Are Cancer Research's obesity adverts offensive?

7 Mar 2018


A few days ago, comedian Sofie Hagen launched an attack on an obesity advert run by Cancer Research UK, on the basis of it being fat-shaming. Fat-shaming, for many of us, is a difficult concept to understand and is highly subjective, but that does not make it any less valid.


Hagen was right to point out that the BMI system has long been discredited, because for example, it does not take into account muscle mass. It is also the case that many people at whom this advert was directed may have, or had, mental health problems as a result of their perceived size. Imagine how this advert would read to an insecure teenager who already believes they are overweight, even if they aren’t. Imagine how it reads to someone who is larger than society sees as healthy but cannot help it. A badly worded advert such as this can be immensely harmful.


Yet, the science is on the side of Cancer Research. Obesity is the second largest cause of cancer after smoking. Obesity is linked to the causes of over a dozen diseases, including cancer. Obesity is one of the largest health problems facing the modern world. Obesity is also proven to reduce the body’s ability to regenerate DNA, and DNA damage can result in cancer. These are all facts which are supported by extensive evidence and studies. To ignore the science and not try to raise awareness of the potential problems obesity causes could be immensely harmful.


So, coming at it from the approach of each side, they are both in the right in some ways. But how about where they’ve got it wrong?


Hagen has made a name not only as a comedian but also as a body positivity campaigner. However, she is undeniably guilty of hyperbole in this case. Her claim that “dieting has been proved time and time again to be one of the worst thing you can do to your body” is only partially correct. Extreme dieting has been widely proven to harmful, but a healthy, balanced diet teamed with exercise has not.


In fairness however, Cancer Research are guilty of an inflammatory tone. It can of course be argued, that such a tone is necessary to get people’s attention, has certainly proved to be the case with this advert. Yet, it is not a tone that is conducive to opening discussion. While an advert more along the lines of “X% of studies show a link between obesity and cancer” might have looked more wishy-washy, it would also have put out the evidence in a calmer, more respectful way.


So, how to proceed from here?


The scientific case for the link between obesity and cancer is irrefutable, but Hagen’s emotionally charged response should not be dismissed out of hand. There are no easy answers. In our society, one of our greatest strengths is that people are allowed to live their lives the way they see fit. If they wish to smoke, knowing the risks, then that’s up to them. If they wish to be larger, whether the cause be lack of exercise, over-eating or something else, knowing the risks, then that’s up to them.


However, the important point here is that people who smoke know the risks, whereas studies by Cancer Research show that only 15% of people in the UK know about the link between obesity and cancer. Based on this, it's understandable that Cancer Research are shouting about the dangers of obesity from the rooftops, because it’s their job to raise public awareness of cancer and it's causes.


Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, best summed up our way forward by saying that “Obesity is such an issue that it has to be pointed out to the person who is obese that they are obese. If they want to continue to be obese and are happy with it then so be it, but it has to be said”.


By not taking into account the mental health repercussions of fat-shaming, we risk doing great damage to those whom it will affect, but to not inform people of the health risks of obesity would be just as damaging.

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