Barbara Ellen: Normal body sizes squeezed by extremes

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Davies, who also calls for a sugar tax, feels that all this makes once-shocking obesity seem unexceptional, standard, a new kind of normal. Photo / Thinkstock
Davies, who also calls for a sugar tax, feels that all this makes once-shocking obesity seem unexceptional, standard, a new kind of normal. Photo / Thinkstock

Too fat. Too thin. Don't the rest of us get a look-in?

Britain's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, worries that being overweight is in danger of being "normalised".

Davies points to "vanity sizing", larger shop mannequins, cheap drink, big portions, supermarket bulk buys and news stories featuring photos of the morbidly obese, making the overweight feel (comparatively) slim.

Davies, who also calls for a sugar tax, feels that all this makes once-shocking obesity seem unexceptional, standard, a new kind of normal. Maybe, but with this ongoing polarised focus on extremes of body shape, could it also be true that we're losing sight of what normal is?

There is a complex backdrop to what Davies says.

First, if obesity is being normalised, this is at least preferable to the "fat-shaming" that still goes on, making the lives of countless overweight adults and children a daily misery.

Then there are economic concerns. For many food and drink outlets, and their customers, value for money isn't a marketing conceit, it's a necessity.

Likewise, clothes shops find themselves stuck between a retail rock and a hard place: criticised for using skinny mannequins (promoting food disorders), but also for using bigger ones (patronising their customers).

Regarding vanity sizing (or size inflation), I'd wager that these days very few people are duped by it, never mind flattered. It's more likely that they'd be extremely irritated to be different sizes from shop to shop.

As for news reports, why shouldn't heavy people be featured if they are relevant to the story? Should the obese be hidden in the shadows, like society's grubby not-so-little secret?

Even if the overweight are being normalised, is this the whole story? Sometimes, it seems as if both ends of the extreme size spectrum are being normalised: that there is a relentless battle raging between the pro-underweight and the pro-overweight to inhabit the centre ground, to fly the flag for "normal".

There's one camp (fashion advertising, media, and beyond), promoting and glamorising the very thin, as if this were the only acceptable and desirable way to look.

These are the ones who creepily purr: "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels", until you feel like holding them down and force-feeding them fondant fancies.

At the other extreme, there are the dangerously (health-wise) overweight, who aren't slow to employ their own thin-shaming techniques, talking about "tooth-pick" women who are not "real", all the while placating themselves that they are "not so big, not these days".

Bizarrely, while all this is going on, "normal-size" people, those with middling but unspectacular BMIs, don't get a look in. Even though they are supposed to be the universally desired and healthy size, they are barely focused on or discussed. Somehow, between all the noise and hoopla, the recriminations and counter-recriminations, of too skinny versus too fat, size normal becomes all but forgotten.

Maybe this could just be put down to human nature - it makes a dark kind of sense that eyes would always be drawn to the extremes of the weight debate.

It would certainly be a surprise to see Supersize vs Superskinny bumped off the TV schedules by a programme called "Someone mildly overweight versus someone slightly underweight". It ain't gonna happen.

However, shouldn't we at least factor this weirdness in, acknowledge that the obsessive focus on the polarisation of extreme BMIs (high and low) is the thing being most "normalised" here? That increasingly, all we see and hear about are the very thin and the very fat, as if these are the only two body shapes available.

All of which must surely have an effect - skewing people's views of what is genuinely fat or thin or, more importantly, healthy or unhealthy.

While "normalising the overweight" is indeed a concern, it doesn't do to presume this is the only kind of damaging normalisation out there.

Barbara Ellen writes for the Observer in London.

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