Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Culture of Obesity – Huffington Post

Here’s my latest article – read it here or over at Huff Po USA

I had no excuse for becoming fat at 25. Growing up in the countryside in South Devon, England, I was always fed delicious, local, unprocessed food, and was always active, spending most of my free time either surfing or riding horses. Yet for all my initial advantages, on the eve of my book launch in 2010, on the back of my ‘year of excess’ working as a bond broker in London, I’d reached 190lbs (86 kilos), making me ‘overweight’ according to U.K. governmental guidelines for my 5-foot, 9-inch frame.

There was of course nothing unusual about my size, given that 30 percent of the world is now obese or overweight, having jumped 47.1 percent amongst children from 1980 to 2013, and 27.5 percent amongst adults. Despite most of us now being painfully aware of the causes of obesity (poor diets and lack of exercise — certain medical conditions aside), we just keep getting fatter. In fact, it appears even some doctors have now given up fighting obesity altogether and are opting for a different approach: cardiologist Dr. Carl Lavie has recently published the aptly named The Obesity Paradox: When Thinner Means Sicker and Heavier Means Healthier telling us all that it’s fine to be overweight, we just need to be fit, too.

But before we all go jogging (slowly) towards the donuts, we surely have to ask if this is the best we can now hope for. Are we all so incapable of maintaining a healthy weight that we have to resign ourselves to being ‘bordering on obese but fit,’ because it’s at least preferable to ‘morbidly obese’ or ‘dangerously thin’? I’m sorry, Dr. Lavie, but the only people who can legitimately be fat and fit simultaneously are sumo wrestlers.

Reflecting on my own years of being overweight, I’ve realized that I became fat simply because I gave up. Aside from the odd kick of adrenaline, I hated bond broking — even though it’s taken me a while to realize it. I got home exhausted, ate whatever I could pick up on the way, spent my weekends sleeping having lost touch with my friends, and with no energy to do any of the things I used to love. Disenchanted, unfulfilled and alienated, I convinced myself this was just what happened when you grew up and got a job — that being fat, exhausted and miserable was the price I had to pay for success, but that eventually I’d earn enough money to buy back my health and happiness. In the meantime, I’d settle for the cheap thrill of processed food.

Fortunately, I was fired for gross misconduct when I wrote an article for the Spectator. I was able to change my career and eventually rescue my body, which had become unrecognizable. It wasn’t my natural weight, and away from the excessive, nefarious world of finance, it felt incongruous — like I’d borrowed a fat suit for my brief odyssey to the trading floor, and I now no longer needed such thick skin. I was ready to re-enter the land of the living, and for that I wanted my strong, fit body back — not this impostor with chafing thighs.

I would argue that our addiction to fast food, corruption of the food chain, lack of interest in physical activity and resulting obesity epidemic is a symptom of a far more serious problem: the collective misery caused by our increasingly solipsistic, alienating societies. We’ve detached not only from each other, but now even from our bodies, which we no longer take any responsibility for, or pride in, beyond the odd Instagram snap. Social media provides cheap, accessible thrills that are to real society what a Big Mac is to a sirloin of grass-fed Devon beef. Behind our computers, we barely need to be physically present or embodied in the world as our lives can be played out online, through any persona we want, and advances in medicine will continue enabling us to live longer, even if we’re too obese to move.

Celebrities and the rich, meanwhile, will continue crafting whatever ‘real-life’ bodies they want, and documenting the entire process online, alongside what they wear for their daily sojourns into the real world, for the poor underclass to ‘follow’ from their computers: bedridden, hopeless and obese. With apologies to Edmund Spenser, it turns out it’s no longer the soul that’s form, and doth the body make — it’s an expensive personal trainer and a good surgeon, or if all else fails, an online avatar will do.

We cannot allow this madness to progress further than it already has. Having a functional, fit body cannot become the ‘privilege’ of the upper classes, or of celebrities who can afford personal trainers and daily deliveries of perfectly balanced healthy food. The ‘thigh gap’ cannot become yet another measure of worldwide wealth inequality for Thomas Piketty to pick at.

To combat obesity, we have to take responsibility for our bodies again and stop seeing them in the abstract. They are what make us human, and rooted in society — we do not live alone inside our iPhones (yet). Caring about our bodies and wanting to be strong can be seen as a spiritual and civic duty; of not being ready to give up; of life embodied still meaning something beyond a mindless ‘selfie’ on Instagram. Getting up and going out and engaging with the world, and aspiring to be a healthy member of society is what gives us dignity — helping us to live ‘as if’ our lives and our bodies have meaning, which is preferable to giving up, or indeed succumbing to the new ‘fitspo’ trend of spending all day taking photographs of your butt.

