Obesity: face it, here’s why you’re fat

Illustration: Mikael Hattingh

When  enquiring about ‘special seating requirements’ became part of her job, Polly Chester realised obesity is more than about the size of your seat.


I’ve worked in reception at a restaurant for close to ten years.

Recently, we made changes to the telephone booking spiel. Probably not the kind of changes you’d expect. Nothing to do with the menu, licensing, prices or anything else hospitality-related that would immediately spring to mind.

I am required to ask this question: ‘Are there any larger people in your group who have “special seating requirements”?’

If the answer is affirmative, there is a defensive barrage of phrases put forward such as, ‘Well yeah, I’m a big person, but I’m happy with who I am.’

To which I am dying to respond, ‘Are you really? Perhaps you shouldn’t be. Does the prospect of dying of a preventable, lifestyle-related illness make you happy?’

It is not uncommon for my workplace to have to refund people the money for their restaurant tickets on a full-house Saturday night.  Not because we overbook. It’s because by the time people arrive at their table, the flesh of a larger person has often absorbed their allocated seating space. It’s embarrassing for all parties involved, and costs the restaurant considerable revenue.

What’s happened to us?

Why is Australia so fat?STOP BEING FAT -

Illustration by Sindy Sinn

According to the Queensland Cancer Council, 65% of adults in Queensland are overweight or obese. In Queensland, of all places, where the weather is so consistently beautiful that there’s hardly reason not to get outside and get active.

Experts say that the solution to this problem lies with education. One suggested strategy is food labeling. Fair enough. But as a society, have we grown so dumb that we can’t understand how a carrot is healthier than a chocolate bar without the provision of detailed nutritional information? We don’t need food labelling. We need poisonous ‘foods’ that kill people to be taken off the market.

Want to talk strategies?

Let’s start with fast food.

It should be illegal.

But that will never happen, so instead I’d like to suggest at the very least that it should be made available only to people of ages 18 and above. Feeding children fast food as a treat, staple or otherwise is counter-intuitive; stunting development and growth and replacing lost energy with trans-fat, salt and sugar. Feeding children fast food is tantamount to child abuse. As a parent, it is up to you to make responsible food choices for your children.

Another strategy would be to raise taxes on fast food. I believe it is more important than raising taxes on cigarettes in terms of the overall health and well-being of the population. The worst-case scenario would be that people keep buying fast food because they are addicted; much like people are to cigarettes.

Even so, the Government could use revenue raised from fast food tax to pay for healthcare to fix lifestyle-related illnesses and to pay farmers a subsidy to make fresh fruit and vegetables cheaper.

Many Western cultures have a preoccupation with health and beauty that borders on obsession. People are driven nuts over their appearance to the point of eating disorders. For this reason we promote a culture of self-acceptance, particularly targeted at young women, to discourage them from employing such desperate measures as forgoing nutrition in order to be thin. Unfortunately, unhealthy people misuse the term self-acceptance and use it as justification for ill health. They’ll sit there happily self-accepting all day long, ploughing through litres of ice cream in front of the telly, while the bare-boned health care system groans under the weight of preventable illness.

Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. I am not suggesting that larger people are all unhealthy. In fact, some of the measurements used to judge ‘healthy weight’ are considered bogus. According to the Obesity Action Coalition, the oft-used body mass index (BMI) scale is a poor indicator of healthy weight because it fails to take all elements of body composition into account and uses an overly simplistic formula: the weight of a person, divided by their height, squared. It might be an ok starting point for a goal-setting session with a personal trainer, but I can think of a few much better places to start…

1. Throw your scales in the bin. Weight is not necessarily a good indicator of whether your body has changed size. If your lifestyle were truly healthy, you wouldn’t be bothered with weighing yourself. What are you trying to prove?

2. Take a look in your fridge. Food is fuel and medicine. If you are eating for fun and pleasure, you need to get new hobbies. Sex is good for fun and pleasure. Try that. It usually burns calories rather than adds them; don’t make the mistake of adding dessert to your sex life (i.e. whipped cream) – it’s counter-productive.

3. Exercise. I’m not going to add anything by way of explanation. If you don’t know how to incorporate it into your activities of daily living, you’re not thinking about it hard enough.

If you find yourself in a conversation where you need to convince someone that you are perfectly happy to be requiring two seats in a restaurant, it might be time to address some issues.

Don’t use self-acceptance as an excuse for being sick and unhealthy. Practice self-acceptance while you’re out running in the sunshine and making the most of life.


