Contrary to what many people think, obesity is mainly caused by stress, not by wealth.  “Hurry, curry and worry,” they used to say. Serious problems, like money trouble, marital woes or work challenges –all these cause a person to eat inordinately, going for fats, mainly.

I believe the stressed obese gain (if that’s the proper word) an identifiable body-shape, and it is round and puffed, all over. Stress seems to distribute fat evenly, erasing the architectural beauty and balance of the human body.

But there is another kind of obesity, the one that belongs to the newly-rich.  Strangely enough, we turn to food in order to convince ourselves (and perhaps others) that we really are rolling in money. Well, new realities need getting used to. Again the body shape associated, to my mind at least, with this kind of obesity is also distinctive.  It goes mainly to the belly, but the face is also a target.

All of this, of course is not true.  It is as true as the fond (but deep-rooted) belief that the rich or the good are beautiful, in all senses, and the bad are ugly, again in all senses. How comfortable that would be. It would give reassurance, in the sense that we would easily steer clear of dangerous individuals because they ‘look’ bad.

Obesity is clearly the result of excess… Equally clearly, it is the result of feeling too insecure or, conversely, too secure

We were brought up on such simplifications. The wicked witch has a crooked nose, an upturned, pointed jaw, and a wart. So it is easy to avoid people who look like that. The Church, through its iconography, has given more than a helping hand at strengthening this misconception. Saints are always depicted as being bathed in light, with melting eyes that look beyond (not threateningly at you) and sometimes they also levitate.

We ignore the fact that this makes most of us unqualified for sainthood; it tells us that the good are meek, good-looking and ethereal. Master painter after master painter always depicted villains as brutal low-life scummers should look, as social dregs that are ugly, and bear the scars inherited from a sociopathic existence. So the good look good and the bad look bad. The Devil is always depicted as a bat-winged Negro.

But the Devil wears Prada. No drug pusher tells his first-time victim that the sachet will lead him or her to destruction: he peddles it as a pouch of pleasure.

An ancient English writer makes one of his creations bewail the fact that pleasure is intrinsically bound with transgression: “Alas that ever love was sin,” says Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Most of the major religions denounce pleasure, and warn of punishment if it is enjoyed. Usually, the ‘established’ religions declare that the punishment is deferred to ‘afterlife’. Indeed, instant divine justice is rarely witnessed on Earth, and its absence leads many to take justice in their own hands.

Science seems to agree with religions about this idea of transgression being linked to punishment, telling us, since Newton, that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. In the case of science, however, the punishment is not deferred. If you exceed in your quest for pleasure, it is your body that will call you to it, not your soul.  If you lose your soul in the process that is an added bother.

Going back to obesity, it is clearly the result of excess, but the fascinating question lies in resolving the cause of the excess.  Equally clearly, it is the result of feeling too insecure or, conversely, too secure. With children, it is either a case of the parents having no option but to give them cheap junk or to stuff them so that the parents feel that they are ‘good’ providers.

How strange the world is. Opposites do meet. The fat rich and the poor rich are indistinguishable when they are stripped of clothes and the newly-taxable make-up.  Obesity is as great a leveller as death.

Many, many years ago, at university, I found economics daunting. It had concepts which seemed to make no sense (probably because my lecturers did not bother to explain to simpletons like me). One of them was the observation that in some countries, when the price of bread rose, so did the consumption. How could that be? It is contradictory.

Years later, I learned the poor would have no money left to spend and could only afford to buy bread with their small change. They could not buy cake, and that changed the historic trajectory of European civilisation.

But this is all mere prattle. Comment is free, while facts are sacred, as C.P. Scott, the editor of The Guardian wrote in 1921, and whether we are a stressed and worried nation or a well-to-do and comfortable one, we are the European champions, by quite a long chalk.

Charles Caruana Carabez sits on the National Commission for Further and Higher Education.

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