Jonny Sexton: hardly an unhealthy role model
We’re all in the grip of a new epidemic. Most of us already have it, and we’re rapidly passing it on to others.
You can check if you have also been infected by taking the following steps. Find a radio.
Turn it on. Wait until you hear the latest health information ad by Safefood (don’t worry, it won’t take that long).
Feel your hackles rising? Your blood pressure soaring? Is your grammar radar going into overdrive? Do you feel an uncontrollable urge to seize the nearest cream bun and jam it furiously into your mouth?
If you answered yes to just one of those questions, then I’m afraid you’ve got it too. It’s called irritation with Safefood and its silly ad campaigns.
I first noticed the signs last year, when Safefood ran its offensive and deeply patronising Little Steps campaign, which I wrote about in these pages. Its latest campaign has achieved what I would have said a year ago was impossible: it’s even worse.
The ad, if you’ve been lucky enough not to have heard it, suggests that there’s a dangerous new health epidemic gripping the nation. ‘‘It’s called overweight."
A solemn-voiced narrator urges people to measure their ‘‘true’’ waist to see if they are overweight. If it’s 32 inches or more for a woman, and 37 inches or more for a man, then ‘‘it probably has spread to you’’.
There is so much wrong and damaging in this ad, it’s difficult to know where to start.
Let’s begin with the aspects that are merely wrong. In the first place, ‘‘overweight’’ is not, and has never been, a noun. Neither is it, or has it ever been, something that can be transmitted in the manner of a virus.
Gaining weight is not something that can be ‘‘rapidly passed on’’ - it is a process that happens gradually, which is one of the factors that contributes to our collective denial about it. In fact, if you were to go to bed one night skinny and wake up fat - in the manner in which you might come down suddenly with a dose of the flu - then you’d have far greater health problems to worry about.
But those are minor quibbles beside the gaping, screaming flaw in Safefood’s logic: the suggestion that a waist measurement alone can give an indication of health, or that everyone should wear the same size jeans.
Safefood insists that the measurements are based on World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations of healthy sizes for men and women. In fact, they’re not - the WHO says 80 centimetres is a healthy measurement for a woman, which is 31.5 inches.
The WHO website also points out that the best measure of whether you’re overweight is body mass index (BMI), but says even that is a ‘‘crude’’ and a ‘‘rough’’ measure of your health.
Yes, it’s true that weight which accumulates on the abdomen has greater health implications than weight carried elsewhere.
But it still defies belief that, by Safefood’s estimation, six foot two-inch, 25-year-old Leinster rugby player Jonny Sexton is a very bad role model for younger men, or that any reputable health body would suggest that a 60 year-old mother of five should - or could - have the same waist measurement as an 18-year-old girl.
As a commenter called Joe points out on YouTube: ‘‘Having a 37-inch waist is not a ‘‘disease’’ nor an ‘‘epidemic’’, no matter what way you spin it. I’m worried about your obvious disdain for overweight people. I have a 37-inchwaist, a 46-inch chest, I play rugby and I run half-marathons. I weigh 17 stone and eat right.
"Your argument that a certain waistline implies you have a disease is absurd."
On the Safefood Facebook page, a young woman called Nathalie puts the chief flaw in this campaign into distressingly sharp focus: ‘‘I am a young woman of 20, I walk daily and eat healthy.
"My BMI is perfect, exactly in between the minimum and maximum. I have a 32-inch waist - which according to your ad means I am borderline [obese]. I’d like to point out that I’ve had problems with my health and weight in the past and came close to developing anorexia, it has taken years to reach what my doctor says is the healthy weight for me.
"[I] feel as though this ad is putting more pressure onto impressionable people to lose weight and is convincing perfectly healthy people that they are obese."
In response to Nathalie, Safefood says: ‘‘The campaign is clearly not aimed at you, but at the two out of three who are overweight on the island."
Where is it clearly not aimed at Nathalie, who appears to me from the TV ad, to represent precisely its target market?
The organisation concedes that ‘‘it is possible to have a normal BMI but have a waist size above the cut-off’’ - a point which seems to undermine its entire (expensive and publicly-funded) campaign.
The message, ‘‘Don’t stand near a fat person in case you get fat yourself’’ is so ridiculously crass and offensive as to be almost funny. But substitute the words ‘‘Traveller’’; ‘‘person with mental health problems’’; ‘‘black’’ or ‘‘gay’’ for ‘‘fat’ ’and it’s still stupid, but suddenly it’s not quite so hilarious.
Safefood has argued - again in response to criticism on its Facebook page - that ‘‘it chose to portray overweight as a ‘social’ contagion because research has shown that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 per cent if he/she had a friend who became obese’’.
Well, I’m sorry but that’s yet more (expensive and publicly-funded) nonsense. No doubt peer influences play a very small part in people gaining or losing weight, just as peer influences play a part in determining where you choose to live, the brand of jeans you wear, or how much you drink.
But is social pressure really such a critical factor in Ireland’s weight problem that it merited a TV, radio and social media campaign costing tens of thousands of euro all on its own?
Wouldn’t it have been a far better use of taxpayers’ money to fund a campaign highlighting, say, the benefits of portion control, or unmasking all the so-called healthy foods like juices and yoghurt drinks - that are packed with sugar?
I’ll leave you to think about that while I go and find some rich and beautiful people to stand next to.
This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 29, 2011.