Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

In Britain, It’s NOT Okay To Be Obese


This weekend, I saw the UK’s Strictly Come Dancing for the first time — also known as the original Dancing with the Stars — and found it nearly identical to the American version.  Same exact show format, same set, same theme music, same costume styles, similar array of D-list celebrities, some of the same judges (Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli).

Now, this is where it gets interesting.  Because the two shows are nearly identical, the differences that do exist jump out sharply.

Strictly Come Dancing was quiet.  It was calm.  In the States, people start screaming, “BOOOOOOOOO!” at the first hint of a negative critique from a judge.  In the UK, the boos are soft and don’t come out until the judge finishes his commentary.

Most insanely, Bruno is restrained!  Bruno, famous in the States for leaping onto his chair and comparing each contestant to a different sexual animal as the audience cheers, still uses his colorful language in the UK — but he does it quietly, calmly, and politely in his chair.

In short, if reality TV is an indication of the differences between our countries (and keep in mind that I haven’t seen Geordie Shore yet!), the British are more restrained, polite and well-mannered than Americans.

Except when it comes to obesity.

The treatment of obesity on reality TV in Britain could not be more different from the States.  I first observed this when Dave and I ended up watching a show about families trying to lose weight together.  The name of the show?  Fat Families.

The show featured a family from Yorkshire trying to get into a diet and exercise regime following the father’s heart attack.  That family began the show refusing to take a walk in their own backyard — the Yorkshire Dales, which are absolutely gorgeous — and joked that they couldn’t understand why tourists booked the holiday cottages Yorkshire Dales are famous for when they could just sit on the couch and watch TV.  They finished by doing a charity 10k run in the heart of London.  

Overall, the takeaway of the show was inspiring — over six months, each family member lost quite a bit of weight and improved their health significantly.  According to the show’s end note, they are now avid hikers in the Yorkshire Dales, joining the outdoorsy tourists who book cottages in Yorkshire, the same hikers they used to mock.

That’s the good stuff.  BUT — in between the inspiring moments, the host called them “fatties” at every turn and mocked their appearances behind their backs.  The cutaways between segments actually featured the host stealing piles of cupcakes from fat people, who would promptly pout and stamp their feet.

I was aghast.  This show could NEVER be on the air in America.

In America, there seems to be a rule — you’re not allowed to say anything bad about someone’s weight, EVER, unless it’s related to their health.  In most situations, the topic of obesity is an elephant in the room, and it can’t ever be touched.  I feel guilty as I type these words, feeling like I’ve broken a rule!

In Britain, comments about health are definitely present, but they’re sprinkled with comments about appearance.

Take the UK’s X-Factor.  There is a contestant, Craig Colton, who is overweight — though not morbidly obese by any stretch — and he cheerfully talks about the weight loss regimen that the producers put him on.  In a newspaper article today, the show’s hairstylist talked about how Craig will be able to work a shorter haircut once he loses a lot of weight.

Could you imagine if that had happened on American Idol?!

American Idol has had its share of overweight and obese contestants over the years.  And what stands out the most is how the judges would take care to compliment their appearances — how Paula would tell Ruben Studdard how handsome he looked, how Simon told Mandisa she looked sexy — and everyone would smile at how sweet these judges were.

If a slightly overweight contestant had been put on an immediate weight loss regimen, and if it had been made public on the show, there would have been an outcry.  Particularly if it was a girl.

So, who handles obesity better — the US or the UK?

Is the American way better?  Is it better not to tear people down for being overweight or obese, or even acknowledge it — except, of course, when it comes to health?

Or is the British way better?  Is it better to openly acknowledge that obesity is as unattractive as it is dangerous, and even go so far as to mock people for it?

I now ask a question of my readers — how is obesity treated in your country?  The American way or the British way?  Do you think the American or British way is more harmful?  I would love to hear your thoughts.

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32 Responses to “In Britain, It’s NOT Okay To Be Obese”
  1. cga says:

    I love how the US allows people to park in disabled parking just because they’re “fat.”

  2. Danny says:

    The US has about 30% obesity, the UK has 23%. However, the UK is comparatively much higher than the rest of Europe (Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden all about 10%). Attitude on TV pales into insignificance compared to food marketing and social policy.

