Why cycle campaigners need to retire the obesity crisis argument

Another guest blog from Jenny, aka Mrs Banging-On-About-Bikes. As always, with anything I write, I ask that you read with an open heart and open mind and consider what you can do to make the world a more compassionate and inclusive place ✌

On Saturday 13 October I accompanied Nick to London for a day trip as he’d been invited to speak at the Stop Killing Cyclists National Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist. You can read his account of the day here. There were a couple of moments during and after that day that brought to the surface something I’ve long been aware of, but that has been bubbling up and over of late, and causing me quite a bit of anxiety and unease. Nick’s invited me to guest-blog about it, so here I am.

On that day in London, as we were waiting for the procession to begin, I noticed at least one fellow protester riding a bike festooned with cardboard signs declaring cycling to be a panacea for our ‘crises’ of obesity/inactivity, etc. Later, one of the speakers again mentioned the ‘obesity crisis’ and put forward cycling and walking as effective tools in waging the war against this and other critical issues. There had also been a brief and unpleasant encounter with a London cabbie, who felt it was appropriate to pull up alongside the hearse and coffin (which, for all he knew, contained an actual dead person) and begin to aggressively criticise cyclists (“it’s your own fault you’re dying, the way you ride around, bleat bleat bleat…”)

Well. Because I hate narrow-mindedness, and hate bullies even more, I had a good old rant right back in his face and eventually he drove away. (That mostly involved me telling him to act his age and asking if his Mother hadn’t taught him any manners.) That wasn’t before Nick took a photo of the incident though, and later posted it on Twitter…

There’s me on the left with the backpack. There’s a cabbie jabbing his rude-person finger at me on the right. But what came then? Well, this came then….

  • “I feel bad for that guy. It can’t be comfortable being so hideously overweight, stressy and unfit. It’s a job with quite flexible hours so maybe he could work some cycling and/or yoga into his day?”
  • “The saddest thing is someone in his current physical state should not be getting aggravated… 🤔 high risk of stroke or cardiac arrest springs to mind. 😔”
  • “You can see he doesn’t do much exercise behind that wheel.”
  • “A car dweller in need of exercise.”
  • “Let’s hope he never has to look down while driving”
  • “Forget the fat fool let him spout his waffle he won’t be around for long given his lifestyle choice”

And here’s what I thought to myself:

Oof. What the heck? I’m a fat person. I’m pretty sure I’m obese by NHS standards. Why do all these people hate fat people so much? And why is fatness what’s wrong with this cabbie? Why on earth aren’t his horrible views and aggressive (and dangerous given he drives a huge hunk of metal around for a living) behaviour the problem here? I’ve been cycling for 15+ years, vegan for 11 years, am a committed environmentalist, and care a lot about sustainable cities and transport – so why do I feel like the one being attacked here? It didn’t make much sense to me. And it was hurtful. It fed right into a whole lot of horrible cultural rhetoric about fat people and their revolting, burdensome fat bodies that does real harm to people, and that has personally battered my mental health with ferocity on many occasions since I was around 11 years old.

So, what’s this really all about, and how can we give the conversation a more compassionate, relevant, and constructive tone?

Using the word fat

A majestic fatty. From Pixabay. Thanks Pixabay.

The more perceptive and/or sensitive among you might have noticed that I have been casually tossing the word fat around to refer both to myself and to other people. That might even strike you as contradictory given that I’m suggesting we should stop criticising people for their body size/shape. Here’s my take on the word fat: it’s a descriptor. It’s like tall or short or thin or red-haired or blue-eyed and so on. I prefer not to call myself plus size or curvy or whatever else, because personally I don’t think that being fat is a bad thing, and my life became a lot simpler and more bearable when I began to accept this and, consequently, began to accept myself.

I am, quite objectively, fat, and I don’t mind the word at all. But some people do, and I wouldn’t blame them one bit for that. The word fat has been weaponised and used as an insult for a long, long time. And when the conversation around you is one that tells you “fat is bad fat is bad fat is bad” then you internalise that stuff, and it can be super hard to unlearn. Therefore, if you choose to call yourself fat or plus size or curvy or ‘big’ or whatever, that’s fine. And if you’re a thin person, just take someone else’s lead and try not to call them anything that’s gonna hurt their feelings. That’s pretty basic manners, hey? But, as always, I provide further reading, so if you want to read more:

The problem with ‘obesity’ and the ‘obesity crisis’

In mid-September 2018, Michael Hobbes wrote a viral piece for the Huffington Post called “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong“.

