It’s been a funny old week for health stories in the UK media. In The Guardian, one of my most go-to news websites, we had stories about both obesity and alcohol use: both pieces claimed that these two things caused harm and that there were real dangers for individuals who either had a very high bodyweight or who drank more than a very small amount of alcohol.
But the reactions to these two pieces were really, REALLY different. (Can you guess how? Here’s a hint: we have a hugely judgemental attitude towards one kind of “health risk” and a quite frighteningly defensive, screw you attitude towards the other.)
On the one hand we had another piece about obesity, which claimed that body positivity movements are damaging to people’s health, and that obesity is a real health risk. Lizzie Cernick in the Guardian argued, in response to the outcry about Cancer Research UK’s advertising campaign that targeted awareness of the possible carcinogenic effects of obesity, that:
“While nobody should ever be bullied for their weight or food choices, it’s important to make a distinction between health awareness and cruelty.
Public health campaigns are not designed to flatter people’s egos, but to raise awareness about potential health dangers…Whether we want to gorge on 3kg of chocolate… or line our lungs with carcinogenic tar, informed adults are free to make their own choices. But while your own body is your business, actively encouraging unhealthy lifestyle choices and denying health risks in a public space isn’t promoting body positivity – it’s just giving the green light to different kinds of eating disorders.”
Now I’m going to assume that Cernick is an intelligent and sane human who knows full well that most overweight people don’t sit around “gorging on 3kg of chocolate” on the regular, because that would make her an ill-informed nitwit whose ideas about food, body shape and body image were formed by watching a Little Britain sketch. But it’s not so much Cernick’s original piece I was surprised by: it was the commentators below the line who really got stuck in. Look at them go, riding in on their high horses of “how very dare you get chunky: don’t you know I PERSONALLY PAY FOR YOUR NHS, YOU SLOVENLY BAD-DECISION-MAKING MORALLY WEAK DOLT?”
A verbatim sample:
- Not to mention it is crippling the NHS. 10% of the budget of NHS England & Wales is spent on type 2 diabetes.
- As we have a taxpayer funded health system we should all care about how much other people weigh.
- It should be the fat people who should take responsibility for their own weight not the NHS !
- Yes people’s bodies are their own business , but the repair of them when they need the NHS is all our business.
- The NHS and welfare system cannot and should not be expected to use an inordinately large proportion of their resources on a group of people who have allowed this to happen to themselves.
Now, just for fun, have a quick guess as to what the very same Guardianista commentariat had to say about the following article, published in the same 7-day period but this time revealing research that concludes that there is increasing evidence that even what we see as “moderate drinking” is a huge health risk, including:
“rais[ing] the risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm (a ruptured artery in the chest), heart failure and death.
The risks for a 40-year-old of drinking over the recommended daily limit were comparable to smoking, said one leading scientist. “Above two units a day, the death rates steadily climb,” said David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge.”
Logic would dictate that the same fervour would apply to this piece too, right? People have no right to put a strain on the NHS because they selfishly drink too much? As we have a taxpayer funded health system we should all care about how much other people drink?
Nah, not a bit of it. Here’s a few, again verbatim, samples of the clutched pearls below the line:
- At age 68 life holds fewer plasures as you have pretty well been there and done that. As a non smoker, I enjoy a glass of beer or wine and if I have to trade off a few years, that is just fine with me.
- Christ the Guardian is being condescending to the middle class now!
- There is far too much of this rubbish. So a glass of wine is as bad for you as 5 cigarettes? So a glass of wine shortens your life by half an hour? This kind of pseudo statistics is false and is irresponsible. The only purpose it serves is to alarm.
- The author needs to be reminded, I believe, that the point of life is not to avoid all health risks. And that Puritans also die.
- I enjoy the taste of a decent beer, and as a bonus it makes this middle-aged grump a little more sociable. I don’t want to be chastised for drinking more than five pints a week.
- You are correct I’m sure. However I choose to ignore you and will carry on shortening my lifespan with lovely wine.
- I’m under no illusion that drinking is harmful. But so is breathing because this oxidises our bodies and causes the ageing process. Life is a terminal condition so just bog off and leave people to enjoy their lives the best they can.
Houston, we have a cognitive dissonance.
I mean, I read five pages of comments and barely one mentioned the NHS, or the shared social responsibility of keeping ourselves healthy, or the “self-inflicted medical problems causing a burden on others” line so often trotted out when issues of BMI crop up on the Guardian. Instead, the high horses were saddled up and ridden full tilt against the evils of the Nanny State and officious “experts” daring to suggest that “drinking more than five glasses of wine or beer a week could shorten your life and that the risks for a 40-year-old drinking over the limit were comparable with smoking.”
Now, I’m not highly qualified in any of the medical, biological or epidemiological research areas that would enable me to get stuck into the statistical accuracy of either piece. But I can’t escape the feeling that these are PRETTY MUCH THE SAME ISSUE: things we consume, the lifestyles we lead, the choices we make can have real-world medical consequences. By definition, those medical consequences have implications for the UK’s National Health Service. But the responses to “too much food and drink can make you unhealthily large” and “too much drink can make you unhealthily very sick and then dead” seemed to be coming from completely different worlds. (And yes, of course I realise that these sample comments are not from exactly the same people…but I do think that there is meaningful comparison to be drawn from what is a very similar demographic: people who read the same newspaper who care enough to comment on health and wellbeing stories. And the dominant tone of comments on weight issues is often shaming and blaming, whereas the dominant tone of comments on drinking issues is often defiant and fist-waving-at-the-nanny-state.)
We absolutely do live in a toxic world where thin bodies are idealised, medium bodies are problematized and fat bodies are shamed, scorned and mocked. Maybe that’s why people who comment on newspaper articles pertaining to weight feel that they have the right to crudely, haughtily aim a kick at those they see as lacking in self-discipline and personal responsibility. But we also live in a world where wine is marketed as a glorious relaxant after a hard day, beer is the golden nectar of social good times, and gin or whisky is a marker of great taste and sophistication. Maybe that’s why the suggestion that the amount that many, many of us drink is probably A Bad Thing provokes a reaction similar to that of a grumpy teenager being asked to spend five seconds away from their iPhone: god, Mum, you totally spoil all my fun, stop bothering me, shut up, oh my god, you don’t know anything, I hate you.
In any case, it’s worth remembering that the environment in which so many of us are trying to shake the booze is steeped in the sheer hypocrisy of people who take time to go onto a mainstream news website and shout that “fat = ew, gross, do something about it, take some responsibility” and “excessive drinking = my goddamn human right and choice because I’m a cool rebel who’s enjoying my one life. Ya big boring puritan.”