If you want to know how Alice in Wonderland felt when she popped down the rabbit hole, visit an inner-city suburb on a Sunday and then go to a country town the next day. In the inner city, it’s like you’ve had the Eat Me cake. The place is populated with young sophisticates who are all so lithe, visitors feel huge in comparison. Indeed, they are huge in comparison. Then in the country town the next day, it’s like you’ve drunk from the Drink Me bottle. Everyone looks so big and solid you feel petite. In fact, you are slim in comparison.
For someone who is definitely not thin but also not that fat, it’s a mind bender to go from feeling oversized to undersized in the space of 24 hours. But it’s no illusion. On the atlas of body sizes, that inner-city suburb is the skinny capital of the country, with only four out of 10 people boasting a muffin top. In the country town almost seven out of 10 wear larger sizes.
This spread of geographic obesity has intrigued health officials since the data was first collated and, later, put on to a digital atlas. Some of the reasons are obvious and some can only be hinted at — and here’s an early hint. In the inner-city suburb, I decided to order a skinny latte and in the country town, I ordered cake.
The obvious reasons for obesity inequity are all about demographics. Health is strongly associated with wealth, and inner-city suburbs are wealthy postcodes populated by young professionals, creative workers and middle-aged bankers who bike to work. And on a Sunday, when workers are at home, there seems to be a lot of them jogging by.
The further you get from the city core, the lower the incomes. The residents of country towns are older and poorer, less resourced, less endowed with leisure opportunities, and less able to walk or cycle to work or even the shops.
Obesogenic environment is how some experts describe the many factors that influence whether people in an area will be overweight. But one of the least recognised parts of the equation is how you feel about your weight when you look around the place. That is, if you are surrounded by people who are thinner than you, you will feel fat, and you’ll probably vow to do something about it. You might decide to lose weight, join them jogging or, at the very least, decide to have a skinny latte for breakfast and pass on the avocado smash.
If, on the other hand, everyone seems fatter than you, you’ll feel a little smug and decide there’s no reason to refuse the vanilla slice in the cafe. In both cases, you’ll be on your way to fitting into the respective places.
Social contagion is a new scientific stream but it’s getting powerful data about how our friendship groups affect the way we eat, drink and exercise. Peer group pressure isn’t just a schoolyard hazard, it follows us through life.
In short, our friends, work colleagues and neighbours have a big influence on what we consider to be normal behaviour. Social norms affect not just the sorts of foods we eat but the quantities we consume. They influence whether we smoke, drink too much, exercise too little and even whether we swear too liberally. As social animals, we want to fit in, even if the price of entry is an unhealthy life.
So, those whose first reaction to feeling thin walking around a country town is to move to that town so you feel thin all the time, think again. You’ll end up joining them in more ways than one. And those who want to tackle the muffin top will do better to walk around the inner suburbs feeling bloated and out of place. You’ll join them, but you might have to start jogging around the streets with them to do so.
It sounds awful but you should choose your friends carefully if you want to live healthily. And, equally tough, you should choose the place you call home just as carefully. But if you’re fond of your hearty friends or you love the place you’re in, there is another possibility. Get all your friends, neighbours and work colleagues together and change your habits. You are more than what you eat. You are what your friends eat. And how you end up depends on whether your friends are more likely to suggest that you Drink Me or Eat Me. gmail.com