Ten Things That Scare Me About ‘Obesity’
In dietetic discourse it is generally accepted that being heavy is strongly associated with a host of conditions – high blood pressure, heart disease, poor joint health, diabetes, some cancers and depression are just a few of the pathologies typically listed. Another common belief is that an adult deemed ‘overweight’ who loses 5 to 10% of their body weight will significantly reduce their health risks. These are among the many statistics and warnings that government, health charities, professional organisations and individual practitioners recycle daily in the battle against ‘obesity’. Yet, as I will demonstrate, these frequently repeated claims are based on very shaky scientific evidence. Moreover, the usual prescription – dieting – is proven in clinical trails to be not only ineffective but also risky. What worries me about the current anti-obesity rhetoric is the harm it does, fuelled as it is by an epidemic of moralising and oppressive ideologies. What worries me even more is that those with the skills and authority to challenge its dubious science are instead complicit in energising the anti-obesity machinery. In this paper I will draw on my own experiences as a UK dietitian to explore ten things that scare me about power and silence in constituting and communicating obesity (sic) knowledge (sic).
Lucy Aphramor, RD is a senior health promotion specialist in diet and cardiovascular health. She is also a senior research assistant at the Applied Research Centre Health and Lifestyle Interventions, Coventry University. Lucy’s practice and research interests reflect her concern with the unintended side-effects of mainstream anti-obesity policy. As a way forward, she advocates a non-weight centred approach to nutritional intervention and an exploration of power and accountability in the health professions.
Fat Activism 101
This session considers the history and scope of the fat liberation movement and considers how such activism can enable people to resist problematic dominant paradigms, build community and self-esteem, and find alternative ways of being. In this session I’ll be considering what fat activism is and why people become activists. I’ll present a select chronology of the fat liberation movement over the past 40 years, including case studies of activist organisations such as The Fat Underground, The Chubsters, NAAFA, and others. A resources list is available.
I’ve been fat all my life and dieted sporadically from young childhood to young adulthood. By some fortuitous magic I got exposed to fat liberation ideas in the mid-1980s and I have spent subsequent years integrating them into my life, thinking and writing about them, and organising with other people. Some products of this are a 1992 MA dissertation, which became my book, Fat & Proud: the Politics of Size; a girl gang called The Chubsters; some speeches, lectures and workshops; many articles for publications as diverse as FaT GiRL, the zine for fat dykes and their admirers, and the British Medical Journal; and discussions both online and real life too numerous to detail here. You can find out about more on my website CharlotteCooper.net
Dr Ruth Deery and Dr Sharon Wray
Theorising ‘obesity’: women, biomedicine & health
In this paper we explore the issue of what it means to be ‘fat’ for women in western (British/North American) society. Contemporary gendered biomedical discourse currently dominates attitudes towards body shapes and sizes (Bordo, 1995). Further, under the rhetoric of ‘health’, a large body size has come to be symbolic of self-indulgence and moral failure. In this paper we argue this may lead women to question both their sense of self and their rights to adequate health care. Our aims are threefold. First, to challenge rigid hegemonic biomedical perspectives on ‘fatness’ and the oppressive unequal power relations they may create. Second, to examine the process by which such perspectives come to be the only legitimate discourse. Third, to consider the impact of pathological medicalised definitions of ‘obesity’ on women’s perceptions of their bodies and experiences of health services.
About Ruth and Sharon:
Ruth Deery is a Reader in Midwifery at the University of Huddersfield. She has a strong clinical practice background and works part-time at Bradford Hospitals NHS Foundation Teaching Trust. Ruth’s research focuses on organisational culture, specifically midwife-led units, birth centres and obstetric culture. Her interest in ‘fatness’ stems from her personal, clinical and academic background, she is especially interested in fat women’s experiences of the NHS. She is committed to working with clinical midwives in order to help them increase their understanding of, and/or change, their work situation particularly the way in which medical scientific knowledge is often used to legitimate certain practices in midwifery. She holds a Health Foundation Award, Leading Practice through Research.
Sharon Wray is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Huddersfield. She is interested in gender, ethnicity, ageing, embodiment and health and developing the concepts of agency and resistance in relation to these. Her interest in fatness and body size stems from research she has undertaken examining women’s experiences of embodiment across ethnic diversity. Sharon works in a clinical department and this has raised her awareness of the inequalities people face due to their body size, when trying to gain access to healthcare. She is committed to challenging current dominant bio-medical and media discourse on body size and the oppressive ideologies and practices that they create.
Dr Louise Mansfield
Fit, Fat and Feminine? The Stigmatization of Fat Women in Fitness Gyms
This paper examines how the exercise discourse aimed at sculpting small, slender tight female physiques serves to develop and maintain a cultural distaste for fat women in fitness gyms. Bodies are central to the production and reproduction of gendered inequality in fitness gyms. Popular images of femininity are mediated though bodily representations of slim, tight muscles and the appearance of health, youth and vitality; images conflated with female beauty. Such images dominate fashion magazines and health and fitness publications, and are commonly reinforced by personnel in the exercise, fitness, health, sport and diet industries. Fitness gyms are characterised by a cultural distaste for fat that is developed and maintained through the social dynamics of the gym environment.
