On my last visit to The Family, I have become acquainted with an addition to the family friends network who had become a regular visitor after my relocation to the UK. He’s a bit of a stereotypical affluent southern Italian, which is a rather welcome change from the stereotypical affluent northern Italians that make up my family. Whoever puts food at the top of their priorities in life is always a favourite with me. His first impression of me was rather funny: he thought me too English, and warned me not to lose my being Italian along the way.
Mother laughed it off because she knew my late grandmother had me standing with books on my head and my mannerism has always been influenced by being too close to my anti-Italian Swiss great-uncle, a well-off bachelor who really loved wine and game (although I’m not sure whether a confirmed bachelor in that sense -never talked about-, some would say he had some effeminate qualities to him). But there is also another aspect to this: if I had been assimilated into local culture, as he thinks, I’d be more Eastenders than Downton Abbey.
In my 5 years in London I have mostly been moving around rough areas. The sight of police posters calling for witnesses for murders has become normalised. In fact, I’ve spent most of my time here in the borough with the highest number of low income families. The people who are made fat by poverty have been a common sight for me, while it hardly is for Polly Toynbee who relocated to sunny Tuscany. In fact, they aren’t just a statistic to pontificate about. They are the people I talk to in the queue at the GP or the post office. People who have stories to tell, and are capable and resilient.
Yet she is right in bringing up the issue. While it used to be that the wealthy had better diets and therefore my body in the Renaissance was considered the ideal for the upper class, while peasants could just about sustain themselves for the hard labour they had to face every day, in modern times it’s the reverse. The rich are more likely to have the luxury of being slim because of better, more nutritious meals that are cooked from scratch rather than putting the £1 tray of frozen food from Iceland in the microwave. I’ve heard it said very often that healthy food is cheap, but really it isn’t. By the time you put together a filling meal the cost of the ingredients adds up. Small inner-city supermarkets are more expensive and have less variety than big out of town ones. My food bill pre-Abel & Cole averaged £15 every two-three days max excluding wine and I’m single. There are ways around this, of course, and personal responsibility does play a role, but Polly is right on another count too.
“To be obese signifies being poor and out of control, because people who feel they have no control over their own lives give up”, she writes. And this is very true. What she seems to be blind to, though, is that the victimhood and identity politics of the modern metropolitan Left are not the answer, and that this is exactly what has been driving the reforms to the welfare system that the Conservatives have been pushing, as well as the economic policies making it so that work pays (higher portion of income without taxes would be one immediate example that comes to mind).
Stress itself is a big contributing factor to becoming fat. When you have bills to pay, work in a stressful environment and don’t make enough money to reduce the number of hours you work, since you can just about make end meets, I think you’d have to be a full-on saint not to be stressed. Exercise, mindfulness and whatever not are all good and well but you don’t feel like doing it if you hate yourself, and when you have that kind of life it’s hard not to. Add to that a demanding child and me-time is a luxury you can’t afford. You just turn on the telly and rest on the couch after a long day on your feet. You want a quick fix. It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break until you feel in control, as Polly rightly said herself. But that’s a very Tory outlook on life, as we emphasise personal responsibility and we actually believe people can be happy and prosperous and create a good society. We want people in control. A market economy gives people control. This mentality stretches to the left only as far as Blue Labour.
There are many issues surrounding what causes the issues she highlights. Family breakdown comes up high on the list in a lot of research. With families, communities have gone too. We often hardly know our neighbours, let alone leaving our children with them after school. The whole system in the ’70s made equality being about two working parents rather than making it socially acceptable for fathers to be the ones at home if they so wished, and women not being belittled if they decide to be the ones home instead.
People have less time at home unless they have higher incomes or depend on tax credits, and child care can eat up a lot of money if you have to pay for it. Unless you are a workaholic with masochistic tendencies, you’re not going to be happy if your day is commute-work-sleep. The responsibility of buying and preparing food then becomes just a burden unless you really like cooking and would spend a whole weekend just watching old-school Nigella on TV. There are times when even I have relied on the chippy ’round the corner because thinking about going to the shop and then standing in the kitchen drained my energy, let alone actually doing it.
Banning companies from making their cheap meals more appealing by using sugar and fats is putting a plaster on a wound without addressing the root cause, but it’s to be expected from someone like Polly Toynbee. Yes, the cheap meals would be healthier, but what about the real problem, which is that people have miserable lives? That our consumerism as a society is fuelling a spiral of low paid jobs from the production chain overseas to the retail worker on Oxford Street?
We live in a utilitarian and individualistic society and this is where we’re at. Maybe what we really need is more traditional conservatism, not more state.