Rather than our governments implementing endless abstract notions upon ours lives, like five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, we should perhaps start by teaching children that their lives don’t have to be a race to the (fat) bottom; teaching them values beyond the mindless pursuit of ‘success,’ celebrity, money, and the all-too-brief kick provided by MSG in fast food, and encouraging them to strive for meaningful vocations, skills and the resulting dignity that with any luck won’t leave them with the sort of moral and spiritual void that they’ll spend their entire lives trying to fill with donuts.

The Telegraph 21/08/2013: When working all hours takes a terrible toll

My generation grew up thinking – and being told by parents, teachers and the media – that if we got a job at an investment bank and worked really hard, we’d never have to worry. We could have it all: the fast car, the loft apartment, the yacht, the Caribbean holidays, the glamorous girlfriend or boyfriend. And the best part? We wouldn’t even have to do it forever – just long enough to earn a fortune and then we could do what we really wanted in our thirties or forties. It was the American dream in the City of London.

Moritz Erhardt’s father believed this avenue would be open to his son, too, revealing that Moritz’s plan was “to work really hard for a few years and to do something good afterwards”. Moritz will now never have the chance to “do something good” – the 21-year-old was nearing the end of a seven-week internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London when he collapsed and died at home. He had worked until 6am for three days in a row.

The “dream ending” hoped for by young people in these jobs at investment banks is for most, today, non-existent. As one trader friend of mine put it, “That old myth of being able to retire or become a chef in your forties? Don’t be crazy. Not with a mortgage this size and two kids in private school. We’re all trapped. There’s no big money to be made any more – just enough to keep you from jacking it in and doing something interesting.”

When I was Moritz Erhardt’s age, having graduated with a degree in Russian and no idea what to do next, I too was working in the City, putting in long hours as a high-yield bond broker. I was at my desk by 7am, out with investment banking clients until the early hours several nights a week, and frequently found myself standing in the shower at 5am taking long, deep breaths trying to slow my heart rate down.

For a few months, I thought it was terribly glamorous: the exhaustion, the long hours and the panic attacks all seemed a small price to pay in exchange for that magical hit of adrenaline when I traded. Even when I ended up in hospital on a drip with an acute kidney infection, and doctors told me my body’s defences were no longer functioning normally, I didn’t slow down: I eagerly resumed my abusive relationship with the trading floor as soon as I could. I still felt invincible. After all, when you’re in your early twenties, and you know you won’t be working like this forever, what’s the worst that can happen?

And, of course, nobody forced me to do any of it. I was not even driven by extreme poverty, like the tragic seamstress Mary Anne Walkley, whose death from overwork in 1863 so scandalised contemporary society that she made it into Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. When I came in a bit late or left a little earlier, I doubt anyone really cared. Nor could I claim I was doing it out of heroism or some higher purpose. The only person I was really impressing with my all-nighters was me. All the shots of espresso, the cat naps taken in toilet cubicles, and the heart palpitations that I wore like some sick badge of honour while staying late to fill in yet another spreadsheet, went largely unnoticed and were of comparatively little use to the world.

No, all the pressure, expectation and desire to outperform my colleagues came from somewhere within, as I can imagine it did for Moritz Erhardt – star pupil, sportsman, perfect intern. As he wrote in a now much-quoted online profile with regard to his love of sport: “Sometimes I had a tendency to be overambitious, which resulted in severe injuries.”
It could have been me or any number of my contemporaries found collapsed in a shower cubicle at 21. Mercifully, deaths from overwork or suicide from depression remain rare, but people are rarely able to “do something good” with their lives, or escape the rat race.

We may never know how many all-nighters Moritz had worked during his summer internship, and I’m sure speculation as to his cause of death will continue long after the autopsy results are in. But for too many educated young people around the world, their horizons, expectations and ambitions are limited to trying to work harder than the person next to them, because this has become the only acknowledged route to “success”. Until this changes, no amount of regulation on working hours or support networks will help very much. After all, any super-ambitious 21-year-old forced to go home at 7pm will simply continue filling in spreadsheets from their smartphone.

We would do well to remember that banks are composed of people, and are a symptom of our culture. They say every country has the government it deserves – perhaps the same could be said of the banks.