(The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of the author alone and are not to be taken as medical advice. Please consult a GP for any health-related concerns you have. TBS.)

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  1. Happy as I am said:

    What a strange article. Unsubstantiated facts and simplistic solutions. Perhaps Polly could put her energy into convincing her restaurant into buying some bigger chairs so that everyone can eat comfortably there. Fat people’s money is the same as thin people’s money after all.

  2. Sigh said:

    I suspect this is the kind of undergraduate posturing that will make grown up Polly of 20 years’ time cringe and wish she’d published under a pseudonym.

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  4. SM said:

    I’ve never sent you an article. Please don’t lie to prove your point. It’s deeply uncool.

  5. thebigsmoke said:

    Thank you for taking the time to write SM, we love feedback. Yours is at odds with most but we appreciate it. Also, apologies that we didn’t want to post your article. Kindest, TBS

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  7. Polly said:

    Thanks Lyndi I appreciate your comments, thanks for engaging on this issue. We all have so much more to learn about the complexity of mental illness, and particularly about the complex interactions between individuals, cultures and community and how these affect the etiology of such disorders.

    The article was designed to promote discussion and I am happy to see that it has done it’s job.


  8. Lyndi Polivnick APD AN said:

    Hi Polly,

    Thank you for your response.

    Indeed, we live in obesogenic environment. Adopting a junk food tax would help tremendously however, it will be very difficult to implement successfully (as is evidence from Denmark). As mentioned, I support the introduction of a junk food tax to incentivise production of healthier foods and drive consumer purchases. I hope to see it done successfully in my time.

    In response to your suggestion that eating disorders are a ‘luxury’ experienced by the wealthy and middle-class. Well, I think you may find this interesting. Eating disorders (EDs) can be traced back hundreds of years. Descriptions of EDs emerged from as early as the 12th century. EDs are not new and therefore, are not purely the result of the structure of our society. It may be shortsighted to suggest that sufferers of the mental illness are being selfish by restricting their food intake.

    I really appreciate the passion with which you write and willingness to learn, but if you do intend to practise social work, I encourage your to adopt a healthy dose of empathy and understanding. Don’t lose your passion for the cause because it will fuel the fire in your belly. Instead, learn to communicate your important messages (and they are all important and worth being heard) so that people will listen and take action. Drop the finger-pointing and blame and work alongside (not against) the ‘enemy’.

    “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
    ― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

  9. Polly said:

    Hi Viva,

    I appreciate your comments and accept that writing like this is bound to
    Polarise opinion. However I do take issue with your assumptions about my stance on social justice and welfare. Firstly – you don’t know me, so you have no basis upon which to base these assumptions except for this one piece of writing, so settle down. Secondly, I belief that obesity is a symptom of massive social/structural/global inequality, which is why I am so passionate about it. On one hand we have people in the first world who eat too much, then people in the third world who hardly have anything to eat. In the middle, we have the working poor, relative poor and people in transitional/inter generational poverty who buy junk food because it’s cheaper and easier to do so (see the Washington Post Foodstamp series) and therefore make themselves very ill.

    It’s an absolute mess, and I am totally frustrated with governments making half cocked attempts at fixing these issues. Such massive disparity is symptomatic of a very sick society and I will be doing what I can about that kind of thing once I graduate uni.

    I assure you that no guest attending the restaurant where I work would ever suffer discrimination on my watch, but I am still entitled to an opinion on this issue. The choices of individuals have far reaching structural consequences, which actually make them not just their business, but my business and everyone else’s. We should all be accountable to one another about issues like this.


  10. Viva Harper said:

    So this article is to inform me, why we are fat. From what I can gather, it’s the opinion of the author that, obese people that are dying of a preventable, prolonged self-inflicted illness after they’ve sat on and squished the health care system, are doing so because they are lazily sitting around, happily self accepting themselves into devouring ice-cream and junk food, whilst watching telly. All the while, being knowingly ignorant to what is and what isn’t good to eat. So in order for obese people to stop taking up too much room in restaurants (and dying), they should be out frolicking in the sunshine on a bright sunny day, munching on carrots after they’ve thrown out their scales and shagged the personal trainer, because no matter what an obese person says, they cant be happy with who they are.