    Still, the full English breakfast picture looks amazing 😉

  3. Renata says:

    Hi Kate,

    I’m from New Zealand so we get a mix of both US and UK shows so I know the ones you are talking about. My personal view is that obesity is already a huge problem and I find that with a lot of the US shows we get here, it is almost as if they are trying to normalize obesity. To some extent this is fine, people do come in all shapes and sizes, but it is not secret that the more over weight a person is the more health problems they will have. I think that in their attempts to not offend anyone the US can sometimes go to far in terms of making people believe that it is okay to be fat, and they should be encouraging people to be more active, eat healthier, and loose wight. I don’t necessarily think the US or the UK way is ‘right’ but I think there must be a middle ground somewhere that doesn’t normalize it but yet also doesn’t offend anyone (if that is possible). Another great post from you though 🙂


    • I agree, Renata — I think that some — though definitely not all — programs in America are trying to normalize obesity. You’re right — we need to reach the middle ground, but none of us are there yet.

  4. Rachel says:

    I wouldn’t take either of those examples as actual British attitudes about obesity. For starters, all I’ve heard people say about Craig Colton’s diet is that it doesn’t matter because he’s there for his voice – and maybe about three people in the whole country watch Fat Families 😉

    The real difference, I think, is that British people are less wary about offending others. Many British people will simply say so if they disagree with you, but through my relatively limited experience of Americans, there is much more hesitancy to disregard someone else’s point of view. Many of the Americans I’ve met will take great care to skirt around and issue and think about what another person is saying, rather than actually turning around and saying, “I think you’re talking rubbish”.

    Also, sarcasm is not only acceptable here but welcomed – and while I think the stereotype that Americans don’t ‘get’ sarcasm is completely untrue, I think many Americans are just a little more wary of it sometimes – like, it’s funny BUT it’s kind of mean, you know? Whereas here it’s funny BECAUSE it’s mean.

    In other words, I feel like the US is much more PC-friendly than the UK – but that doesn’t mean that we regularly have programmes where people get called ‘fatties’. Perhaps in jest, in a comedy sketch or something – youtube James Corden’s 2011 Comic Relief, for example, which I think is something that never could have aired in America but went down a storm here), but not usually in a context such as that of Fat Families. Anyway, I basically just contradicted your stereotype with a bunch of my own so I’m interested to see what you think!

    • Rachel, I think you hit the nail on the head. The British are far less afraid of offending; Americans seem to be much more sensitive. While I love how that shapes the British sense of humor, it definitely is a double-edged sword.

      And only three people watch Fat Families?! Who’s the third?!?! :-p

  5. Lisa says:

    I’m sorry Kate, I had trouble following you…. I was too busy salivating over your photos of fatty deliciousness.

  6. Lucy Grey says:

    You’re asking if it’s okay to be cruel to people because they are fatter than they’re supposed to be. What an odd question. When is it ever okay, or helpful, to be cruel?

    There are no “rules”, unwritten or otherwise, about discussing weight/health/the American (and obviously British) obesity problem. It is discussed quite openly, actually. Haven’t you ever heard of The Biggest Loser? The trainers are tough on the people trying to lose weight without being cruel. Stealing cupcakes and calling them fatties? You just gave me yet another reason to be grateful I’m a compassionate American.

    And please, feel free to ponder and discuss this problem further — as you travel and experience other cultures’ diets and levels/type of activity, maybe you’ll be able to draw some helpful conclusions about what we Americans and Brits are doing to our bodies.

    Love your blog, BTW!

    • Hi, Lucy —

      That question probably went overboard — of course I don’t think it’s okay to be cruel!

      I have seen The Biggest Loser, and I do know that they’re tough — but even on that show, it’s only in the context about health. Even on a show about weight loss, so much of the discussion is taboo.

      And I agree about different countries having different priorities about health — in Southeast Asia, the food is so healthy, and exercise is popular — in every city, it seems like every middle-aged lady in town goes to do aerobics in the park!

  7. Shandra Benito says:

    Hello Kate!

    Love your blog! You are a truly amazing person and travel blogger.

    I believe that neither is really great. Should obesity be a topic that none will talk about in the United States in fear that we will be not PC even though it is a growing and dangerous health epidemic? No.
    But does that mean we should mock, tease and bully people who are over-weight. Absolutely not.

    Obesity and weight are not only indicators of healthy life choices, but can often be attributed to class, media culture and our own social attitudes.

    Both the U.S and the U.K are approaching the issue wrong—if we really want to tackle obesity we need to look at all the systems that surround the issue and work to change welfare, media and social attitudes regarding body image and eating.

