JESSICA ENNIS always knew that being the poster girl of British athletics in the year of the London Olympics would also make her the target of some less flattering headlines. But if the European heptathlon champion – Europe’s best all-round athlete – is “fat”, what does that make the rest of us?
The first and most obvious thing to be said about that bizarre claim, which appeared on the eve of her major pre-Olympic meeting with her chief world rivals, is that it’s nonsense.
Such obvious nonsense, indeed, that Ennis can easily brush it off as “not an issue” and get on with the serious business of training and competing.
One might also point out that if such blatant piffle is the worst thing they can dig up to throw at her, she must lead a remarkably clean and blameless life.
There is, of course, a nasty undertone of sexism implicit in the original story. Sexism of the same strain that runs through so much of our rather seamy, celebrity-obsessed media culture.
That culture which fixates on spotting movie stars, “reality TV” performers, singers, and people famous for nothing other than being famous, going about their daily lives in casual dress, normally unkempt, or showing a bit of un-retouched flesh.
That culture which looks for signs of weight gain, or loss, among the supposedly beautiful people and treats it as a more important issue than nuclear power, famine in Yemen or economic meltdown in Europe.
Weight is, of course, an issue for athletes – and not just for the boxers and jockeys who can make themselves ill by starving and sweating down for an official weigh-in.
If your whole livelihood depends on being able to run a split-second faster, or jump a centimetre or two further, than your rivals, you don’t want to be carrying an ounce more than necessary. And I think we can take it from the consistently world-class level of Ennis’s performances across her seven athletic disciplines that she’s about as fit as it’s healthy for a person to be.
One possible source of confusion – and I’m not saying this applies to Ennis, whose balance of diet and exercise is more strictly regulated than most of us could cope with or understand – is the body mass index (BMI).
This rather clumsy tool has been used for years to try to identify who needs to lose (or gain) weight, who is at heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease and so on.
It’s clumsy because it’s based purely on body-weight and height. And since muscle is heavier than fat, it’s apt to bracket athletes, builders and forestry workers along with the couch-potatoes.
A more useful guide to avoiding the dangers associated with fat is now being suggested.
It, too, may be a little rough-and-ready, but it’s handily simple – and it’s said to be a more reliable indicator of risk than BMI.
If your waist measurement is more than half your height, you’re in the “at risk” category.
If it’s less than that, you and your doctor shouldn’t need to worry.
On that basis, I’m OK. Just. Nudge up one more trouser size and it would be time to take action.
I don’t think anyone looking at me would immediately think I was fat. Not in this society, at this time, anyway.
But then, our standards of what is “normal” have crept inexorably upwards, even in my lifetime.
I know I’d feel better if I were a little fitter, my middle-age spread a little trimmed.
If I’m normal – and in this time and place I’m probably slightly fitter than most my age – then “normal” has edged dangerously close to “overweight”.
When my mother was a girl, poor people in this country tended to be thin. Only the wealthy were fat. It had been that way for many generations, and in many parts of the world it continues to be true.
Here, today, and in “the West” generally, it’s often the less well-off who are fat.
It has been said – I’ve said it myself – that being fat is a sign of taking more than your fair share of the food. To some extent that’s true. But it’s more complicated than that.
A lot of it’s not just about how much you eat, but what you eat.
Bulking up on cheap foods bulks you up unhealthily. And, because they contain more fat, sugar and salt than healthier foods, they make you crave more.
It’s an addiction that the manufacturers and fast-food outlets create and encourage.
Smaller quantities of better food might make you leaner, fitter, healthier – and not really cost more in total either.
But it’s easier said than done, I know. Especially with all that advertising, and all those other bad-food addicts all around us, setting an unhealthy standard of “normal”.