The Wellcome Collection – Obesity

The Wellcome Collection is a free visitor destination for the incurably curious.  It explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.

One of the overarching themes of the permanent gallery Medicine Now is the lived experience of illness. Juxtaposed with objects from clinical medicine, such as pills, anatomical models and teaching aids, are a broad selection of contemporary artworks that invite visitors to consider illness and disease from the viewpoint of patients. One section of the Medicine Now exhibition is Obesity.

From a visit on 10 March 2012.

Medicalisation of obesity

Obesity is quickly becoming the developed world’s biggest health problem. In the past 25 years obesity has nearly quadrupled, with two-thirds of UK adults now overweight and over 30,000 deaths a year caused by obesity.

Obesity is increasingly seen as a medical rather than cosmetic condition.

As the epidemic threatens the physical and socio-economic health of our population, the medical community has become increasingly involved in the ‘battle of the bulge’. Gastric surgeries, drug therapy, medically supervised diet programmes and psychological counselling are all being used.

Diet books

The first diet book, A Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public, was written in 1863 by William Banting.

The 600 later additions to the genre shown here fall into a number of categories. There are diets based on the consumption of one food, celebrity diets, diets for people of specific ages and diets based on astrology, religion and pseudo-science. There are low-fat diets, low-carbohydrate diets, high-protein diets and high-fibre diets.

Philip James, Chairman of the International Obesity Task Force

A study by the National Audit Office has estimated that obesity cost the NHS at least £500 million a year and the wider economy more than £2 billion a year in lost productivity. Professor James describes the socioeconomic factors associated with obesity.

“We are looking at a massive health problem. The National Health Service is not going to be able to cope financially unless we get a grip on the economics of obesity because obesity is the primary driver for the development of Type 2 Diabetes. It is a massive promoter of high blood pressure. It actually increases the risk of heart disease. It’s now coming through as one of the bigger preventable diseases.

Enormous financial resources are now being put into this, and nobody is thinking sensibly about the economic benefits of going for a preventative strategy. Only 10 per cent of the British population are on an appropriate diet. The poorest sections of the community have the worst diet because they are choosing cheap food, and the cheap food is stuffed with fat, sugar, and salt. It’s been shown in beautiful studies in Denmark that if you reduce the price of fruit and vegetables and increase the price of fatty and sugary foods, you can dramatically alter what people spontaneously choose, and the poorer people benefit the most.”

 Paul Sacher, Specialist Dietician, Institute of Child Health, Great Ormond Street Hospital, London

The dramatic rise in childhood obesity levels has been a significant cause for concern in recent years. One in five children in the UK is now overweight. Paul Sacher discusses how modern lifestyle and dietary changes have led to an increase in childhood obesity. He explains how the nature of obesity can lead to life-long weight issues.

“The recommendation is that children exercise for a minimum of 60 minutes on a moderate intensity exercise per day, so that means that children are getting a little out of breath or red in the face. Many children we see are spending up to seven hours a day watching television or playing on the Playstation or whatever computer games, combined with high-fat, high-sugar diets.

We know that once you are obese you have a tendency to stay obese for the rest of your life. If you’re obese, your body is forced to store that extra food in fat cells. Once the fat cell gets full, think of it like a balloon, once it’s full it doesn’t explode like some people might think it does, but what actually happens is it reproduces itself so another balloon would be formed which will then start to fill up with fat. Now, if you go on a diet and you lose weight these balloons slowly shrink until they’re empty, but at any point in the future if you eat more than you’re burning up they start to fill up again, and because you’ve got more fat cells because you were obese, were overweight, it just makes it that more easy for your body to store fat. That’s why diets don’t work because it’s something you do for a short period, and nine times out of ten you go back to eating or being as sedentary as you were before. That’s why changing one’s lifestyle seems to work the best.”

Vicki Swinden, founder of the ‘Fat is the new black‘ campaign

Vicki Swinden discusses her struggle with weight and dieting over the years. She explains how her change in attitude towards her self-image has resulted in a better quality of life.

“I was not able to eat my meals with my children, because I was on some kind of special diet. I did liquid diets; I did vegetable diets; I did meat diets. I did every diet known to man. Losing five stone, putting on six, losing six stone, putting on ten, and up and up and up and up my weight went over the years. We call it ‘yo-yo dieting’ these days, and that’s exactly what it is. And what happened at the end of it? At the end of it I weighed 24, 25 stone. At the start of it I was seven pounds six ounces. It was a case of getting to 40 and being fed up of being on a diet, a sudden realisation that my life wasn’t actually going to change if I was a slim person. I decided to make a major change, and declare that fat was the new black, and that I was going to be the absolute height of fashion, if only to myself.

My life has changed immeasurably because I’m no longer on a diet; I’m not longer in that state of constant failure. I do exercise my ‘fattitude’ every minute of every day. Because I don’t worry any longer about how I look, and the most important thing as a result of that is that I have lost weight. I’ve lost weight without trying, I’ve lost weight simply by changing my attitude to how I look. There’s a whole heap of wonderful food there in the shops that you can buy without looking for ready meals, without looking for what we know as ‘instant gratification’. I’m the world’s worst cook, but it is my greatest joy to be able to shove a pair of turkey breasts under the grill and pull them out 15 minutes later and have them for my tea! That’s not even difficult! It’s far more difficult to start meddling with ready meals, looking for something that I’ll be able to put with it; can I do this, can I do that? How’s the salt in this? Is the sugar in that going to affect me? No! I go out and buy fresh food and we eat it.”

John Isaacs – ‘I can’t help the way I feel’, 2003

In this work lies an interest in a possibility of the emotional landscape of the body becoming manifest in its surface.

Visually, the way in which the flesh grows, erupts and engulfs the body can be seen as a metaphor of the way in which we become incapacitated by the emotional landscape in which we live and over which we have little control. The body also appears to be suffering from some kind of malignancy, as in cancer, but, for me, the image of the figure, coupled with the title, leads one into an open contemplation of the plight of the individual.


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