I specifically explore the relevance of the concept of stigmatization for understanding how the appearance and display of fat in fitness cultures is denigrated and devalued, serving to classify fat women as ‘other’ in the gym environment and wider social life. Presenting a critical analysis of Goffman’s notion of stigma for understanding the marginalization of fat, the paper discusses Norbert Elias’s conceptualisation of the socio-dynamics of stigmatization in understanding the relationships between fitness, fatness and femininities. Three interrelated mechanisms are examined in discussing the stigmatization of fat; the monopolization of corporeal power, networks of gossip, and the development of group charisma and group disgrace. It is argued that the exclusion and stigmatization of fat women by established fitness participants is central to the development and maintenance of superior images of slim and muscularly tight females and the inferiority and marginality of fat women in fitness gyms.
I have spent 18 years playing competitive national league and regional netball in which my own body was constantly monitored and measured in terms of many biological parameters, fat % being one of them. Performance sport is, then, one sphere, for me at least, where dominant ideas about corporeality reinforce and anti-fat model. My research over the past ten years has been about women and fitness cultures and my main focus of discussion has surrounded the production and reproduction of ‘the body beautiful’ predominantly defined by slimness/ thinness and muscular tightness. Increasingly I see the performance ethic once confined to achievement sport infiltrating the fitness field. More recently my thoughts have surrounded the ways that the female body beautiful may not singularly defined (women can have muscles and can legitimately be a variety of shapes and sizes) but
nevertheless, one of the defining features of fitness cultures is what I call a cultural distaste for fat. And it is this anti-fat model of fitness that I want to introduce for discussion at the session.
Dr Lee F Monaghan
Men and the War on Obesity: An Overview
This paper presents an overview of Lee Monaghan’s recent book, Men and the War on Obesity: A Sociological Study (2008. London: Routledge). It offers an empirically grounded, theoretically informed and politicised analysis that is critical of the institutional ‘bio attack’ on fatness rather than critical of so-called overweight, obese or fat people.
Dr. Lee F. Monaghan is Senor Lecturer in Sociology, University of Limerick. He has a particular research interest in gendered bodies/embodiment. His recent research on men and weight-related issues questions the social construction of overweight/obesity/fatness as a massive public health crisis. His study draws from sociologically imaginative writing on this public issue and sometimes private trouble, strands of fat activist thinking plus clinically relevant work (Health at Every Size).
Dr Rachel White
Worse Than Climate Change?
New Discursive Constructions of Fatness in the ‘Obesity Epidemic’
The publication of the UK government’s Foresight report ‘Tackling Obesities: Future Choices’ in October 2007 was accompanied by Health Secretary Alan Johnson’s claim that obesity in the UK is a “potential crisis on the scale of climate change.” His widely reported statement is indicative of a turn in the discursive construction of fatness whereby it no longer signifies a mere individual failing, but is constituted as a fundamentally anti-social state. The ubiquity of this construction means we need an effective fat-positive response, but simultaneously makes such a position difficult to articulate.
This paper will present an analysis of recent media coverage of the ‘obesity epidemic’, which is dominated by scientific and medical discourses, but supplemented by other powerful paradigms such as environmental discourses and heteronormative constructions of gender. By identifying the various discourses which have converged to produce contemporary meanings of fatness, fat scholars and activists can better understand how to subvert or counter them progressively. The analysis reveals that the current hegemonic constructions of obesity are contested only within a narrow spectrum, leaving little space for fat-positive arguments which, along with the voices of fat people, are significantly absent.
Adopting a discourse analytic approach to this topic opens up the possibility of theorising the ‘obesity epidemic’ in terms of Judith Butler’s notions of ‘performativity’ and the ‘resignification of discourse’ (1990, 1993, 1997). This framework is particularly appropriate given that, arguably, it has been a resignification of discourses around obesity (the reiteration and consolidation of obesity as disease) which has performatively produced the ‘epidemic’. However, as Butler argues, resignification is never final, therefore this paper will ask whether her framework is can be utilised effectively by fat scholars and activists in formulating and deploying fat-positive responses which destabilise hegemonic constructions of the fat body.
I am a visiting lecturer in Women’s Studies and Sociology at the University of Westminster and an occasional teacher at the LSE Gender Institute. I completed my PhD research on discursive constructions of gender in the British music press at Goldsmiths College in 2006, and my main research interests, in gender, media, popular culture and women’s participation in subcultures, stem from that research. I guess you could say I ‘came out’ as fat via the queer fat club night Unskinny Bop which itself grew out of the underground feminist/queer music scene over five years ago. I see Fat Studies as a way of theorising the kinds of activities I have been involved in with the Bop and also the fearsome Chubster gang. I am also particularly interested in the mediation of the ‘Global Obesity Epidemic’ and the challenges the fat body presents to heteronormative formations of gender.