And. The internet. Lost. Its. Shit.

The internet was Not Pleased.

Here’s what Michael Hobbes said:

“For decades, the medical community has ignored mountains of evidence to wage a cruel and futile war on fat people, poisoning public perception and ruining millions of lives.”

AND THE WORLD DID NOT LIKE THIS! This is what the world thought was happening:

By Rachele Cateyes. Who is a wonderful human being.

But for those people who actually bothered to read Hobbes’ article (which was, arguably, taken more seriously on account of being written by a thin man) might have picked up on some very valid points based on some very valid Science and Facts. The article wasn’t perfect, but it tried very hard and is worth a look. Here’s a summary of Hobbes’ key points:

🐖 Public health rhetoric and/or policy is NOT always based on what is correct or actually safe or helpful, and there are myriad historical examples of this.

  • “Every discovery in public health, no matter how significant, must compete with the traditions, assumptions and financial incentives of the society implementing it.”

🐖 ‘Obesity’ (fatness) has continually been framed as a personal failing and a Bad Thing by the medical industry, including our National Health Service, upon which fat people are a terrible burden.

  • “Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength. It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good.”

🐖 Diet-culture is big business, and it wants to remain big business, profiting off the continued self-disgust of fat folks.

  • “….the fear of becoming fat, or staying that way, drives Americans to spend more on dieting every year than we spend on video games or movies. Forty-five percent of adults say they’re preoccupied with their weight some or all of the time—an 11-point rise since 1990. Nearly half of 3- to 6- year old girls say they worry about being fat.”

🐖 The stigma of being fat is more dangerous to health than simply being fat. (Source one and two.)

  • “The emotional costs are incalculable. I have never written a story where so many of my sources cried during interviews, where they double- and triple-checked that I would not reveal their names, where they shook with anger describing their interactions with doctors and strangers and their own families.”

🐖 The first big secret: Diets have a terrible success rate. The research bears this out. And your doctor knows it, and Weight Watchers sure as hell knows it.

  • “Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost. The reasons are biological and irreversible. As early as 1969, research showed that losing just 3 percent of your body weight resulted in a 17 percent slowdown in your metabolism—a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life.”

🐖 The second big secret: low weight is not always the same as good health.

  • “Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter.”

🐖 Fat people are popularly represented in really horrible/harmful or completely absent ways.

  • “So many images you see in articles about obesity strip fat people of their strength and personality. According to a recent study, only 11 percent of large people depicted in news reports were wearing professional clothing. Nearly 60 percent were headless torsos.”

🐖 Medical professionals discriminate against fat patients for entirely Not Okay reasons.

  • “Doctors have shorter appointments with fat patients and show less emotional rapport in the minutes they do have. Negative words—“noncompliant,” “overindulgent,” “weak willed”—pop up in their medical histories with higher frequency. In one study, researchers presented doctors with case histories of patients suffering from migraines. With everything else being equal, the doctors reported that the patients who were also classified as fat had a worse attitude and were less likely to follow their advice. And that’s when they see fat patients at all: In 2011, the Sun-Sentinel polled OB-GYNs in South Florida and discovered that 14 percent had barred all new patients weighing more than 200 pounds.”

🐖 Fat people are discriminated against at work too.

  • “Research consistently finds that larger Americans (especially larger women) earn lower salaries and are less likely to be hired and promoted. In a 2017 survey, 500 hiring managers were given a photo of an overweight female applicant. Twenty-one percent of them described her as unprofessional despite having no other information about her. What’s worse, only a few cities and one state (nice work, Michigan) officially prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of weight.”

🐖 Fat people often hate themselves so much that they end up in abusive relationships.

  • “A 2017 survey found that 89 percent of obese adults had been bullied by their romantic partners. Emily, the counselor, says she spent her teens and 20s “sleeping with guys I wasn’t interested in because they wanted to sleep with me.” In her head, a guy being into her was a rare and depletable resource she couldn’t afford to waste…”

And on and on and on….. There’s a whole lot of solid research cited in the article and I invite you to check it all out. There’s a huge list of studies and research here too, if you’re interested: The Fat Nutritionist.

