Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Fearing Fat: Exploring the Discursive Links between Childhood Obesity, Parenting, and Leisure

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Fearing Fat: Exploring the Discursive Links between Childhood Obesity, Parenting, and Leisure

Article excerpt

Obesity has been characterized as one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century (Lobstein, Baur, & Uauy, 2004; World Health Organization, 2010). Considerable attention has been given to this issue by epidemiologists and public health researchers, who have reported that the percentage of the population who are overweight or obese has increased dramatically in developed western nations over the past two decades (Anis et al., 2009; Singh, Kogan, & Van Dyck, 2010). This has led to widespread concern about the "obesity epidemic" and particularly the number of children deemed to be obese or at risk of becoming obese (Klein & Dietz, 2010; Shields, 2006; Witaker, 2001). Because of the linkages between obesity and a range of health problems, such as diabetes and cardiac disease (Malik, Popkin, Bray, Despres, & Hu, 2010; Sheilds, Connor, & Tremblay, 2008), it has been predicted that the current generation of children will suffer from elevated rates of disease throughout their lifetimes compared to earlier generations. For example, in Canada, a 2007 government report concluded that todays children are likely to have reduced longevity in comparison to their parents' generation as a result of increased childhood obesity (Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, 2007).

These widespread concerns about children's short-term and long-term health problems and their relationship to unhealthy body weights has led to discussion of the need for preventive strategies to slow down and/or reverse the obesity epidemic (e.g., Gill, Baur, Steinbeck, Storlien, & Singh, 2009; Margarey, 2008). Often the focus is on the promotion of healthy lifestyles through improved nutrition and increased physical activity for children, based on the "calories in-calories out" notion (Janssen, Katzmaryk, Boyce, King, & Picket, 2004) and on reducing body weights through controlling food intake and activity output. Clearly these strategies have implications for leisure and leisure lifestyles.

While some leisure related strategies for weight reduction involve environmental change, such as an increase in park space and in other recreational facilities (e.g., see Potwarka, Kaczynski & Flack, 2008), considerable attention has been given to parental practices and the need to facilitate behavioral change within the family (e.g., Dalton & Kitzmann, 2008; Shannon, 2013). Moreover, in terms of behavioral change, it is often mothers rather than fathers who are seen to be at the forefront of the fight against obesity, especially in their roles as leisure facilitators and as role models for their daughters (e.g., Shannon). Indeed, the prevention of childhood obesity has been characterized as a relatively recent extension of mothers' responsibilities for their children's health and wellbeing (Maher, Fraser, & Wright, 2010).

In addition, parents are seen as central to these strategies. Not only do parents purchase and prepare most of the food that children consume, but they can also be regarded as the leisure facilitators and educators (Shannon & Shaw, 2008), influencing children's level of involvement in physically active and inactive leisure pursuits. Thus parents, and especially mothers, are often seen to be at the forefront of the fight against childhood obesity.

While these research findings, concerns, and suggested solutions are often taken for granted, some commentators have been critical of their ideological underpinnings. For example, some have suggested that the "obesity epidemic" has been exaggerated (e.g., Gard & Wright, 2005), leading to an overly heightened sense of risk, and to the increased moral regulation of behavior (Fullagar, 2009). Further, it has been suggested that the focus on children's body weight may lead to greater anxiety among children as well as parents and higher levels of body weight dissatisfaction (e.g., Campos, 2004; Hesse-Biber, 2007). These concerns suggest the need for a more critical approach to the issue of childhood obesity, and to the potential negative as well as positive aspects of the dominant discourse on this topic. …

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