Why were there no representatives of the £2bn slimming industry at Tessa Jowell's summit on eating disorders? Why were there no proposals from the government for regulation of this industry, which cynically exploits young women's anxieties about their bodies? Why, in all the media coverage of the summit, was there not one mention of the role of the slimming and diet industry in promoting unhealthy obsession with weight and body-size?
And why was there no discussion at the summit of the effects of over-zealous promotion of weight loss by the health establishment? Socially responsible commentators have been expressing concern about this for some time. In January 1998, for example, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine asked: "Given the ambiguous benefits of weight loss, why are physicians and public health officials joining in the general enthusiasm for losing weight?" They suggested that "the medical campaign against obesity may have to do with a tendency to medicalize behavior we do not approve of" and accused health professionals of "overstating the dangers of obesity and the redemptive powers of weight loss."
The answer is clear. The government is reluctant to implicate or regulate the slimming industry because this industry's propaganda is 'on message', reinforcing the health establishment's own ill-informed moralising about weight control.
If Tessa Jowell were genuinely concerned about eating disorders, she would pay more attention to recent research showing that current methods of measuring obesity have classified thousands of perfectly healthy women as 'dangerously overweight'. She should know that scaremongering about alleged 'obesity epidemics' has been based on an inaccurate method of determining healthy weight – the Body Mass Index – which unfairly penalises women for being naturally (and healthily) pear-shaped.
According to the latest research, around half the women currently castigated for being overweight, and frightened with dire warnings about the risks and dangers associated with their condition, should be re-classified as healthy. Waist measurement, not weight, has been confirmed as the most accurate means of assessing health risks, as fat accumulated around the stomach (the 'apple' shape) is associated with increased risk of heart disease and other health problems, while the classic female 'pear' shape, with fat stored around the hips and bottom, is safe.
If Tessa Jowell really wanted to improve the body image and confidence of young women, she could:
- insist that the new 'shape chart', dividing waist size by height, replace the unhelpful weight charts in all doctors' surgeries.
- introduce regulation preventing the slimming and diet industries from creating unfounded anxiety about weight and promoting dieting as 'healthy'.
- issue clear warnings to all health professionals and health educators about the dangers of over-zealous promotion of weight control.