    • Thank you, Shandra!

      You’re exactly right — just like a lot of social issues that we have in both countries, we need to look at the circumstances. In the United States, it’s almost definitely about providing food options to low-income families that are not fast food. The gym I used to belong to in Boston ran a gym in a low-income neighborhood that gave free memberships to low-income women and their kids.

  8. Colleen says:

    I would agree with the poster above…why would you ever ask the question is it okay to be mean to fat people? Uh, NO! When is it okay to concern yourself or talk about other people’s bodies or weight? NEVER! As a person who struggles with weight, I love to watch people think that SOMEHOW because you are thin, it gives you the right to talk about those people who aren’t. I have skinny friends that eat the WORST crap ever. All the time, way worse than me. They might be skinny on the outside, but their arteries are screaming, I’m sure of it! And yet, no one talks to them about “being healthy”, or “their lifestyle.” We just assume that if someone is skinny, they are healthy. In all honesty, a person’s weight shouldn’t be anyone’s business but the person who is living in that struggle. We don’t need self-righteous skinny people to tell us about food, trust us.

    And, how would the rest of the world like if people talked about their problems? Hey, you drink too much! Hey, remember how you treat your parents awfully? Or that time you said some really stupid things? Or when you dropped out of college? Or when you dated that guy for years that NO ONE liked? Or how you got an STD? Your brother is a much better person than you! Everyone says you sleep around! You’re the worst guy on our team!

    The fact of the matter is that no one is perfect, and we all have flaws. Being overweight is not a good thing, not at all, but for some reason our society has determined that it’s everyone’s business except the person who is struggling with it.

    It’s called tact, and whether you are American or British, you should have it.

    • Do I think it’s okay to make fun of people? No, and that’s one reason why I was so shocked when I saw the Fat Families show. I had NEVER seen anything so brazen.

      BUT — I do think that it’s worth considering the UK’s view of weight not being as taboo a topic as it is in the United States. Take a look at what Betti wrote below, too, about how different it is in Asia.

  9. Betti says:

    one of the things I like about Thailand is that appearances are very often on the table – but they accept each other in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else.
    people make fun of each other for their size or skin colour, ladyboys well that’s the funniest thing ever. but not in a very mean way. it’s just calling fat “fat”, and dark “dark”, absolutely no PC terms or beating about the bush. it is totally ok to teach the words “fat” and “thin” (in a foreign language) by pointing out people in the classroom.
    but I don’t think I have ever been considered less of a human being, or a less competent teacher, etc etc etc for being obese. it is part of me but does not define me. where I come from, people may be a lot more subtle with their words but then stab you in the back for absolutely no reason.

    • Betti, thank you so much for sharing — I remember my friend Mike saying the same thing. He taught in China and his students would say, “Wow, you are now fat!” It really is different in Asia.

  10. Russ says:

    Kate, I think we can learn something from both. As person in the US, I get frustrated by how much there is an attempt to make being obese acceptable. Don’t get me wrong, I think the fascination with being super skinny like the Hollywood actresses is equally frustrating, but there is a difference between being plump with a few extra pounds, and being massively overweight. Many overweight people say they have the right be “fat” if they want to, but really it’s not just about them. There are the obvious health implications and strain to the healthcare system, a nation of fat people will typically need more frequent medical attention, but there are also other considerations to those around them. Riding on a bus or an airplane, going to public events, etc. It’s not fair to the people getting squeezed around them. I mean, smokers get pushed to the edges because of the implications to those around them.

    Now obviously I don’t think publicly humiliating or mocking people is the right way. Everyone has battles they fight, but trying to make it acceptable to be 400 pounds doesn’t benefit anyone. And there is a happy medium where we can accept people for who they are and how they look, while also not condoning an unhealthy lifestyle.

  11. jamie says:

    i’ve always felt that its never ok to mock someone for their appearance. granted, i recognize that the obesity can cause health problems, but that’s not an excuse for being cruel to someone.

    however, living in chile for the past couple of years, i definitely recognize that the u.s. can be considered “too pc.” the attitude in chile is very similar to what betti describes in thailand – saying “the fat girl on the sidewalk” is no more an insult than “the girl with the brown hair on the sidewalk.” “Gordita” and “Flacita” are common nicknames that do not seem to offend anyone. Heck, my mother-in-law tells me i’m fatter every time she sees me, and i really don’t think she means it as an insult. it bothers me, yeah, but i recognize that it is not meant in a mean way. if someone tells my chilean husband he’s getting fat, he will laugh, pull up his shirt, and show off his belly.

    all that being said, though, i have truly only seen 3 or 4 people here that are truly morbidly obese – that kind of obesity is not tolerated here (evidenced by staring, pointing, whispering), whereas someone moderatley overweight is called fat – but in the benign, non-judgmental way.

