State of denial

State of denial

For more opinion articles, visit Cordelia Fine is a senior research fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Science and ...

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For more opinion articles, visit

Cordelia Fine is a senior research fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Science and associate professor at Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne. She is the author of Delusions of Gender: The real science behind sex differences (Icon Books)

One minute interview

State of denial Society needs to wake up to problems with body weight, excessive drinking and use of e-cigarettes, says Sally Davies evidence that people don’t recognise that being overweight is unhealthy. They don’t think about the consequences: the increased blood pressure and risk of stroke, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. There is a study showing that 77 per cent of parents with overweight children didn’t recognise they were overweight.

Profile Sally Davies is the chief medical officer for England and chief scientific adviser for the UK Department of Health. Her latest report on the state of public health was published last week

What is the biggest health challenge we face? The normalisation of unhealthy behaviour. We have made obesity and excessive drinking normal, and we are normalising e-cigarettes. We have normalised not taking sufficient exercise and the expectation that when people go to doctors, they will walk out with a prescription for antibiotics, even though antimicrobial resistance is a problem. Why are you worried about e-cigarettes? If they were regulated as medicine and we knew what was in them and the dose of nicotine, then they might play a useful role in stopping smoking. But they aren’t, so at the moment we don’t know their safety or the dose they deliver. Flavourings are often attractive to at children – cookies and cream and bubblegum. They are sold rather cheaply and many are made in China, so I worry about what’s in them. I am also worried about once again making smoking seem like a normal activity. Does the UK have a body weight problem? Two-thirds of adults in this country are now overweight, and one-third of children. We have

How can we make people more aware of problems with their weight? In primary schools and at medical check-ups height and weight are often measured. But people can check their own body mass index (BMI). Just find the NHS Choices site and calculate it. The site will tell you whether you have a healthy BMI. BMI is sometimes criticised as a poor guide to health. Is it reliable? It is a very good start. There are exceptions – if you are a body-builder with a lot of muscle then it might be different, but that is a small minority. You have also highlighted a problem with clothes shops using larger mannequins. Yes. We need to make people aware that a healthy weight is not overweight and the mannequins in dress shops being large sizes rather than a range of sizes can contribute to this. Could a sugar tax help to curb obesity? It is a last resort and at the moment it isn’t on the table. I want individuals to take responsibility, I want families to take responsibility, communities and society – and that includes industry. In what circumstances might it be an option? We would need to build a public coalition for it, and there isn’t one at the moment. You would have to have a government that felt it had public support and believed in regulation. We now have a generation of children who, because of their obesity, lack of physical activity and other behavioural issues, may not live as long as their parents. Maybe that will shift society. Interview by Kat Austen

5 April 2014 | NewScientist | 29

Department of Health

effects of the treatment on their psychosexual development, rather than because their brains have been “wired for wheels”. Existing science simply doesn’t support the view that genderneutral toys or books are, at best, a pointless railing against nature or, at worse, politically correct meddling with children’s “true” natures. Social experience isn’t something that interferes with the emergence of a child’s “real”, underlying design. It is an integral part of the construction, step by step, of the developmental pathway – destination uncertain. Moreover, developmental psychologists have found that children are very aware of the importance placed on the social category of gender, and highly motivated to discover what is “for boys” and what is “for girls”. Socialisation isn’t just imposed by others; a child actively selfsocialises. Once a child realises (at about 2 to 3 years of age) on which side of the great gender divide they belong, the wellknown dynamics of norms, ingroup preference and out-group prejudice kick-in. When Riley’s adult companion makes the common mollifying observation that, “If boys want to buy pink they can buy pink, right?”, he is only right in the way that it’s technically correct to say that men can wear dresses to work, if they want. Gendered toy and book marketing doesn’t create gender stereotypes, roles and norms, but it does reinforce them. It may be profitable to corporations, but there is a social cost – and science offers no moral comfort that there is a biological justification. Why do all the girls have to buy pink stuff? Let’s keep asking. n