Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Government of Girth

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Government of Girth

Article excerpt

Introduction

Obesity is regarded as a major global problem and is linked to a variety of physical and psychosocial health problems (World Health Organisation 1997). The issue of population fatness has engaged numerous groups, organisations and institutes whose raison d'etre become its prevention and management (International Society for the Study of Obesity 2006). Research into the causes of obesity, as well as interventions to address and arrest its spread, have arguably never been greater, with several international journals dedicated to the topic. Moreover, governments in many jurisdictions in many countries have debated the obesity problem (for example, United Kingdom, Australia, New The government of girth The current preoccupation with body weight in western cultures is arguably unprecedented. The obesity crisis has engaged not only health communities, but numerous other public and private organisations, and, in so doing, has created moral alarm as well as a medical crisis. This paper examines the development of obesity and will discuss the ways in which fatness has been rationalised within health discourses. It will explore the way that the corpulent body, once historically considered as a physiological state, is now regarded as a state of moral pathology representing an 'epidemic'. The prospect of this disease sweeping through populations, reaching into virtually every social group, is presented as all the more frightening when no known effective prevention or cure is at hand. The paper will look at the ways in which new forms of government have developed with the panoptic capacity to gaze across populations and objectify the everyday activities of individuals. This 'government of girth' reaches an apogee in the problematisation of children and body weight. Three subject positions in childhood provide a number of opportunities to problematise children: the sick child, the anti-social child, and the innocent child. Each of these amplifies concern about the state of health of children, the permissive nature of parenting and potential moral social decay. Obesity, epidemic, sociology, Foucault, children Received 9 October 2007 Accepted 5 March 2008 John Coveney Department of Public Health Flinders University Australia Zealand, USA), not least because of the costs involved in managing the diseases that arise as a consequence of fatness at the individual and the population level (House of Commons Health Committee 2004; National Health and Medical Research Council 1997; New Zealand Ministry of Health 2004; US Department of Health and Human Service 2001). A fixation on obesity is not merely a medical and public health matter, however. Fatness has historically invited comment from a variety of social and moral perspectives, and, in the modern context, obesity is widely discussed as part of medical, social and popular discourse (Sobal 1999).

This paper aims to examine the growing concern and interest in individual and population girth, or body weight. It will look at how the problem of obesity has become a major issue in medicine and public health. It will also look at the way in which obesity has engendered social anxiety fuelled by moral panic. The term 'moral panic' was originally used to describe social unease arising from an exaggerated media representation of youth culture in the 1960s (Cohen 2003). The use of the term 'moral panic' in this paper does not subscribe to this definition. It is instead used to attempt to capture the way in which obesity has fuelled social concerns and public commentary that have raised questions about our individual and collective moral character and social responsibilities. It is precisely because concerns about obesity arise from its growing prevalence across the population, rather than confined to specific so-called 'vulnerable' groups, that the amplification of alarm has been so loud. And unlike other examinations of obesity (see for example, Campos et al 2005; Gard and Wright 2005), this paper will not portray it as a scientific fabrication or an ideological invention. …

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