Inequality of income ~ inequality of bodymass?

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A friend Alex sent me this op ed by Polly Toynbee of the Guardian. I confess to being a bit irritated with the way it started off. “Fat is a class issue, but few like to admit that most of the seriously obese are poor.” This actually gets to the nub of a crucial issue, but I thought I could anticipate what was coming. In fact throughout the piece there’s a slight condescension towards ‘the poor’ which I still don’t like. And that is what makes me think the right have at least as much to say about happiness as the left.

Still like the romantic formula in Mills and Boon (and Jane Austen) something that irritates you and then ends up convincing you, or at least interesting you somehow wins your heart more. Anyway, I expect that this will get the usual treatment from the usual quarters, but it has the ring of truth to me.

Polly’s first big point is this.

Kinder experts look for sympathetic reasons why the poor are fat and unhealthy. Fresh fruit and vegetables are so expensive, they say. There is no transport to get from estates to the good food shops. Poor women are too hard-pressed to have time to cook proper family meals, so they snack. It’s hard for poor children to exercise in dangerous concrete jungles, with no cars to take them to ballet and judo lessons. Or maybe, sadly, these people just don’t know what’s good for them.

The paradox is of course that we’re bombarded with anti-fat propaganda and general anti-fat nastiness in our lives.

No child needs to be told fat is bad when right from nursery school it’s the fat kids that get tormented for being slow, ugly and undesirable – often reinforced by teachers who see them as losers, too. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Harry Potter, heroes are skinny and lithe, while nasty children are fat porkers. Who doesn’t want to look more like Posh than Roseanne?

So why don’t the ‘losers’ get it? Polly’s answer is that they’re losers – that is ‘society’ make them losers and they’re making it worse because they have so few incentives to delay gratification.

But fat means poor and out of control. People who feel they have no control over their own lives give up. What’s there to struggle and make sacrifices for? No job, no prospects, no point. A little of what you fancy compensates for life’s big disappointments. So drinking and smoking and eating the wrong things become small treats in desolate lives. Being out of control becomes a mindset ever harder to climb out of. . . .

The traditional middle-class reaction is to teach poor mothers how to become better managers; a family can eat healthily on very little, they opine. See how low-paid vicars bring up their broods on a pittance. Though when I recently tried living on the minimum wage, even without children, I found I couldn’t manage, counting every penny and eating nothing but lentils, rice, potatoes, pasta, cabbage and oranges. It’s a miserable, life-denying way to eat, but that’s not the point. Even with more money, the poor would probably eat themselves into an early grave if there was not much else to live for. Why defer gratification if there isn’t going to be any compensating gratification?

It is inequality and disrespect that makes people fat: obesity took off 25 years ago, up 400% in the years when inequality has exploded. People will only get thinner when they are included in things that are worth staying thin for. Offer self-esteem, respect, jobs or some social status and the pounds would start to fall away.

I had three reactions to this line of argument. The first was that it had the ring of truth.

The second was that it still place ‘the poor’ as passive responders to their situation. It can all be true, which I think it is, and still empirically true (and therefore just) to say that those people have to be the major architects of any improvements in their own lives. There’s nothing in the piece that insists or even intimates this.

Third, I wondered sceptically, ‘Well if this is true, then it suggests a hypothesis – that the obesity epidemic will be worst where inequality is greatest and best where it’s least. Given that I’d posed this idea to myself as a (falsifiable) hypothesis before reading on the next paragraph hit home to me more than it would have if I’d seen it as just another factoid wheeled out in aid of a pet theory.

The inequality/obesity link is mirrored internationally. America has by far the most unequal society and by far the fattest. Britain and Australia come next. Europe is better and the Scandinavian countries best of all. No doubt there are also social policy reasons for this: the best social democracies pick up family problems earliest and offer most support, putting people back on their feet, preventing social exclusion. But the narrower the status and income gap between high and low, the narrower the waistbands.

A quick Google turns up some of the literature that Toynbee is writing about. Vis this abstract looking at obesity and income inequality in developing countries. “Obesity, diabetes mortality, and calorie consumption were associated with income inequality in developed countries. Increased nutritional problems may be a consequence of the psychosocial impact of living in a more hierarchical society.”

However not surprisingly there are plenty that dispute her empirical claims. I’ve not looked at them in detail, but Scott Burgess turns up some pretty striking counter-examples like Norway’s having the worst obesity problem in Europe. I haven’t tried to get to the bottom of this, but its an interesting debate.

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Ken Parish
Admin
14 years ago

There’s also the fact that I’m pretty sure obesity in Australia has increased markedly over the last 10-20 years, whereas (at least according to NATSEM and the bad Peter Saunders) inequality hasn’t worsened. Nevertheless, subjectively it does seem to be true that one witnesses more obesity (at least of the really gross kind) amongst lower socio-economic groups.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Only a Brit would see income inequalities as a ‘class’ issue. And the amount of condescension involved is more than ‘slight’. The assumptions that ‘the poor’ have nothing to live for, are out of control, lack self-esteem and so on are classic instances of patronising projection, as in “Well gosh that’s how I’d feel if I had to live like that.”

