The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality, and Ideology

By Michael Gard; Jan Wright | Go to book overview

2

The war on obesity

While this book is very much concerned with the things that scientists say about overweight, obesity and the so-called 'obesity epidemic', this is by no means our only focus. Scientists, like all of us, make mistakes and this fact alone hardly constitutes a compelling reason for writing a book. What is so striking about the current situation is the extent to which the 'obesity epidemic', including its central scientific ideas and knowledge claims, has infiltrated everyday talk.

Few readers will have escaped the avalanche of public comment about overweight and obesity in the last few years. A quick Internet search of newspaper articles shows that during 1990 the word 'obesity' appeared only twice in the headlines or lead paragraphs of three leading Australian newspapers. In 1999 this number was fourteen and in the twelve months to September 2003 it was seventy-three. In the UK's The Times the word 'obesity' appeared in ten articles in 1985, fifty-five in 1995, eighty-one in 2000 and in 205 articles in the twelve months prior to September 2003. While hardly significant in themselves, these numbers hint at the possibility that Western countries are entering a new phase of the 'war on obesity'; a war that has bubbled along quietly for at least a century but which appears to be rapidly building in intensity.

In this chapter we look at the 'obesity epidemic' through the window of the mass-media. We have chosen to do this for two reasons. First, we want to provide a broad overview of what the 'obesity epidemic' is, or at least what it is claimed to be, including the nature of the problem and its origins. This is what we might call the 'obesity epidemic's' intellectual content. We readily concede that people obtain information about matters of public interest from a variety of sources and that the sources we present here are by no means exhaustive. For what it is worth though, our own conversations with family, friends, colleagues and students strongly suggest that the mass-media version of the 'obesity epidemic' accords closely with what many people actually believe.

But as well as considering its content, our second reason for looking at the mass-media account of the 'obesity epidemic' is, in a sense, to take its 'temperature'. The 'obesity epidemic' is not just big news. It is also a subject that has generated an almost visceral reaction among some commentators and, as we will see, an apparently irresistible desire to lash out and blame someone. Nothing and no one completely escapes responsibility for the waistlines of Western populations; body weight appears to be one of those topics which can be seized upon by people of virtually any ideological persuasion. We want therefore to draw the

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