metabolism, muscle tone, neurochemistry and lifestyle of a slimmer person. Will three months change that? She has people around her who expect her to be active and slim, and will support her returning to that familiar mould. And when losing weight she has the money for personal trainers, gym memberships and healthy food (if not diet systems and products) and the sense of herself as a thin person who is capable of exercise.
It’s a million miles away from being a chronically obese person and trying to lose the same amount of weight. To pretend this is a serious experiment that will tell us something about how to lose weight is playing at a serious issue. It reminds me of Pulp’s Common People.
A real obese person has a lifetime of thoughts and feelings about their body, and the perceptions others have of them. They carry internalised shame and self-criticism that associates fat with laziness, gluttony, lack of willpower, and lack of self-respect. They probably avoid eating in public, or showing their body shape. They might not feel comfortable going to places where attention is drawn to their size, or they would stand out compared to thinner, fitter people – like gyms, swimming pools, or exercise classes (because statistically the people who you see there most are the fittest people, and not other new starters or people who find it hard, because these attend less and are more likely to drop out over time, whilst health/success is self-sustaining).
And the weight may have many origin stories that are tied in to uncomfortable issues they wish to avoid thinking about or haven’t yet resolved. They may have put on weight after a trauma or loss, during a pregnancy, or to insulate themselves from the world, or because food is the only pleasure in their life. They might comfort eat because feeding is tied in to their experiences of nurture. The origins of the ACEs study show is that morbid obesity is associated with severe early trauma, with 55% of patients in a bariatric surgery clinic disclosing childhood sexual abuse (usually incest). It can be a form of slow suicide, or a daily process of numbing out the pain and yet unwittingly reinforcing the body shame that they experience.
Or it can have less extreme causes. The individual might be ignorant about healthy eating, or have other lifestyle constraints that make healthy eating harder, like poverty or chronic sleep deprivation, or a family/peer group that consume huge amounts of calories (whether the 20 pint weekend, the endless cake in the office, massive portions or regular takeaways being delivered). They might have health conditions or disabilities that make exercise or even activity difficult. They may have developed psychological and neurochemical reward pathways for their eating pattern. They may feel shamed by the societal pressures to conform to what is considered attractive in the airbrushed models on glossy magazines and find thinking about losing weight a painful and ever-present topic (see this paper by Ratcliffe and Ellison last year). On the other hand, they may be ambivalent about weight loss. Their partners, parents, friends or kids may be used to their shape and habits, or even like it. They may have had many experiences of previous attempts at weight-loss that have been unsuccessful or were quickly regained. Change in many circumstances is really hard to make, and harder to sustain.
Every obesity story is different. I know people who feel they need to be heavier than a past abuser or dominating partner, so they can’t be pushed around again. I know people who want a layer of protection against a dangerous world. I know people who want fat deeper than a knife blade is long, in case they are attacked again. I know people who want to deter any sexual attention. I know people too anxious to leave their house to shop or exercise, or too poor to afford fruit and veg or to pay for fuel to cook with. I know serotonin junkies where food is their drug of choice. I know exhausted people who fend off tiredness with sugar. I know of people who eat because they are under stress. I know a lot of unhappy people who don’t think they deserve better, or could ever be attractive or physically fit. I know people who are hopeless about ever losing weight (often within a wider sense of hopelessness about their lives). I know people who have spent their whole lives being fat and living a lifestyle constrained by that fat – tired, big, heavy and excluded from physical activities. Mocked at every turn. Excluded from aspects of society. Disempowered. Weight loss is categorically different from that starting point, and it is not just naive but wilfully ignorant to pretend otherwise.
Of course, I also know people who like being fat, have come to accept themselves as they are, or who see their weight as a very low priority in life. There are women who enjoy defying what they see as body fascism or sexist expectations about women’s appearance, or who simply see their curves as sexy. I can see the appeal in filtering away the shallow people who care about how people look more than who they are and what they do. And I’m aware that BMI is a blunt tool for measuring obesity, as it ignores body composition and scores people with high levels of muscle as equivalently “unhealthy” to those with little muscle, despite the positive differences in health that resistance exercise is known to make.
Katie won’t be happy being fat, and maybe it will give her some perspective about how judged and self conscious people feel when they are overweight. Maybe she’ll show some hitherto hidden empathy or concern for others apart from herself, but I doubt it. The promotional spots so far suggest the usual dose of hubris and ignorance, carefully engineered to provide publicity. I see this program as part of our obsession with celebrity and appearance, and the tendency to discuss serious issues (especially those affecting women primarily) with no depth. Hopkins has become the mouthpiece of internalised sexism; the pervasive belief that women need to be decorative rather than functional to be of value, and therefore shouldn’t think about issues beyond their own appearance and judging the appearance of others. She is also a caricature “baddy” that earns her living by being controversial, and by saying things that are not socially acceptable but that reinforce the wider narratives of the organisations that give her air or column space, who like to blame the individual and turn attention away from the real underlying socio-political causes.
Finally, I am reminded of a line that is helpful to think to yourself when experiencing playground bullies: I’d rather have my weight than your attitude. For all the challenges involved in losing weight, it’s still easier than changing personality or gaining empathy after years as a callous, judgemental, self-serving, attention seeking provocateur.