Home About

The Politics of Obesity

Esther Woodbury



In many western countries, obesity has become the most prevalent way in which we discuss bodies and health. Arguments about the causes of obesity, or indeed the extent to which there is actually an ‘obesity epidemic’, continue to rage in the medical and academic worlds, but the rising panic in the media and in public debates remains consistent. The discussion of obesity is often framed around issues of health, though it could just as usefully be framed around issues of politics, economics, morality, gender or beauty. The relationship between health and obesity is complex and hotly debated. The following is a few alternative ways of considering our obsession with obesity.
The New Zealand government recently launched a $67 million initiative to prevent obesity in those aged under 25. Governments all over the world have found popularity with these policies and they frequently echo past campaigns that warn against the societal threat of sex, drugs (and no doubt rock and roll) to modern youth. For example, while New Zealanders in the 1930s were concerned with the moral development and physical wellbeing of children who did not have sufficiently good posture, the public’s imagination is currently captured by the threat of dangerous nutrition.
Public health campaigns that advocate individual regulation of weight also push the burden of responsibility for health onto people who may not have the power to affect the changes that have been prescribed for them.
Repeated studies acknowledge that the poorer a person is, the more likely they are to be obese. Food is expensive and ‘good’ food can be especially expensive. For those on low incomes, food is often by necessity a last priority in spending. What this means for lower income groups is fairly obvious. While students may be able to relate to the difficulty of balancing affordability, taste and nutritional value in food, widespread economic inequality in society means that many groups have to struggle with this problem. For instance, women earn less than men and are also frequently responsible for feeding children as well as themselves.
There is a perception among many people (and it is implied in much health education) that for people to achieve the ideal body they just need to work hard. Despite the lack of any evidence, the equation ‘fat = lazy and/or uneducated about nutrition’ is a convenient way for many people to overlook the complex issues that contribute to the relationship between weight and health, and to blame them for their perceived failure.
In New Zealand, women are reported as having higher rates of obesity than men. At the same time, women are particularly susceptible to poor body image and intense dietary regulation, including eating disorders of various kinds. Women also have greater responsibility for other people’s food and health, not just their own, and in this way concerns over the ‘obesity epidemic’ weigh heavily on them.
There is a huge crossover between the behaviours connected to the pressure to be attractive and healthy. It is easy for these issues to be confused by people trying to sell us things, by people who are already anxious about how they look and by people who feel uncomfortable judging others merely for how they look.
People’s nutrition is important, but the meaning that is conferred on food, body weight and health should be looked at more broadly because they can provide insight into wider political discussions that take place in society.
Esther Woodbury has recently completed a thesis in Political Science on ‘Meritocracy and the Body’.