Obesity: Louise Wallace hits out at 'fat women' in fashion advertising during AM panel

With the likes of Lizzo, Jameela Jamil and Ashley Graham holding a torch for the body-positive movement, it's increasingly common to see women of all shapes and sizes emblazoned on billboards and the covers of glossy magazines.

Gone are the days of 'heroin chic' and size zero being heralded as the ideal 'bikini body'. Models historically classified as 'plus-size' are now, finally, being seen as what they are - women with normal, healthy bodies who look just as fabulous. 

However, the push towards championing bodies of all proportions hasn't exactly struck a chord with everyone, with some critics condemning the newfound advocacy for physiques they claim are clinically overweight. 

And with more than a third of New Zealanders now classified as obese - as measured by BMI, or body mass index - the issue of obesity is once again circulating in public discourse. This week, it was revealed that Kiwis are now requiring knee surgeries at far younger ages due to a significant increase in the rate of obesity post-COVID-19, partly attributed to the series of restrictive lockdowns.

Overweight and obese patients are at a much higher risk for knee surgery as their excess weight puts their joints - particularly the knees - under additional stress. With obesity rates ballooning, wait lists for knee surgeries are now also expected to skyrocket.

Speaking to AM on Wednesday morning, New Zealand actor, director and former The Real Housewives of Auckland star Louise Wallace, 62, implied the body-positivity movement has led to overweight bodies being "normalised" in the media, claiming "fat women" appearing in advertisements and campaigns could be contributing to the high rates of obesity.

Appearing on the AM's panel alongside singer-songwriter Nathan King, Wallace was asked by hosts Ryan Bridge and Melissa Chan-Green if health officials should crack down on obesity with a strict and uncompromising approach - in a similar vein to the 'tough-on-crime' rhetoric commentators have been calling for in response to recent gang warfare and firearm offences.

When both King and Wallace agreed that obesity should also be tackled with the same vigour as New Zealand's crime wave, Chan-Green asked what that "tough action" might look like. While King suggested that a sugar tax - "sugar's the enemy, we need to fix it" - could be a solution, Wallace joked that taping "over people's mouths with gaffer tape" might help.

"It's what goes in here," she added, gesturing to her mouth.

"I think, unfortunately, we have normalised the idea of being overweight. When I was overseas quite recently, you would pass by these huge ads for fashion [brands]... and there would be distinctly overweight women - like, dare I say it, fat women - in these ads, advertising clothes, and that is now seen as normal."

Chan-Green pointed out that the uptick in models with 'normal' bodies appearing in advertisements is itself a reflection of reality, with the fashion industry slowly introducing the diverse range of body shapes we see in our day-to-day lives.

"It doesn't mean it's right though, and it's not right - because people are getting sick," Wallace asserted.

Louise Wallace
Louise Wallace argued that "fat women" appearing in advertisements is normalising obesity. Photo credit: Supplied

Chiming in, Bridge acknowledged that while it is a "minority", some people who are clinically overweight "can't help" their condition - perhaps due to thyroid dysfunction or medication.

"You can't paint everyone with the same brush," he said. 

"You don't have to be skinny, you just have to be normal. I look at all of us... and we're normal [sized]," Wallace continued, to which Chan-Green responded: "You can't look at someone... who's modelling a fashion brand - and perhaps they're a size 16 - and say that they're unhealthy. That doesn't mean they're unhealthy."

"You can't have it both ways. You either advertise with people who have what I would see as 'a normal body' - maybe a size 12 or 14. You put a size 18 there and people think that's normal and healthy," Wallace countered. 

"It might be healthier when you're 25, but when you're 55, it won't be."

While studies have found that losing weight can reduce a person's likelihood of requiring knee surgery, Health Coalition Aotearoa Chair Professor Boyd Swinburn said encouraging weight loss doesn't necessarily equate to a reduction in the number of surgeries being performed. 

"Anybody who does have obesity has probably tried several times to lose weight - this is not an easy thing to do," Prof Swinburn told AM.

He said it would be hard to apply a weight loss criteria to obese patients, noting it would not only create a barrier to the surgery, but would be discriminatory in nature.

Prof Swinburn added that Government intervention is needed to help combat New Zealand's rising rate of obesity - and subsequently decrease the number of Kiwis requiring the surgical procedure.

"We have successive Governments doing very little actually in the last 10 to 20 years around the obesity epidemic and we really do need some action."