I know. Horrific, yet brilliant, word isn’t it?

It was one of many puntastic new words picked up at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ Annual Lecture at the Royal Society on Monday night. Other terrible words I liked: obesessing, obesogenic (and turning society from that into a ‘fitogenic’ one). Not exactly what I was expecting to take away from a lecture about the obesity debate, but what I should have expected from a lecture entitled ‘Whose potbelly is it anyway?’.

Overall, it was a great lecture by Professor Inez de Beaufort from the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam. She gave an interesting multimedia presentation full of comedy clips,Wall-E and visual and textual puns, offering some light relief from the ethical moral philosophising that comes with Nuffield Council territory.

de Beaufort highlighted and expanded on many of the issues discussed in the Council’s recent report on The Ethics of Public Health. The complexities of obesity are well-known: the problems distinguishing genetic and environmental/social influences, the fact that few treatments bar stomach stapling are proven, that risks associated with it are relative to fitness and age. The talk was essentially a tour around the major hotspots in the debate, including what government and society can do to help — and indeed whether they should do.

What de Beaufort did really well in her presentation was matching these to visual and humourous cues that really hit the point home (or at least gave a cheap laugh if you really weren’t listening). One of the nicer examples she used was a YouTube video of the Swedish piano stairs — an example of a societal ‘nudge’ that might be used to change peoples behaviour, this time by making it fun.

As de Beaufort said, it’s a welcome change from the usual blaming and shaming that we use when talking about obesity.

She also made interesting arguments about individual choice. For some, their size is part of that person’s life, and if a person is happy with that choice who has a right to tell them different. Would you tell a sumo wrestler to lose weight just because he is technically fat? Sure, sumo wrestlers die young as a result of their choice, but plenty of people take dangerous decisions with regard to their physical wellbeing all the time — think extreme sports or even taking out extra insurance cover for a ski trip.

de Beaufort also pointed out how odd it is to think of food purely from a health perspective. After all, it plays a major role in so many other parts of life, from social bonding to mourning rituals (as de Beaufort said, “to think of food like this is to think of sex as purely a means of reproduction).

It’s funny how we’ve come to associate looking good with being good when that is often not the case, she said, pointing to pictures of major world leaders acting ‘athletic’ for the camera.

“It’s a case of ‘Beauty and the obese'”.

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