The point is that the very concept and representation of ‘obesity’ is problematic, and the notion that fat people are gluttonous slobs with no self-control who are causing a crisis for our healthcare system is simply false. But because these ideas are so pervasive, they continue to shape both public opinion and national policy and prevent relevant research being carried out into the reasons why people of all sizes might be getting sicker or might not have access to whole foods or who might not have the opportunity to engage in physical activities (like poverty for example).

Using the (very pathologised and medicalised) term ‘obesity’ has the effect of othering fat people. It makes them a burden, a problem to be solved. It tells them that the very flesh on their bones is the cause of a global crisis. And when the research is telling us time and time again that shaming doesn’t work and dieting doesn’t work then telling people these things is at best unkind and at worst damaging and irresponsible.

Being a fat cyclist and being a fat vegan

Nick and I often comment on some of the overlaps between anti-cycling rhetoric and anti-vegan rhetoric. Some of the arguments are almost identical. And this is relevant and ironic in equal measure because fat-shaming is also used as a particularly unpleasant tool of recruitment for many vegan campaigners and cycle campaigners alike. Allow me to present the first book I ever read about veganism around 11 years ago:

Yes, this is a book about veganism and not a diet book. I’m sure. I read it cover to cover, and it was most certainly despite the old self-loathing that it awoke deep in the heart of me that I actually took some notice of the horrible truths about the dairy industry, and shortly afterward made the leap from vegetarianism to veganism. And……I didn’t magically become thin. It just didn’t happen. I often cook from scratch, I enjoy all the good kinds of fruits and vegetables alongside cake and fortnightly chippy chips, all this is true. I felt pretty sure I wasn’t ‘doing vegan’ wrong because I wasn’t consuming any animal products, and I haven’t (intentionally) since. (I’ve written quite a bit about being fat and vegan and you can read about it here and here. TL;DR there is plenty of fat-shaming in the vegan community, just like everywhere else.)

Curiously, a similar thing happened when I started regularly commuting by bike in my mid-twenties. I hope Nick’s not too ashamed if I admit that I simply toddled along to Halfords and bought a reasonably cheapo hybrid for the purpose of getting to and from work. I didn’t get thin then either; I stayed more or less the same size. In fact, the only thing that ever made a difference to the number on my scales was dangerous and unsustainable  low-calorie dieting that meant I engaged in behaviours that would be deemed problematic in someone thin, but which were applauded by everyone around me when I engaged in them.

But sure enough, every time I lost 3-4 stone, it would creep back. Even if I cycled everywhere. Which I did. In fact, for years and years I travelled almost everywhere on my trusty two wheels powered only by my own fat self. This only changed in late 2017 when I received a diagnosis of CFS/ME and began to experience symptoms of persistent muscle weakness. So I sold my (by then Pinnacle) hybrid, and bought myself a handsome Raleigh e-bike, and I got my freedom back.

And, believe it or not, I promise you that there are lots and lots and lots of fat and ‘obese’ cyclists out there. And dancers and more dancers and hikers and yogis and Iron-Manners and all types of people who are fat and who enjoy moving their body around in the same way so many thin people do. And you know that there are plenty of thin and sick people out there too, right? And that there are plenty of super fit gym-goers who travel everywhere in what Nick affectionately refers to as a wankpanzer. You know that too, right? And that there are almost endless possibilities on the spectrum between all of these?

And on the vegan side, I could say that there are plenty of super fit and/or healthy meat eaters. I could also say that there are sick vegans. Veganism has many benefits to the environment and to animal welfare and there is simply no need to make it about weight loss or health, two very personal things, and two empty promises.

Ultimately, selling a worthwhile change by advertising it as something it’s not is three things:

  1. Damaging.
  2. Alienating.
  3. Bound to fail.

Play the ball, not the (straw) man

From Pixabay, Thanks Pixabay.

I understand that it must feel tempting as a cycle campaigner to wheel out the old Obesity Crisis debate (pun unintended). It’s an ever-present soundbite right now and and a convenient way to package cycling as a public health priority and obligation. However. The truth is just this:

  • Many people will cycle and stay fat.
  • Many fat people will feel alienated by this rhetoric which frames them as the Dreaded Obese.
  • Many thin folks will continue to drive their wankpanzers to the gym and back and not understand how any of it concerns them.

