Weight, fitness and body image

Why fat is “big business”

2000. Janeen Norwicki laughs. “The fat thing is in now,” says Janeen Nowicki. “It makes me laugh. They’re so late getting on the Ferris wheel really.”

Janeen runs Big, Bold, and Beautiful aerobics. When she started the business nine years ago, she says fat was not in and she engaged the services of a marketing consultant friend who believed in her. Now, she has eleven contracts a week.

Her work is not limited to community groups, which are her bread and butter. Mainstream gyms want a piece of the action, she says.

“People want me to take big classes, t-shirt classes, heavy weight classes. They are saying there is a niche out there, there’s some big people, we can get their money. Big corporations are seeing that there is something in what I’m doing”

But is being big healthy?

A 1999 survey of New Zealanders’ eating habits found that seventeen percent of the adult population were considered obese and that an additional thirty-five per cent were considered overweight.

The direct health costs of obesity in New Zealand are $130 million per year.

Boyd Swinburn, spokesman for the National Heart Foundation and associate Prof in Public Health Nutrition at Auckland University, says: “If we said don’t worry about it and that everybody is happy as they are, that is denying that these things have important health consequences.”

“Let’s get rid of weight altogether and look at the whole person and their history,” she says.

Ms Barham says the research shows that people who are overweight live the longest: obesity is associated with a lowered incidence of respiratory disease and infectious diseases, among other ailments.

Ms Barham says that overweightness and obesity are determined by Body/Mass Index, which is used by Medical Professionals and was developed by an Insurance Company, but seldom considers genetic determination or bone structure. People who have a BMI of 25-30 (overweight) tend to live the longest, she says.

“Anecdotal evidence form overseas show that if you haven’t dieted, as bigger people have done, the health consequences are less.”

Ms Barham’s belief in moderate exercise fits in well with Susie Greene’s focus on physical activity.

Ms Greene is Active Living Adviser at Sport Wellington Region, and says physical inactivity is a risk factor in health.

Her role is to motivate a range of people to be active. She says New Zealanders are eating less fat and yet from 1989-1997 New Zealander’s mean weight has increased by three kilograms.

This, she says, implies we may be less active than we once were.

Ms Greene marries physical activity with nutrition and stresses lifestyle changes to get people to make sustainable long-term changes to their eating habits and physical activity.

She tries to get her clients to look more for the feelings of wellbeing that arise through exercise.

Carole Gibb, tutor dietician at the Wellington School of Medicine, also emphasizes healthy eating and activity.

She says the school’s aim is to get people to increase their levels of physical activity than to focus on weight control. 

Ms Nowicki says: “Exercise is about enjoying yourself, having fun and getting fit at the same time.

“It’s about attitude. I always say to people, see everything, overlook a great deal and improve a little.”

Even Ms Nowicki has days, though, when she would like a couple of pounds off or have a firmer bust. Although she does not encounter much discrimination now, it does make itself known from time to time.

Ms Gibb thinks lack of confidence is the main difficulty with being overweight and obese, but comments about a positive movement for large people because not all-large people are unhealthy.

Ms Barham believes the main difficulty for anybody who is overweight is being accepted by others.

“We live in a society that is very thin focused and we focus on fat as being bad and unhealthy, and that big people are not happy.

“We look at the weight and don’t look at the whole picture and so we get a lot of people who have been sent to us being told that they must lose weight.

“We work on people accepting themselves. I think as you get bigger it becomes scarier to go into the world because you are going to get ridiculed. They will often hide away, embarrassed about their size.”

Ms Barham pictures Janeen as someone who is incredibly fit but incredibly big.

“I think there needs to be things where people feel more comfortable, like bigger fitness classes that were more mainstream.”

Ms Nowicki has taken the initiative and is getting attention. She finds, though, that the perception is that if you are fat, you don’t look good.

“I try not to mix with the negative people now,” she confides. “I usually find when people meet me and get to know me, they go you’re okay, you’re a nice person. “Once they get to know me, I try to break down the barriers.”

Published 2000, The Dominion

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