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At least, that’s what I initially thought.
I was unsurprised to see the backlash the horrendous invention occasioned on Twitter and other social media platforms.
I, along with thousands of people online, had thought we had left wiring people’s jaws shut behind, but apparently not. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Otago University comms team, especially when they had to backpedal with a series of ‘‘clarifying’’ tweets. Apparently, this Saw-esque device is not intended for quick or long-term weight loss. Rather, it is aimed at helping people who ‘‘need to undergo surgery and who cannot have the surgery until they have lost weight’’.
That’s all very well, but I can’t help being sceptical that the uses for such a device will stop there. The weight loss industry is an awful beast: the UK diet industry alone is worth an estimated £2billion ($NZ3.96billion) a year, while the US weight loss market was worth $US71billion ($NZ101billion) in 2020.
People are desperate, and unscrupulous companies and marketing agencies know this. It’s impossible to turn on the TV, scroll through social media, or walk through a city street without being bombarded by advertisements for fad diets, skinny teas, waist-trainers, gastric bypass surgery, bespoke meal plans, miracle superfoods, slim shakes, and whatever new atrocity the Kardashians are currently touting.
Surely there are better ways to help people with their weight loss journeys. I worry that this invention will only lead to further harmful ways of dehumanising fat people.
In the 1970s and 1980s, doctors would surgically wire people’s jaws shut for up to a year to facilitate weight loss. This practice was dangerous however; vomiting could lead to choking, and after 9 to 12 months, people developed gum disease. Many participants also reported continuing issues with restriction of jaw movement and some even developed acute psychiatric illnesses. Moreover, while people did lose weight initially, most of them regained the weight (and more) after the jaw wires were removed.
In a paper published in the British Dental Journal, Paul Brunton and his research team asserted that seven women each lost 6.36kg on average during a two-week trial with DentalSlim Diet Control. Notably, all the participants gained some weight in the two weeks following the device removal. I can’t help but wonder whether this weight gain continued in the following weeks. The study does not elaborate.
Having battled extensively with anorexia as a young person, I can attest personally that the human body is wired to rapidly regain weight after starvation/fasting periods. I am not surprised that all study participants began regaining the weight they had lost. Forcing one’s jaw shut via magnets does not enable one to learn healthy eating skills, afford nutritious food, or to reevaluate one’s relationship with food. Neither does it teach one how to cope when suddenly all solid foods are back on the menu.
‘‘There are no adverse consequences with this device,’’ Brunton confidently claims. But the journal article noted that most participants experienced occasional discomfort due to the device, and it was quite severe after 24 hours. The friction of the device against the cheeks was painful. Participants also found it difficult to talk for as prolonged a period as they were used to, and found the liquid diet monotonous.
I can’t help but wonder whether other side-effects are likely to occur with such a contraption.
How do wearers properly brush the inside-facing surfaces of their teeth? How do they yawn? How do their digestive systems fare on weeks of liquid food? And what about disabled or chronically ill people? How do they take their medications, or use their inhalers? A safety feature incorporated into the device enables it to be disengaged in the case of an emergency.
But the study doesn’t explain how long it takes for this disengagement. What if the wearer has a heart attack, or suddenly needs to vomit? It can take only between 30-180 seconds of oxygen deprivation for one to lose consciousness.
This invention deeply dehumanises fat people. As my friend and fellow writer Cameron Taylor says, ‘‘Facing fatphobia and discrimination for my size regularly is bad enough. But a literal torture device? It breaks my heart. I feel dehumanised and humiliated as a fat person.’’
For people existing on lower incomes, most accessible and affordable food is unhealthy, calorie-dense, and processed almost beyond existence.
Thinness is associated with wealth and classism; those with ample time and funds have the luxury to thoroughly consider what they eat, can afford personal trainers and gym memberships, and can purchase as much fresh and non-processed food as they like.
Obesity is often the product of myriad complex factors, from genetics to one’s socioeconomic background. It is not something that can be resolved by forcing one’s mouth shut for weeks on end.
Pardon the pun, but I can’t help but feel as if these researchers were somewhat unhinged when thinking up this idea.
Perhaps Brunton and his team ought to chew over other issues such as fatphobia, fat-shaming in medical professions, and if they must, they might consider less-dehumanising methods for helping people lose weight.
As a graduate of the University of Otago, I’m usually proud of the research and brilliant ideas issuing from my alma mater. But I am not proud now. It seems as if trends from the ’70s and ’80s are constantly resurging: bell-bottom jeans, mullets, tie-dyed shirts, acid wash denim, and waterbeds, to name a few.
But let’s leave clamping people’s jaws shut, be it via wire or magnets, firmly behind.
• Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.