For some years now, I have been researching and commenting on the growing moral and social condemnation of overweight and obesity (as states of being) in the media and in the field of public health (see publications page). Despite the certainty expressed in these discourses that ‘fat is a killer’, we do not actually know exactly how dangerous it is to be overweight, as many critics have shown (Austin 1999, Campos 2004, Gard and Wright 2005, Campos et al. 2006, Murray 2008). Nor do we fully understand why some people gain weight and others do not – contrary to the simplistic in put-out put models that pervade explanations in both medical and popular commentary.
The idea that fatness is an entirely controllable and avoidable risk to one’s life long ‘health’ is in fact part of a pervasive, neoliberal and medico-moral discourse, where in ‘healthiness’ acts a metaphor for self-control, self-denial and willpower (Crawford 1994, p. 1352). Indeed, when overeating and inactivity are constructed as avoidable, fat people are presented as lacking in self-control, will power and responsibility for their health, they are stigmatised as bad citizens whose ‘fat bodies are read as evidence of both preventable illness and moral failings’ (Saguy and Riley 2005, p. 885).
The impact of the fear and stigma associated with fatness on people’s daily lives, the ways they conceptualise and respond to this and the increased surveillance they are subjected to from various arms of the state are central themes that I continue to explore in my work. Most recently, I have co-edited a book with anthropologist Kirsten Bell and sociologist Amy Salmon that explores these and related issues, and is entitled Alcohol, Tobacco and Obesity: Mortality, Morality and the New Public Health – click here
The book examines the new public health’s ‘axis of evil’ – alcohol, tobacco and obesity – and the apparently devastating medical, social and economic consequences associated with these lifestyle behaviours. As the contributors’ show, we are in the midst of an important historical moment in which policies and practices that would have been unthinkable a decade ago (e.g., outdoor smoking bans, incarcerating pregnant women for drinking alcohol, removing overweight children from their parents care, and prohibiting restaurants from serving food to fat people), have become acceptable responses to the ‘risks’ that alcohol, tobacco and obesity are perceived to pose.
Drawing on examples from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, the contributors’ interrogate the ways in which alcohol, tobacco and obesity have been constructed as ‘problems’ requiring intervention and expose the social, cultural and political roots of the current public health obsession with lifestyle. Our hope is that other scholars will choose to pick up where these papers leave off and that they will spur further comparative research into alcohol, tobacco and fat (and their comrades in ‘harm’) and the ways they been taken up as social and medical issues, as well as examining solutions to their problematic aspects that do not merely replicate the limitations of existing policies and practices.
If you would like to know more please feel free to email me or visit the link provided, where you can also purchase a copy of the book.