The Nike Mannequin, The Telegraph, and The Nonsense In-Between

Tanya Gold has really caused a stir with her article for The Telegraph titled, ‘Obese Mannequins Are Selling Women a Dangerous Lie’. Now I could go on a highly charged rant of vitriol, however I feel that this has been taken care of online. With a clear and significant backlash to this article, it’s dubious accuracies and wild judgments, I have decided to pull out parts of the article to produce a sound (and I’d like to think, more informed) albeit brief evidence-based explanation as to why she is so incredibly far off the mark. Instead of producing angry hate speech to cause death by a million tweets, I will instead use logic and science to put this shit where it belongs, on a fast track highway to the crapper, the sewer and beyond.

I fear that the war on obesity is lost, or has even, as is fashionable, ceased to exist, for fear of upsetting people into an early grave.

Starting out by announcing defeat in ‘the war on obesity’ really just sets the tone here: that fat bodies are an enemy not to be reckoned with. Particularly the fear Gold expresses in response to such a loss in such a misguided “war effort”. Our bodies are not built to be war grounds. No body should be a No Mans Land, yet so many are.

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Feminist Artist, Barbara Kruger captured this idea brilliantly (1989)

Yet the new Nike mannequin is not size 12, which is healthy, or even 16 – a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman. She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat.

Next up, we have Gold’s description of the mannequin in relation to it’s size. I’m not sure about you, but to me the description, “immense, gargantuan, vast” sounds like she ought to be describing a woman of godly power, perhaps Aphrodite or Artemis and their pull over the universe as Goddesses. Unfortunately she’s not; she’s just describing a mannequin that is oddly enough, the average size of the UK woman. As for “heaving with fat”, conjurs the image of something monsterous like Jabba the Hutt. Ladies and Gentleman, here we really do have a fine example of pure hatred for fatter people, otherwise known as fat-phobia.Gold goes on to express her disgust and concern for the Nike mannequin health. Ah, that classic move of unsolicited health concern for 👏🏻a 👏🏻mannequin👏🏻 who must be at least pre-diabetic due to her size. It seems the health of a mannequin in leggings is really keeping her up at night.

She is, in every measure, obese, and she is not readying herself for a run in her shiny Nike gear. She cannot run. She is, more likely, pre-diabetic and on her way to a hip replacement. What terrible cynicism is this on the part of Nike?

Apparently she cannot run and, if she is running she is pounding her self to a hip replacement. Being active is a healthy behaviour no matter what your size. Sometimes there may be some practical considerations for example, if someone has been bed bound for years: this is not the case for this sized mannequin. There are more and more athletes emerging who do not fit the stereotypical size 8-10 toned jogger of New York’s Central Park, which is brilliant for diversity and incluion in sports. Welcome to the modern world, Gold!

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Holley Mangold: Olympic Weightlifter (lifting her way into an early grave apparently)

Advertising has always bullied women, but this is something more insidious. I have watched the spindly, starved creature – the child ballet dancer – who was, for many years, the accepted ideal, walking down the Paris runways in so much make-up you could miss the signs of malnutrition. It was an ideal designed to induce enough self-hatred that women would shop to be rid of it.

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I would never want a woman to hate herself for what she finds in the looking-glass. But to have control over your body you must first know it; to be oblivious is not to be happy, unless you are a child.

The purpose and function of our body seems to have been lost on Gold. Perhaps she missed the memo but our bodies are not an entity of which to be controlled. They are a vehicle through which we live our lives. They do not need to be under microcosmic control and scrutiny in order to do this well. Nature and evolution has pretty much nailed maintaining homeostasis for the average person of average health, irrespective of their weight of body shape. Equating happiness with control over your body is also highly problematic and really gives an idea to the channel through which Gold’s perspective is coming from: a lens so clouded by diet culture that she cannot possibly fathom being happy unless you feel in control over your body. This notion is one common in eating disorders, albeit to the extreme. It is a mentality sold to us by diet culture. It is a mentality that is on the opposite side to progression.

The fat-acceptance movement, which says that any weight is healthy if it is yours, is no friend to women, even if it does seem to have found a friend in Nike. It may, instead, kill them, and that is rather worse than feeling sad. Fat-acceptance is an artifice of denial – they are fat because they do not accept themselves – and a typically modern solution to a problem, if you are a narcissist. It says: there is no problem. Or if there is, it’s yours, not mine. As soothing as that may be to hear, your organs and your skeleton will not agree.

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What is obesity? I would say, as a recovering addict myself, that it is most often – but not always – an addiction to sugars, and a response to sadness. And, as with all addictions, the only person who can save you is yourself.

Sugar addiction is not real.

Sugar is not addictive.

Sugar is not crack cocaine.

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We need to stop demonising singular and isolated food components as the heathen to health. It doesn’t work like that. If we had more responsible and accurate reporting (I’m looking at you BBC and Dr. van Tulleken), the verocity of misinformation may not be so rampant and rife that a mannequin in workout wear could cause such a stir.

Nike can be as accepting as it wishes of the obese female but your own body will not be so accommodating of your delusions. The facts are obvious. Stay that weight and you will be an old woman in your 50s. The obese Nike athlete is just another lie.

The Nike mannequin letting bigger people know that they are welcome to be a part of Nike, physical activity, running, yoga, and the health and fitness worlds in general is not a lie. Exercising is not restricted to slim people only. Exercising is not a thin priviliige. There are much worse consequences to other life choices, i.e. smoking, than being a bigger woman in life.

But, increasingly, to say that is heresy. I have seen fat-acceptance activists campaign for public health notices, which tell people that obesity causes cancer, to be removed from public spaces. They even tried to get a Cancer UK poster, which tactfully reminded people of the risks, taken down from hoardings.

Here’s a basic science principle which is why the Cancer Research obesity poster was not appropriate: correlation does not equal causation. There is no direct and evidential proof that being in a bigger body causes cancer. There are associations however, there’s so many life style and genetic factors to take into account: physical activity, nutritional density of the diet, fruit and veg consumption, trans fats consumption, and factors that cannot be controlled such as: poverty and deprivation, high stress environments that allow for little life autonomy, local pollution levels, exposure to hazardous materials etc etc. With so many other factors to consider, some of which are more closely associated with cancer than others – yet still the scientific principle remains that correlation does not equal causation.

How selfish, self-piteous and dangerous this is: obesity harms children more than adults. I once read a column arguing that fat people die young because doctors hate them. Really? Why don’t you lay down your pen and just stop eating sugar?

Where is the body shape between the tiny and the immense, which is where true health lives? Where is the ordinary, medium, contented woman? Where, oh where, is the middle ground?

The only statement I agree with in the whole article: that the middle ground between any extremes of body size weight or shape are associated with the best health outcomes and statuses. It’s incredibly dull and boring, and it isn’t a message that sells magazines or papers, or drives website traffic, but it’s the happy medium where the best health outcomes lie.

What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/