Against all evidence, the Royal College of Physicians is looking for role models to help us live healthier lives
Professor John Wass, one of the authors of the Royal College of Physicians’ report Action on Obesity, thinks it would help if a member of the royal family would offer leadership, in the manner of Michelle Obama. Although, as a representative of evidence-based medicine, the professor must have powerful reasons for believing that a famous person has the potential to correct collective dietary failure, his must be a challenging project.
Even given the large pool of unemployed royal candidates, and with memories of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother’s prodigious drinking and Diana’s bulimia now faded, like Prince Harry’s pre-Afghanistan holidays, almost beyond recall, the professor will know, from the wildly fluctuating example of the commoner Anne Diamond, now happily settled with a gastric band, about the risks of lay obesity experts.
As Dawn French put it: “Aren’t I lucky to have Anne Diamond telling me how to live?” Well, inasmuch that Anne Diamond is not Princess Michael of Kent, perhaps she is.
Might it be safest, if the Wass experiment goes ahead, to pick a lightweight Windsor, such as the hawker of endorsements Zara Phillips or the less worrying of the two Fergie daughters, then swaddle the royal inside a light casing of removable padding that could be adjusted in case of weight gain? But this would hardly be fair to the NHS staff who must begin, according to the prescriptions of Action on Obesity, to shed weight and lead “by example” in a health service where 700,000 workers are currently thought to be obese and thus wretched role models.
The Duchess of Cambridge, recently voted one of the most influential people in the world and obviously the most promising royal candidate in terms of both BMI and IQ, may still have to prove to the public that she eats at all, before becoming an argument for doing this in moderation and, unlike her mother, without recourse to an extreme diet, the Dukan. Yet, assuming the royal anti-obesity leadership will require, as with the US demands on Michelle Obama, a semi-professional level of physical fitness along with a working knowledge of nutrition and a vague chance of being taken seriously by a public that may not enjoy similar access to full-time cooks, subsidised fresh produce and regular skiing and stag-hunting, who else is there?
Without putting her on the scales and asking some delicate questions about diet, smoking and lifestyle, Camilla’s detoxifications at yogic retreats, however thorough, cannot pass for role-model fitness; Charles proselytises quackery and sells biscuits; Prince Andrew, jowls aside, may not be the kind of person a respectable subject wishes to trust with the great task of leading the UK out of what Professor Wass’s report describes as “one of the highest incidences of severe obesity in the world”. And even a joint leadership by the Cambridge ectomorphs, accompanied by public weighings and a threat of losing servants in the event of backsliding, might be less effective in the long term than if the Royal College of Physicians had insisted on government action to address the food industry’s mission to stuff under-informed Britons, from nursery to grave, with cheap fat and sugar.
If the spokesman for the Royal College of Physicians evinces a surprising, you might think whimsical, preference for a royal figurehead as opposed to controls on the food industry and an immediate improvement in school nutrition (neither mentioned in the report), perhaps this is natural given the widespread trust in role models as a swift, certain – and cheap – route to behaviour change. The expectation, undiminished by scanty evidence and numerous Anne Diamond-style disappointments, is that no social problem, from too much obesity and too little physics study, to the rise in gang membership and the decline of civility, is beyond correction by appropriate role models. In the remarkable case of Miranda Hart, the comedian is attributed with the miraculous power to improve young women’s self-esteem at exactly the same time that she sanctions misogyny. Such is the yearning for inspiring comparators that, even if a well-known person never intended to set an example to young/fat/shy/racist/sexist/lazy/humanities-orientated people – even if they aspired, actually, to do the precise opposite – this role is likely be forced upon them, willy-nilly, along with the tireless monitoring of their relationships and knee wrinkles, as part of the price of fame.
One reason, for example, that some viewers have been so devastated by Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year is because the on-screen behaviour fell so far short of conduct you might expect from a vicar, a politician, a head teacher or, as in this case, a so-called alternative comedian. Viewers who might have expected, given the eminence and earlier career of Jonathan Ross and his fellow guests, to hear the scholars quietly debating the Arian controversy, were instead invited – and it was hard to read these words in the Daily Mail – to hear them “speculate lasciviously on air about the taste of a racehorse’s semen”. It cannot, the paper argues, “be fanciful to draw a connection between the explicit four-letter outbursts of such TV role models and the epidemic of vile, coarse, ‘sexting’ in our schools…”
Like the Royal College of Physicians, the promoters of Team GB and believers in the electrifying effect on GCSE students of television’s Brian Cox (when that is not vitiated by the equal and opposite effect of a big bang theory geek), the Mail does not question that members of the public, once exposed to a relevant role model, will oblige with reflexive imitation.
So it should be some consolation to Channel 4’s critics that in the case of much-loved sports heroes the lack of any health impact is routinely deprecated; the effect of Brian Cox on the study of science likewise; and, where correcting obesity is concerned, the Daily Mail’s extravagant tributes to thin celebrities and its vicious disappointment when these icons respond with weight-gain, appears to have as little effect on the UK’s fat levels as watching obscene TV does on the language of journalism’s Paul Dacre. There are, as might have been guessed earlier from Mrs Thatcher’s impact on getting women into politics, definite limits to the hypnotic effect of the role model.
If Michelle Obama is, as claimed, making a difference with Let’s Move, it will be less to do with her personal fitness than her attempts to bring healthy food into schools, play areas into cities and some responsibility into the food industry.
Supposing the royal family did supply Professor Wass with a British Michelle, versed in press-ups and arm-wrestling, such a figurehead would be even less likely than the Royal College of Physicians, in its spectacularly feeble report, to attack the interests, rather than the malignant effects, of a food industry that is allowed to regulate itself.
Moreover, before the proposal goes any further, Professor Wass needs to answer one vital question: how much does he weigh?