What’s wrong with the simple explanation that (1) we are genetically hard-wired to take easy energy on board when it’s available and (2) we are culturally disposed to regard self-indulgence as an essential part of the good life? Increasing wealth at all income levels has allowed people to satisfy both.

Wealthy people respond with char-grilled tuna, a bottle of Henschke and a couple of Belgian chocolates to finish whereas the poor have to make do with a pizza, two litres of Pepsi and a tub of ice cream. The motivation’s the same in both cases – to make ourselves feel good both physically and emotionally – but the consequences for weight gain are not.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
14 years ago

“Only a Brit would see income inequalities as a ‘class’ issue.”

Particularly one who is descended from the intellectual Toynbees on the one hand and the Earls of Carlisle on the other and was able to purchase a second home in Italy on the proceeds of writing about the misery of the poor.

I agree entirely with Ken on the oozing condescension of Toynbee’s unidimensional
depiction of the poor as sad, fat people morosely gorging on Cheezels, wistfully dreaming of being slimline Scandinavians – or upper class Guardian journo’s. There
are real lives being lived in Toynbee’s narrow perception of socioeconomic “deprivation” – often joyful and celebratory, even if morbidly obese. Not everyone gets off on carrot stick salsa, Pilates and the latest Chomsky.

We’ve all got fatter because we live in a world where, increasingly, it’s possible to eat more and exercise less and human beings tend to take advantage of both.

Graham Young
14 years ago

Ken Parish, perhaps it is perceptions of inequality that we should be looking at. Earlier this year the SMH published research that said that we thought we were a more selfish less equal society, which flatly contradicts the NATSEM research, but if you believe it to be the case it is real for you and you will probably act on that basis.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

But Nicholas surely many wealthy people in the ‘upper classes’, if we have to adopt that terminology, are famous for wanting instant gratification? They want that $100 a bottle exclusive brand of vodka and they want it NOW. You only have to read the ‘Good Living’ supplement in the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ to see that instant gratification comes in an infinite number of forms, many of which are absurdly over-priced but not fattening.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Nicholas, when you say that the theory ‘rings true’, don’t you just mean that it’s true in som cases but not all? I have no doubt that there exist people who are obese because of low motivation and short horizons – whose obesity is at once cause and consequence of their poverty, as with alcoholics. The question is whether people in this particular trap constitute a significant proportion of the obese poor. Do you think Toynbee is saying they are the majority? I doubt it. Are Ken (Lovell) and Geoff insisting such people don’t exist? I doubt it. So we’re really just arguing whther it’s five per cent or forty per cent.

Incidentally, I remember some health researcher saying on Late Night Live a few years ago that in the US weight is a better predictor of income than race.

JC
JC
14 years ago

We are fat because food costs less, jobs are less physically demanding and our entertainment is now largely sedentary. Period.

99% of people know that having shitty fast food every night , although it tastes great, is bad for you. We all know that if you sit on your backside the entire weekend watching DVDs or playing computer games weight will evtually be an issue.

Fatness is all to do with wealth and not poverty. That piece has it arse backwards. Society is showing signs of obesity because we can afford a lot more calories and it’s caloories that are converted to fat.

Nabakov
Nabakov
14 years ago

Y’know I think poor old joe has pretty much nailed it – for once.

People get fat because now they can afford it.

As for the uneasy class stuff oozing out of so much commentary about this issue, I’m reminded of the observation that only the true upper class and lower class really do what they’d like to – whether it’s fucking around or stuffing your face.

It’s the middle and upper middle class – the haute bourgeois – torn beween aspiration and falling behind that gets so censorious about others lifestyles.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

That doesn’t shed any light on the actual issue, though: why are the poor overrepresented in the obese population?

JC
JC
14 years ago

Define poor. You need to explain exactly who you mean by “poor”. I’m not exactly sure we even know what we mean by poor in this context (when talking about obesity).

I was waiting for a flight from Sydney today and by co-incidence I was looking round the terminal and thought to myself that I could just as well be in Middle America with the number of fatties breathlessly wobbling the terminal. I wouldn’t categorize these people as “poor” if they can afford a plane ticket.

An airport is a “middle class” (and upwards) type hangout.

In any event while in Sydeny I got hungry yesterday afternoon. Wifey was shopping so I “visited” and Hungry Jacks for a “score”. The one noticebale thing about that visit was that i was the only non- Asian in the joint. This was the Pitt Street mall I’m talking about and not an Asian Burb. These people looked pretty thin to me.

