We humans are on a continuous search for meaning. Storytelling has always played an important part in this quest for answers: our ancestors used oral stories, songs and then the written word to help make sense of themselves and the world around them. Out of these ancient traditions came fairytales such as Pinocchio – full of archetypal characters than represent many different aspects of what it is to be human. Pinocchio represents us all.
Yet in the midst of today’s obesity epidemic there is one element of the tale that strikes a discord: when Pinocchio lies, his nose grows bigger and bigger. And we are getting bigger and bigger because of the lies we are told and that we in turn tell ourselves.
We all lie: to protect, to feel better, to make it better, to hurt, to win, to promise hope to ourselves and others. We are hard-wired to see what we want to see and we are blind to some truths, mesmerised by the illusion of meaning at the end of a fork or bottom of a glass.
Who are the liars in the obesity epidemic?
The government, NHS, pharmaceutical industry, food industry, slimming industry, media and scientists have all undoubtedly worked at being an effective part of the solution to obesity, but many too have also lied.
Back in 1999, help for the biggest health problem in the UK was dropped from government targets in the seminal White Paper, Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation.
The food industry invested millions in encouraging us to buy more and eat more. So-called slimming products sometimes had more calories, and a higher price, than the regular versions.
Those focused on slimming guidance often just carried out handing out ineffective diet sheets.
The media perpetuates misleading and often incorrect information about weight loss, while simultaneously poking fun at the obese.
Scientists have sometimes paid attention to the evidence that supported what they and their paymasters wanted to see. Or their paymasters actively suppressed results they deemed unhelpful.
Then there are the obese. They lie too. They lie to themselves in the conversations with those powerfully persuasive internal voices that make it ok to eat and drink too much. They lie to themselves that just one fix is all they need and then ‘tomorrow, I’ll start the diet’. They wrap up their lies as excuses, they feed themselves lies about how greedy and weak they are, then respond with secret eating to hide the guilt and the shame, even from themselves. And they are living in a world where those big players have created an environment in which it is easy for willing subjects to follow their cravings to self-medicate, to escape and to smother their emotions with plentiful, calorific food.
Carlo Collodi wrote the original Pinocchio tale. In his version, it says: “In this world, even as children, we must accustom ourselves to eat of everything, for we never know what life may hold in store for us!” His words underlie the messages parents drum into their children at the table: to clear their plates, to not waste food, to ‘think of the starving millions’, to have it all now. Just as they themselves were taught. But like Pinocchio, we are not manipulated by strings attached to our arms and legs. We never were. We are free to make choices, to stop listening to the lies – both those we are told and those we tell ourselves.
We struggle, but there is a way forward. Let us call it truth.