At a conference in Wellington over the past two days academics have anguished over the plight of fat people. They called their subject "Fat Studies" They regarded fat people as victims not of their own appetite nor, for once, of corporate fast food chains, but of the public health campaigns that are supposed to help them.

The campaigns portrayed such people as "enemies of the state", according to one speaker. The anti-obesity message, she said, was a form of "class war" against the poorest in society. "From government policy to media reports, fat is everywhere figured as a threat to individual, national, global health in physical, moral and economic terms."

She said fatness had featured as a concern to medicine for centuries but it was only quite recently that obesity had been defined as a disease in itself, though that status was contested. Research consistently found obesity most prevalent among the poor and disadvantaged yet the resulting campaigns concentrated on changing the habits of those at risk and did nothing to address their poverty.

The anti-obesity drive was blamed on "neoliberal ideologies" of the 1980s, which makes a change. Free market thinking is normally accused of contributing to obesity since it generally resists the restrictions that health regulators would like to place on fatty food and its promotion.


But it is coincidentally true that public health became a strident political project - expressed in new measures against smoking and for screening against some forms of cancer - at the same time that the economy was being rapidly exposed to competitive markets. That era also brought a new sensitivity in language that came to be called political correctness.

The term 'obesity' has a shock value that health professionals do not normally employ. Nobody would call themselves obese. 'Fat' was objectionable enough but 'obese' has made the word 'fat' tolerable. Fat Studies might be followed by Fat Societies, Fat Rights, Fat Freedom Day.

Fat academics are going to struggle, though, to argue their subject deserves public sympathy and funding. Eating is generally seen as the addiction that drinking, smoking or gambling can be. Sugar, fats and fast food are resistible with a will.

But the academics have a point. Health campaigns need not be cruel. People come in all sizes and those who buy XL are not a particularly unhealthy bunch. Doubtless statistics say otherwise, recording their higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes and much else, but who wants to fashion their life to health statistics?

Older people can attest that we eat more healthily today than a generation or two ago. Fast food chains might be more prevalent but the home cooking of those previous generations was possibly worse. Too much was fried in fat.

If children today are as obese as campaigners say, the reason is probably lack of activity. Earlier generations walked or biked to school, played outside at home and were allowed to roam and take risks. Today children live on computers, phones and other electronic devices.

Fat Studies should be starting there. Tempting as it is to criticise anti-obesity campaigns, if fat students seek popular sympathy for over-eaters they have fat chance.