  12. Dawn says:

    Interesting conversation. On the one hand, obesity should be talked about, because it is a problem, and a growing one (ugh, pun not intended). I think avoiding talking about a major problem is generally a bad approach. I also agree that in general, Americans can be afraid to offend (and sometimes that’s tiring).

    On the other hand….I think those who suggest that American society, as a whole, is seeking to normalize obesity are crazy. Yes, there are advocates for “everyone is fine just the way they are!” But for each person who is saying that, there are a hundred societal influences saying overweight people (and hell, even NORMAL non-celebrity weight people) are disgusting, lazy pigs. On average, what does American society tell us? In my opinion, it tells us unequivocally that skinny is best.

    As someone who is overweight, I can admit that a lot of where I am is due to my own choices (although there are other factors beyond my control). I am working on being healthier, and I know that it IS work – hard work. I don’t expect or even want someone to tell me I’m fine the way I am, because I know I can and should be healthier. I’m fine with the message that I should lose weight – I should. But don’t think that there’s a second of my day when I feel like American society is telling me “your weight is fine!” I never feel fine about it. And again, that’s ok.

    • Rachael says:

      I agree! I don’t think there are so many TV shows in the US “normalizing” obesity, just trying to balance the coverage.

      What immediately came to my mind was the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress”, about wedding dress shopping. Normally the samples in the dress stores are size 4 and size 12. Most of the women featured on the show are skinny, but they do show women who are size 10, size 14 trying on dresses. Every once in a while an overweight or obese woman will be on the show and they’ll talk about the struggles for them to find dresses. By showing these women, they’re not saying it’s normal to be this large, just that there are in fact large women who get married and need to find wedding dresses.

      If the country is 2/3 obese, having 5% of people on TV being obese doesn’t give a fair representation of the population. I don’t think it’s glorification, just representation (especially when 95% of obese people on TV are either on a show about losing weight, or a show that addresses their weight head on).

      12% of the country is black, to have no black people on TV (which was quite common only 30-40 years ago) is not an accurate representation.

      I think the US can be too-PC at times, but if an obese person (they’re well aware of their weight and deal with it everyday, especially emotionally) sees a positive role model of another obese person on TV, I’m fine with that.

    • Great points, Dawn — it’s true that it might seem like the self-esteem/normalization engine is growing, but that’s only because there’s so much of the opposite coming in every direction. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Jo says:

    Out of curiosity, Kate, what size would Americans consider to be overweight? Obviously it depends on height and body shape, but for the average height person who isn’t disproportiontely busty/ass-y?

    In England, sizes 10-14 (US 6-10) are what most people consider the standard ‘acceptable’ sizes, with a 14 probably considered chubby on an average height person and 10 being the slim ideal that most people won’t obtain but would like to (‘Perfect 10’). A size 16 (US 12) is the average and fairly common, but definitely considered fat by most people, although some people can pull it off. A size 20 (US 16) would be considered massively overweight.

    From the American websites I read (aside from celebrity gossip rags, for obvious reasons), it seems like what Americans consider ‘fat’ is a lot bigger than what the UK does. It also shows in the comment above by Rachael who mentions a size 14 (assuming thats a US 14, so a UK 18) , then mentions overweight people separately, implying she doesn’t think a 14 is overweight. I’m not trying to start a fight, would just be interested to know.

    In general, I think the UK is pretty much half way between European and American attitudes (as it is in a lot of things, I think). The overweight here in Italy are treated appallingly- they basically don’t exist in the media, and Italians are very likely to openly stare or mock overweight people. The largest size I’ve seen in H&M or other standard High Street stores is an 18 (US 14), and more commonly they don’t go beyond a 14 (US 10), and it’s rare to see girls over a size 12 on the streets. It’s similar, but less blatant in France and other European countries I’ve lived in. By comparison, the UK is very tolerant of fat people (unless they’re trying to make provocative television, or commenting on a wannabe celebrity like on X Factor). However, we don’t cater to larger people in the same way the US does. You won’t find many clothes above a 22 (US 18) in regular stores, whereas in the US I’ve been sizes go much higher than that.

