Can writers help battle obesity?
Can our nation’s leading creative writers help ease the burden of obesity in Australia?
Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre (CPC), and Executive Director of Obesity Australia, is confident they can.
This confidence is reaping rewards through a unique residency set up in 2016 and a productive commissioning process that puts writers in contact with the centre’s scientists and other researchers to spark innovative thinking.
“You need all these disciplines to come together if you are going to start to get to the heart of solving such a fundamental societal problem as obesity,” Simpson says.
“If you’re addressing a question as complicated as the epidemic of metabolic disease – the pandemic that is engulfing not only the developed but the developing world – you need to go beyond individual creativity to generate creativity within networks.”
Multi award-winning novelist Charlotte Wood was the centre’s inaugural Writer-in-Residence in 2016. She used her year at the centre – which comes with a $100,000 fellowship – to develop a new novel that responds to the way ageing people are depicted in mainstream culture.
Last year CPC also commissioned acclaimed playwright Alana Valentine to write Made to Measure – a stage play that dramatises the relationship that people have with their wedding day appearance.
She interviewed a range of Sydney-based couturiers and brides-to-be, and the insights gained through her work are helping CPC researchers to interpret some core issues in relation to body image and obesity.
Wedding day stakes
Valentine says there are high stakes for an individual to look their ideal version of themselves on their wedding day.
This fuelled her desire to explore how a diversity of cultures and people “stay focused and resolute” about their appearance and health in the lead up to a wedding but are not able to continue to do so later.
“All the dress- and suit-makers that I’ve interviewed told me very funny very moving stories about disastrous dieting, impossible clients, spectacular failures and … scandalous liaisons.
“These wedding day apparel makers have yielded material for a play that I think is an entertaining route into a diversity of insights into the Australian psyche as it relates to body shape, nutritional discipline and cultural expectations.
“The relationship of the designer to the potential bride has given me licence as a writer to confront audiences with some harsh truths about health issues.”
Valentine joins author Mireille Juchau as one of two writers-in-residence at the centre, which is part of the University of Sydney, in 2017.
She will use her time to interview scientists about how they feel when their critical warnings about metabolic syndrome and other chronic diseases go unheeded. She will also write a play based on those impressions.
Simpson, Wood and Valentine appeared on a panel as part of the Curious Science series presented by the City of Sydney Library and Inspiring Australia at Customs House in Circular Quay on June 22.
Valentine read two evocative scenes from Made to Measure. Her rapt audience groaned in sympathy when she described a “fat girl” in a wedding dress shop where her bulk amid the size 6 frocks causes people’s eyeballs to “spurt blood all over the French lace and antique tulle”.
Obesity our biggest health risk
Obesity is the biggest health risk in Australia. One in four children and more than 63 per cent of adults are overweight, compared with just over half in 1995.
Simpson says that in a society where 63 per cent of people are considered either obese or overweight it is profoundly unhelpful to say, “You eat too much and you move too little.”
This is a “failed model” that leads to guilt and stigmatisation.
“That [obesity epidemic] is either the greatest failure of willpower in the history of humanity or it tells you something about how our biology is interacting with the world that we’ve built. And it’s the latter that’s the more interesting. We need to understand that – and not simply blame people. It’s too easy to do that.”
Simpson believes the fresh perspectives that writers like Wood, Valentine and Juchau bring to some of Australia’s biggest health challenges should help the centre find new and more effective ways to tackle them.
“Understanding obesity—mind and body”, the next talk in the Curious Science series, is at Ultimo Library on July 12.
The Charles Perkins Centre, which is part of Sydney University, is committed to easing the burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and their related conditions, which are the leading causes of death, disability and reduced quality of life in Australia. Charles Perkins was the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university.