Anna Winter
Anna Winter
14 years ago

Define poor. You need to explain exactly who you mean by “poor”

The Devil Drink
The Devil Drink
14 years ago

OK, there’s an epidemic of obesity, coinciding with high availability of high-energy, carbohydrate-full and fatty foods. If the Guardian’s anxiety is about obesity itself, though, why should social solutions involve changing the conditions of class and power? That’s solving the wrong problem: class and power are conditions of their own, deserving of their own professional bourgeois journalistic anxiety panics (which I like to simplify as: “now that we have it, what do we do with it?”).
A simpler solution to fat people’s woes would simply be to encourage alcoholism and drug addiction. You don’t often see speed freaks and heroin addicts lumping around with excess weight; they spend their disposable income before it gets to such luxuries as ‘food’ and ‘rent’ and ‘health’. Similarly, the kind of alcoholic who finds gratification in the cooking sherry rather than in cooking isn’t all that likely to bulk up. The trick is to divert the gluttonous impulse.

“Things that are worth staying thin for”

How about saving money to buy your next fix or the next round, Polly Toynbee? If you want the working classes to look like Kate Mosses and Pete Townshends, c’mon, the secret isn’t reducing their diet, it’s increasing it—their diet of naughty powder, that is. A few meals skipped in favour of booze or a bit of goey does wonders for your body image and to the esteem of others: look at Chris Hitchens!
Ah, anti-social substance abuse. Is there anything it can’t do?

JC
JC
14 years ago

Anna

The point is that just the US – outside of the two big cities NYC and LA where eating anyting more than a carrot stick for lunch and dinner is considered excessive if not exercised off att the GYM- it’s bullshit to consider this just a problem of the “poor”.

Get outside of the Eastern Burbs and the like of the two big Oz cities where that mindset prevails fattties are everywhere and in every socio economic group. In other words obesity is not simply a problem with the poor. I would have thought my last comment made that pretty obvious.

In any event according to a Harvard study last year obeisty doesn’t shorten lifespans only because medical advancement has actually compensated for this.

It would be good to see numbers that actually prove the problem is with the lower socio-economic groups. Taking the word of a journalist these days on leads down the wrong path.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

In any event, may all of CT’s morbid fatties enjoy their Christmas turkey and a few beers.

See you in Jaunuary some time. Merry Christmas to you all.

humanb
14 years ago

That doesn’t shed any light on the actual issue, though: why are the poor overrepresented in the obese population?

One possible reason for the upper class being under-represented in the obese population is employment discrimination. Forget race and gender: physical appearance and what we think it says about an employee has a great deal to do with many employers’ hiring practices. It is more difficult to be obese and successful in many industries – even lower paying ones. The obese are unfairly considered less intelligent, less hard-working, less confident, and less self-discplined. As Toynbee says, this level of discrimination and social exclusion begins very, very early. If you are already slightly predisposed to being heavier when young, early exclusion may lead to a sense of hopelessness and/or stubborness about losing weight to fit in. Such hopelessness, stubborness or apathy can follow you throughout life with employment discrimination and social exclusion.

Toynbee says:

People will only get thinner when they are included in things that are worth staying thin for. Offer self-esteem, respect, jobs or some social status and the pounds would start to fall away.

I agree that social status, respect and a good job are powerful motivators for self-improvement in various ways. But which employers or exclusive social circles will offer the obese jobs and status while they are obese? Sadly, not many. In too many industries, you have to be thin first to be successful later.

JC
JC
14 years ago

Is someone able to explain exactly what upper class is in the modern Australian context?

It certainly doesn’t mean that a potential hire is not offered a job because he/she is catholic like it used to happen in the old days. It doesn’t mean “wogs” like me are abused incessantly about their racial origins at least when work comes into it (that did happen to family members).

What we have now is a pretty good attempt at what we most wanted in the old days- when those things mattered and people like Hugh Morgan could run a company like Western mining to the ground because he had “breeding”. Doesn’t work like that these days.

CEO’s get booted at the drop of a hat if a firm isn’t doing too well. Most CEO lives only extend out 3/4 years after which they will find it hard getting a job if they get the boot for non-performance.

Which really gets to the point. People are hired not only on aptitude expectation but also on demeanor, perception and deportment. These three elements are very important in how a person carries off job interviews. It is especially important at a senior level and sales where its people represent the firm.

If a person is overweight, looks unkempt and doesn’t go over well in an interview that’s a failure on his or her part. Call it discrimination if you like because in the end it doesn’t matter. We all discriminate and it’s far better this was fessed up to rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

As a former smoker, I know exactly what you are talking about seeing I worked in a place where a smoker was considered even worse than a leper. I gave it up.

The ladder of opportunity has never been as easy to climb as what it is now, but is is still a ladder and there are things we need to do to be successful in life. Apologies to Mark Latham for stealing his ladder.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

And from Andrew Leigh’s the same debate.

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