    I don’t mean for this to come across as an attack, really I don’t. I acknowledge, appreciate and applaud the fact that in essence, the article does look for a solution to the problem of obesity which is undeniably life threatening. But I’m a bit perplexed on how a walker and talker of social justice and social welfare and who is an enthusiastic discerner of justified belief from opinion could write such a biased, prejudiced and discriminative article that buys into the negative stereotyping of overweight human beings. Obesity is a complex problem that has so much more to do with what people chose to put in their mouths and what they do and not do with their bodies, emphasis on THEIR bodies!!!

    The fact is, stigmatising obesity does nothing to motivate people into losing weight, does quite the opposite really. So please, keep on refraining from ever telling a big person that they shouldn’t be happy with who they are because they are killing themselves. You say that you are a lover of science and psychology, yet you have not given any scientific or psychological causes of obesity and the title of your work does state that its going to tell me why we are obese. All you’ve done is blame junk food and the individual.

    So on this note, I urge you to take look around this site http://www.yaleruddcenter.org. To use their own words
    “The Rudd Center seeks to improve the world’s diet, prevent obesity, and reduce weight stigma by establishing creative connections between science and public policy, developing targeted research, encouraging frank dialogue among key constituents, and expressing a dedicated commitment to real change”

    PS. I really would like to know which restaurant you work at so I can make sure that I warn the overweight, yet happy with themselves people that I know and love that if they choose to dine there, not to be shocked and feel discriminated against or feel the need to justify themselves when asked if they need special seating arrangements incase their ample flesh takes up the allocated space of a carrot munching, sunshine enjoying, personal trainer shaggers).

  11. Polly said:

    Hi Lyndi,

    Thanks for your comments and the link to that article, I found it very interesting. Like any good scientist, I’m always willing to change my mind when presented with new facts and information.

    I suppose I was using the term ‘self acceptance’ in a more simplistic sense than the way it is used in treatment; self acceptance is a glib line that is used in casual conversation in relation to many matters, and as I wrote, that kind of language is used by people who I speak to on the phones in the restaurant where I work.

    As a bachelor of social work student (close to graduating), I have a knowledge base that renders me concerned with the structural factors that perpetuate unhealthy lifestyle choices in the Western world, and what can be done to change the behavioural patterns not just of individuals but of entire societies (though I also value the need for an individualistic approach to treat eating disorders).

    Of course I don’t disagree that no one wants to be overweight or underweight. I see how what I wrote may have seemed antagonistic. I suppose it was a little, due to my frustration with the etiology of eating disorders in the Western world and how governments do very little to fix these matters.

    At the risk of lighting another fire, I will say this: I feel that eating disorders are a luxury that people in the third world who suffer systemic poverty cannot afford or comprehend, and I think that’s what makes me most upset about/frustrated with them. My frustration with the white middle class spreads far beyond eating disorders and into the realms of social justice, equality and human rights. Speaking as a middle class white woman, I’m planning to use my skills to take steps to fix some of these imbalances.

    Given your expertise in the area I would be very interested in what you consider to be structural solutions that might be able to fix these problems.


  12. Lyndi Polivnick APD AN said:

    Hi Polly,
    Interesting article and I appreciate your suggestions to help curb obesity. I have a few comments:

    Raising taxes on fast food was attempted in Denmark in October 2011, but was scrapped a year later due to the financial burden on the country. In hindsight, i’m not sure the Danes adopted the tax at the right time (GFC). See article – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-11-11/denmark-to-scrap-world27s-first-fat-tax/4365176

    I agree, I think a fat tax (we will need a different name!!!) is a practical solution enabling healthier foods to become more affordable for those who need it! Successful implementation will be tricky… consider the jobs of those who work in these industries for one. Also, I need to mention that Australia already does have a fat tax – of sorts. It’s called GST and does not apply to fresh produce like fruit and veg.

    You are right. Further education is not the solution. We have never known more about nutrition and yet the situation is worsening. What we require is a different environment.

    The ‘body confidence’ movement, which only really emerged over the past decade (if that) can not be blamed for our worsening health. There is no evidence of this. In fact, the exact opposite is occurring. See reference:
    Bacon L, Stern JS, Van Loan MD, Keim NL. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2005;105(6):929-36

    Lastly, I think we should avoid being condescending. Your suggestion that “They’ll sit there happily self-accepting all day long, ploughing through litres of ice cream in front of the telly” is misguided… I truly believe no one wants to be overweight or underweight. Do you disagree?


  13. Cade Smith said:

    Well written Polly, and you are only just scratching the surface.

  14. jourdan lofthouse said:

    A true wake up call for all of us. Love the scales point; so true!

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