Big Persons, Small Voices: On Governance, Obesity, and the Narrative of the Failed Citizen

By Elliott, Charlene D. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Big Persons, Small Voices: On Governance, Obesity, and the Narrative of the Failed Citizen


Elliott, Charlene D., Journal of Canadian Studies


This essay probes the connection between obesity and citizenship in Canada, outlining the ways in which the fat body or "failed body project" is equally positioned as that of the "failed citizen." It examines how the personal body has been connected to that of the citizen, and traces the evolving narrative that explains why the ideal citizen is, literally and figuratively, a "fit" citizen. Contradictions emerge, because the figurative concept of citizen "fitness" is often mistakenly conflated with the visible look of leanness. The theoretical and practical implications of framing the larger body as a lesser citizen are then explored in light of these contradictions. Given that nearly 60% of adult Canadians-or 14 million people-are classified as overweight or obese, the framing of the fat body as the failed citizen is of considerable significance.

Cet essai, qui analyse le lien entre l'obésité et la citoyenneté au Canada, se penche sur les façons dont le corps obèse ou le « projet physique raté » rejoint celui du « citoyen raté ». Il examine comment le corps humain est relié à celui du citoyen et fait le récit qui explique pourquoi le citoyen idéal est « en forme », au propre comme au figuré. Le concept de la « bonne condition physique » du citoyen, lequel se confond souvent avec le look visible de la minceur, donne lieu à maintes contradictions. On y explore aussi les implications théoriques et pratiques qu'entraîne l'étiquetage du corps obèse en tant que citoyen moindre. Étant donné que près de 60 % des adultes canadiens, soit 14 millions de personnes, ont un excès de poids ou sont obèses, l'étiquetage du corps gros en tant que citoyen raté revêt une importance considérable.

In March 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a visit to the Canadian troops in Kandahar. What proved fascinating about the news coverage that followed was the extent to which the commentary focussed, not on the political, national, social, or moral implications of the visit, but on the prime minister's expanding girth. The front pages of several newspapers featured a photograph of Harper at a mess hall meal with the Canadian troops-with an offending can of root beer near his food tray. Other photographs focussed on Harper's expanding belly. Headlines supported these visual images with various puns on his size: The Globe and Mail punned on the "heavy duty" nature of being prime minister (Taber 2006), the National Post observed the "wide berth" at the PMO (Smyth 2006), and the Vancouver Sun's lead was "PM Fights Battle of the Bulge in War Zone" (Weeks 2006e).1 Days later, the prime minister was back in the spotlight over his refusal to meet with Brigitte Bardot regarding the East Coast seal hunt-yet, once again, the "news" focussed more on Harper's fat than the plight of the baby seal. Sue Bailey's Canadian Press article (2006), picked up by several newspapers, announced, "PM Takes Flak about His Weight... Denies Photo Op with Film Star." The article raised the question of whether the prime minister was setting a good example for Canadians by being so visibly out of shape, and then ended by discussing animal rights activists and Brigitte Bardot.

What proves interesting about this coverage is the way in which the body of the politician is framed as if relevant to the interests of the body politic. More specifically, this "news" captures some of the central issues surrounding Canada's preoccupation with fatness and the ways in which the fat body-what Samantha Murray identifies as the "failed body project" (2005, 155)-is equally positioned as that of the "failed citizen."

While issues related to health and well-being rank extremely high with Canadians2 and the problem of obesity receives consistent media coverage, little focus has been placed on the relationship between obesity and Canadian citizenship. This article seeks to probe how obese individuals are implicitly and explicitly framed as "less equal" citizens, and how the conspicuous body is read as, not merely the sign of moral failure, but the failure of personal responsibility as well.

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