Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Between Provisioning and Consuming?: Children, Mothers and 'Childhood Obesity'

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

Between Provisioning and Consuming?: Children, Mothers and 'Childhood Obesity'

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The 'epidemic' of childhood obesity identified in affluent Western nations has attracted extensive attention from public health experts and governments (see Coveney 2007 for an analysis of how obesity discourse has emerged and taken hold in Western countries and in Australia). In particular, there has been intense focus on childhood obesity: as Coveney has argued, 'childhood has ...become a major point in the war on fat' (2007:203). Australia is no exception in this regard: funding for childhood obesity went from 7 million dollars to 21 million dollars between 2001-2008 (NHMRC 20081; see Figure 1) and between 2005-2009, NHMRC funding reached almost 30 million (ACAORN 2009; NHMRC 2010). Childhood obesity was a key focus in the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Obesity in Australia Weighing it up: Obesity in Australia (House Standing Committee on Health and Ageing 2009).

While public health specialists and governments in most Western countries have largely adopted an activist and resource intensive approach to the 'epidemic', there have been a number of important challenges raised by some public health scholars, social researchers and others concerning the ways the epidemic has been recognised and framed in epidemiological and social science literatures. In Australia, there has been critique of accepted wisdoms about the scope of 'epidemic' with queries being raised about two particular aspects. The first issue of debate has been contest over the stated figures and their meaning in terms of population health (see Gard and Wright 2005; O'Dea 2005, 2008; O'Dea and Caputi 2001). Most recently, Olds et al have argued that in fact:

(a) prevalence of overweight and obesity in Australian children has flattened over the last decade or so, (b) this trend is fairly consistent across different age groups and (c) within weight-status categories, average BMI seems to have plateaued. These findings directly contradict assertions in the published literature and the popular press that the prevalence of paediatric overweight and obesity in Australia is increasing exponentially (2010:6).

While we are not focused on adjudicating the rights and wrongs of the figures, this disagreement and uncertainty about obesity prevalence underpins the importance of the second challenge that has arisen in the field. This challenge has focused attention on the social implications of the current framing of, and response to, the epidemic of childhood obesity. Social and cultural theorists have been examining the meanings and effects of this 'epidemic' in regard to social relations, stigmatisation, impacts on communities and families and the rise of governmentality (Coveney 2007; Crossley 2004; Gard and Wright 2001; Henderson et al 2009; Herndon 2005; Murray 2008; Rich and Evans 2005; Shaw 2005; Stephenson and Banet-Weiser 2007). There has been attention to the broader emergence of a 'moral panic' about widespread and increasing childhood obesity (Campos et al 2005; Fraser et al 2010; Gard and Wright 2005; Lobstein 2006; Monaghan 2005; Saguy and Riley 2005). These critiques have pointed to the emphasis on the responsibilisation of families, and particularly mothers. In this paper, we explore the dominant discursive framings of maternal responsibility for children's weight, and draw out the ways in which mothers are cited and engaged in childhood obesity debates and discussions. We raise questions about prevailing attitudes to maternal care and consider the potential conflicts that arise when mothers are tasked with managing children's bodies. In particular, we suggest that the framework of 'provisioning' as deployed by Neysmith and Reitsma-Street (2005) offers a valuable conceptual tool for thinking more broadly about what it is that mothers do as food providers and managers. 'Provisioning' can illuminate the ways in which mothers' foodwork might conflict with the imperatives of the management of childhood obesity as currently framed in public and policy discourses. …

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