Poverty and ob*sity: blaming working-class people and their multi-pack crisps

Mel Ciavucco
6 min readAug 16, 2020

At primary school in the late ’80s, I had free school dinners. There’s no way to avoid feeling exposed when you’re one of the few kids clutching a special token who isn’t allowed to join the normal queue. I patiently waited my turn, after most of the other kids had got their meals, hoping I could still get a wedge of pizza and green custard for dessert. This was one of the first experiences I had of not being ‘normal’, which made me a target for teasing. That, and being fat.

From a young age, I knew that my body was wrong. The kids who teased me at school were never going to let me forget that, nor were the adults who said they were ‘just kidding’ when they made jokes about my double chin. The school nurse confirmed I was not ‘normal’ — I was told I needed to lose weight. I was fit and healthy at the time, doing lots of dance classes. This didn’t seem to matter. An outdated chart (BMI) said I wasn’t ‘normal’ so that’s all that mattered.

I may have been eligible for free school meals but I didn’t think of my family as being poor. I had second-hand clothes and cheap knock-offs instead of real Doc Martens, but we weren’t living in poverty. We always had food on the table, and it was often healthy food. One side of my family is Italian so I’d spend my weekends eating fresh home-cooked meals. But they were big meals, so I’d often feel guilty and told myself I had to compensate by dieting the rest of the time. This meant I tried to ignore my hunger signals and was either very full or very hungry a lot of the time, thrown into an unintentional binge cycle by the pressure to lose weight.

I know I’m not the only one to have been weighed at school at a very young age and told that I was too fat. For many, including myself, this was the start of a lifetime of body hatred and having a difficult relationship with food. The school nurse made an assumption that I didn’t exercise and that I didn’t eat healthily. This was not true. This same assumption is still widespread about fat people now and it’s extremely damaging. These assumptions are based on stereotypes of fat people being lazy, glutinous and weak-willed. It is deeply ingrained in a society that believes in the overtly simplistic narrative that being thin is healthy and being fat is not.

Poverty is a contributing factor to ob*sity, but there are many other factors including environment, genes, culture, trauma and much more. Some people are just fat, and that’s it. We fat people don’t need to be fixed, changed or told what to do, but widespread fear of the so-called “ob*sity epidemic” means unfortunately our bodies are everyone’s business. A common assumption is that working-class fat people are fat because processed/junk/unhealthy food is cheaper than “healthy” food. It’s assumed that fat families eat at MacDonald’s and live off multi-pack crisps and that’s why we have an “ob*sity crisis”. These misguided assumptions often come from a place of privilege, from likely having never experienced being fat or being poor. Poverty as a contributing factor to the “ob*sity epidemic” isn’t just about families buying cheap processed food and junk food but even if it was, it doesn’t mean that fat people deserve less respect.

Sometimes cheap sweets are the only bit of joy you get when your family life is difficult and you’re being bullied at school. If you’re frequenting food banks, there’s going to be less choice when it comes to diet, and there’s the embarrassment and shame that may come along with having to use them too. It’s both fatphobic and classist to make assumptions about the dietary habits and exercise patterns of working-class fat people. It’s wrapped up in “health concern”, but there is no real care or concern for our health, it’s more about finding people to blame for the strain on the NHS.

As a person who grew up working-class in the Midlands, I usually ate well, if ‘well’ means food which includes vegetables and isn’t processed. Ironically, the times I was not healthy was when I was trying to throw my lunch away, eat diet bars and drink diet milkshakes. I experienced so much anxiety around food and my body that I didn’t even realise until many years later how anxious I was. I just thought it was normal. In being told to have a “healthier” body, I had a much unhealthier mind, and that led to disordered eating behaviours. They just wanted me to be thin at any cost, it was never really about my health. My difficulties with my relationship with food, body image, and mental health problems stemmed from fatphobia and weight stigma. It came from being bullied, from repeated messages that I was not good enough and the discrimination I faced for being “different”. And I’m white and abled-bodied so this would be so much worse for a person in a more marginalised group than me.

The “ob*sity crisis” won’t be solved by limiting the sale of cheap multi-pack foods and deals. It’s a punishment, not an aid. It places the blame on low income families and is likely to cause even more class division in our society. It’s too simplistic to think that the link between poverty and obesity is just about money. It’s about the inequalities, discrimination and abuse that you’re more likely to experience if you’re working-class. It’s the family cycles of behaviour and trauma that can create difficult relationships with food. It’s the difficult home life and family experiences (such as domestic violence, addiction, abuse etc) that are more likely to affect poorest kids. It’s also a society that tells fat children that their bodies are wrong and that it’s their fault, or blaming their parents. Traumatised adults often raise traumatised kids.

We have widespread cultural ignorance around childhood trauma and the huge impact it is having on our society. I’m not saying that all fat people are traumatised, but trauma does affect our relationship with food and can lead to disordered eating (I include dieting in this) and eating disorders. Our societal view of eating disorders is often that they’re the “opposite” of “ob*sity”. We assume eating disorders affect skinny teenage girls, when in fact they’re affecting mostly fat people. Anorexia is the least prevalent eating disorder. Restrictive eating behaviours are praised in fat people but diagnosed as eating disorders in thin people. Binge eating can often be missed by health professionals and people are sent to weight management services or put on diets instead (which is likely to only make the binge eating much worse). Eating disorders can stem from growing up with not enough food; from food scarcity and food poverty. Instead of trying to find ways to get people to eat less, count calories or make “healthier choices” (by putting calories on menus for example) we should be looking at ways to feed everyone, especially children. Instead of our government doing this, it’s the likes of footballers — thank you Marcus Rashford!

We should be focussing on mental health and equality, instead of blaming working-class fat people. We should be helping and supporting, not shaming. Being bullied, ostracised, discriminated against, teased…whatever you want to call it, is traumatic. People are not able to choose “healthy lifestyles” when our society doesn’t value or respect them. Choosing a “healthy lifestyle” is a privilege. Everyone deserves respect whether they fit the idea of being “healthy” or not. Nobody owes anyone “health” just to get a basic level of respect. Fatness isn’t something to be solved or fixed, it’s a misguided “look over there” distraction; let's blame the working class fat people who are so uneducated they don’t even know how to eat properly.

Being fat isn’t the problem, it’s really about inequality, austerity and a lack of focus on mental health. It’s ignorance around trauma and discrimination, and systemic racism, fatphobia, and widespread unquestioned weight biases and privilege. But I guess it’s just easier to blame fat working-class people and their multi-pack crisps.



Mel Ciavucco

Integrative counsellor, trainer and writer. Interests in eating disorders, body image, weight stigma, and domestic abuse. https://melciavucco.com