Is obesity an eating disorder?

Open any newspaper in this country and you can find a salacious story about obesity. The media loves nothing more than someone who is so fat they can’t leave their own house.

This week, it was the turn of Georgia Davis, a 22-year-old from Wales. Georgia’s youth and morbid obesity has made her a media star and the Daily Mail focused on how she has been allocated a specially adapted council flat. Scroll through the reader comments on this story and you can get a flavour of what people think of Georgia and her family:

“She’s disgusting and now tax payers are being milked to provide her with a flat”

“She’s just greedy with no self control”

“Oh yes the mental issues excuse – it’s never anyone’s fault is it”

“She just needs to stop eating too much, it’s not that difficult”

“Her parents should be charged with child abuse.”

For most people, obesity is associated with greed. The obese person themselves is seen as entirely responsible for their situation. If they just ate less and did more exercise, they wouldn’t have a problem. It is simply their own fault.

Contrast that with how we talk about anorexia. Do we tell anorexics it’s their own fault they are so thin and they just need to eat more? Or do we recognise they are suffering from an eating disorder and have a problem that is just as much to do with their mental health as their physical body?

Take a look at this story, again from the Daily Mail, this time about a woman who is recovering from anorexia. The reader comments were overwhelmingly sympathetic:

“You should be so proud of yourself for beating this terrible illness”

“This young lady has exhibited incredible courage in the face of overwhelming odds”

“Stay positive, bless your heart for fighting against this horrendous disease.”

What is it about fatness that disgusts us? Why is it perceived as so simple to “just eat less”? Obese people do not eat because they are hungry, in the same way that anorexics do not shun food because they are full.

Last year, B-eat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, added Binge Eating Disorder (BED) to its official list and the NHS recognises and treats the condition with a combination of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), group work, medication and self help programmes. While the medical world might understand more and more than obesity is a symptom of a wider psychological issue, changing public perception will be harder.

The irony, of course, is that more of us are getting fatter. Our obesity rates are spiralling, not just in the UK, but globally. If we can’t even talk about obesity with empathy and understanding, what does this mean for the future of our society?