When campaigning for better cycling/walking infrastructure, there are so many excellent benefits to focus on:

  • Air quality.
  • Environment/climate change.
  • Cost.
  • Physical and mental health (regardless of body size/shape).
  • Sustainable cities and transport.
  • Efficiency and FUN!

So why on would we even bother adding the ‘obesity crisis’ to this list? Why would we make empty promises, alienate good people who should be on our side, and ultimately make an argument that doesn’t hold water?

Truly progressive campaigning should be truly inclusive. It should take seriously the questions around why more women don’t cycle, whether there are barriers preventing people of colour engaging in cycling (yes, there are), and how to include people of all shapes and sizes and abilities. Unless you live in a wider community made up exclusively of fit, white road cyclists then, from any perspective, this makes good logical and ethical sense.

So please, the next time the words “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic” threaten to cross your lips, just take a look at the room around you. Are you on the very cusp of turning the spotlight on some poor innocent fatty(s) who were otherwise behind you up to that point? Or are there a whole bunch of fat folks in the community who aren’t in the room and you’re not sure why? Are you going to promise that a safe and effective cycling strategy delivers something that, actually, it probably doesn’t?

Come on, campaigners. Let’s retire the ‘obesity epidemic’ panic-mongering and focus on the stuff that really matters. Let’s include the whole community. Let’s use arguments that stand up to scrutiny and that we know are backed up by the research. Let’s be kind and compassionate to all bodies; whatever their shape, size, or health status, they deserve acceptance.

Those who know me well will know that I’m all for some childish sarcasm when all reasonable attempts to engage someone in sensible and constructive debate fail. But whatever that London cabbie said, I will defend forever his right to freedom from irrelevant and hateful personal attacks. Allow me to misquote Socrates on this one….

“When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”

Flapping about obesity is nothing more than slander. Don’t be the loser, friends. Play the ball. With the right approach, there is so much more to gain.


You can find Jenny blogging over at jenny-marie.co.uk about veganism, junk food, mental health, chronic illness, and other fripperies.

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14 Responses

  1. David Cohen says:

    Excellent post!

  2. Tom says:

    “Let’s retire the ‘obesity epidemic’ panic-mongering and focus on the stuff that really matters.” From this I get the impression that you think obesity is in itself not a serious issue. Now I may agree that it is not helpful to use this argument to promote cycling, merely because exercise probably does not significantly impact weight, but to deny the negative health effects of obesity is preposterous.

    • How are you defining obesity?

      • Tom says:

        Can be a measure such as BMI.

        • Exactly. Body shape alone, which takes into account no other factors at all. So it’s an oversimplified and thus unhelpful perspective, as the article says.

          • Tom says:

            Why is it unhelpful if it takes no other factors into account? And no one is saying that it’s the be all and end all of health measurement, but are you really denying that obesity is not an independent factor in being detrimental to health? Let’s not forget that other health markers typically improve with weight loss, such as cholesterol levels.

          • bangingonaboutbikes says:

            All I can do is point you back to the article. All the information is in there. It is perfectly possible to be healthy with a higher BMI. It is perfectly possible to be unhealthy with a lower BMI. What is commonly referred to as the “obesity crisis” is a complex tangle of factors, in which BMI may, but need not, be a contributory factor. Stigmatising individuals as being responsible for systemic ills is disingenuous and unkind, and causes a whole raft of other issues in its own right. It’s all in there.

  3. Doug Wedel says:

    I’m impressed with how level headed the arguments here are. Really. It cuts through so much hype and delivers so much optimism in its place. Thanks, Jenny!

  4. Viv F says:

    A well written and thought provoking post, thank you

  5. Tom says:

    Yes but statistically being obesity is not good for your health. Just to be clear, I’m not blaming individuals or denying it is a complex problem that requires a complete overhaul of many systems outside the control of any one person – infrastructure enabling active travel being one of them. But it is a problem nonetheless and a denial of that is what I take issue with.

  1. November 22, 2018

    […] But the article that caused me to move on from thinking about it to writing something down was this very thought provoking article on “fat-shaming” and its relationship to cycle campaigning. The article is […]

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