    It’s a sensitive topic and a very interesting one (and one I feel more keenly now as a UK size 16 living in skinny-minnie Italy than I ever did before). There will probably be some UK readers who contradict my generalisation on UK perception of size, which just shows how personal the concept is even within a society!

    • Rachael says:

      In the stores in the US, most clothing goes from a size 0 or 00 to a 14. Some have size 16 and 18, but a 14 is usually the cut off point. Plus sized clothing stores usually start at a 12, 14, or 16 and go up from there.

      In the wedding dress show I was talking about, the salon usually has 2 samples of each dress, 1 in a size 4 and 1 in a size 12. If someone who is a 4 and under wants to try on a dress, they put on the size 4 (which I guess is a UK size 6) and the stylist can pin it if it’s too big. Anyone above that size will try on the size 12 (or UK size 14) and they will pin it if it’s too big, or let it loose if it’s too small in some places.

      That particular store has dresses that fit women larger than a 12, but they usually aren’t the same styles as the 12 and 4 dresses.

      I think the “accommodation” of some US stores has to do with having the market. If only 5% of the population was above a size 14, very few cloths would be made that large. Only some stores have the larger sizes and some don’t. It’s their choice (very few if any designer labels go above a 12, but big box and department stores do).

  14. Robert says:

    As an English man, I wonder whether the US media encourages men to find “larger” women attractive, as part of encouraging acceptance of the way most western women are heading. Perhaps I’m missing the point somewhere, but I’m bemused by positive media coverage of eg Kim Kardashian or Jennifer Lopez, who I think just have huge bums. Is there a racial issue here, that caucasian women wouldn’t be praised in US media if they had exactly the same physique as these two? US media seems to be positive on (particularly coloured) women’s “booty” in a way I don’t get at all. How is it that large bums get praised alongside teeny supermodelly bums?

    • Rachael says:

      Having a large ass is usually attributed to black women. Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez are white (albeit Armenian and Latino respectively) and 99% of white women in the entertainment industry are incredibly skinny and have NO ass, so it stands out.

      I have very little perspective of British media, but it usually seems that the US media shuns larger women. There is a small backlash against it, but the majority of our young movie stars, TV stars, even reality show contestants are thin, thin, thin. Most of the backlash comes from the scrutiny from the media (is she pregnant, or did she just eat a sandwich?) and the fact that there are very few celebs who are even just a size 6 or 8 as opposed to a 2 or 4.

  15. Marianne says:

    I’ve lived in the UK all my life and I would say that although this TV show mocks fat people, it definitely doesn’t represent how fat people are really treated. In the UK we’re pretty afraid to make comments about people’s appearance to their face – I’ve never heard of anybody being insulted like that in real life.
    However, there is definitely a stigma around being overweight, especially for women. There is a lot of pressure to stay under a size 16 (12 in the US, I think) for fear of having to shop in the plus-size section, and for most under-25s it’s embarrassing to say that you are a size 14 (US 10). Also, while I or any of my friends would never dream of openly insulting an obese person, I think they do get a lot of stares in the street and the brits are quite disapproving of overweight, especially obese, people, as there is a general feeling that they have brought their problems upon themselves.
    Also, the UK media is obsessed with healthy eating and there is a real idealisation of organic, freshly made food. Jamie Oliver is a huge hit here and led a government campaign to make all school dinners healthy, too. I think this makes us more critical of what we eat than many Americans are.

  16. Kathy Dillard says:

    I believe that people all over the world are becoming more aware of eating healthy, which is a positive change , but I do think that it is a very slippery slope when we judge someone as being healthy or unhealthy according to how they look. There are many people who are thin, or skinny and are not healthy at all , either from poor eating habits, excessive alcohol and drugs, smoking, over exercising, or a medical condition, or eating disorder, but because the media and publications emphasize positively around being thin, this is valued more than being healthy. I think if someone is thin and unhealthly we have a tendency assume that something outside of their control is causing it and if someone is fat people have a tendency to assume that it is because someone just eats too much. I just wish there was more acceptance in the world for people wherever they are in their lives. I really do believe there is a prejudice against people who are overweight — and no I am not fat !

  17. Al Williams says:

    no but bacon and eggs are SO good!… the dessert can go away though 🙂

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