Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

New Fronts in the War Against the Fat

We thought that American hysteria over obesity was nonpareil, but British anti-fat warriors seem to be giving the American crusaders a run for their money.

Back in April, a fast-food establishment in Leytonstone, in the northeastern part of London, was shut down as a public-health threat.  As Patrick Hayes explains at Spiked, a 2009 initiative of the local council, called the Sustainable Community Strategy, outlaws the establishment of new carry-outs within 400 meters of a school.

Supporting the rhetoric, Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, president of the European Society for Paediatric Oncology, stated in February that “If we don’t … tackl[e] how much exercise our young people take and how concerned they are about what they eat and their weight, we are going to have another explosion of cancers.”

Last week, the U.K.’s Environment Secretary, Hillary Benn, invoked the fight against obesity as rationale for increasing access to open spaces, asserting that “green spaces are good for us” – a pitch which moved Spike’s sharp-eyed Rob Lyons to note that “You can’t even go for a stroll these days without it being turned into a health initiative,” and to anticipate that “chubby people [will be] quick-marched around a south London park for 30 minutes on a regular basis to help them lose excess pounds.”

There are so many pieces to the fanfare over the “obesity threat” that it’s impossible to assign one cause for the commotion. For a long time, Junkfood Science has investigated the sociology of the “science” of obesity in detail, and has exploded many of the central myths of the anti-obesity movement – most importantly the apocrypha about fatness and mortality.

And Paul Campos’s brilliant book The Obesity Myth (Gotham, 2004) explains how a constellation of wealthy industries together support the lose-weight-now rhetoric.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s assessment of some new books on the topic in this week’s New Yorker embraces the tired rhetoric, assuming that fat is bad and asking why people eat so much.  To her credit, Kolbert takes the plunge into examining the new field of fat studies.  But she ends up disparaging fat studies for “effectively all[ying] itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.” Apparently, asking that fatness be examined in the context of both social structures and individual liberties strays too far from the central dogma of the anti-obesity crusade.  To which (pace Hillary Benn) public parks are balm and tasty fries are anathema.

But an often-neglected aspect of the anti-obesity panic is the overtone of class and the undertone of race. In Leytonstone, for instance, it turns out that the community has been troubled by the profusion of cheap eating establishments, especially in regard to the “anti-social behaviour” that it supposedly brings.

Yet, as Hayes notes at Spiked, it was a Jamaican establishment that was singled out for closure – while more echt-English outlets, like fish-and-chips shops, have been ignored.  The decision that behavior is anti-social being always in the eyes of the beholder – or the skin color of the beheld.

In most of the developed world, fatness is more common among the poor.  In the U.S., it is far more common among African Americans.  Obesity is a marker for being out of power.  To assert that you are against obesity is to state that you intend to identify with those who have power, and mean to keep it.  You can wag your finger at the misdemeanants who eat fast food and fail to exercise — without having to come out and say that what is really troubling you is that your people are starting to look like those people – like the poor, like the dark-complected … like the fat.

No wonder the anti-obesity rhetoric has heated up in Britain, and is catching on in Europe.  It’s a winning way to wage the war against the poor and unentitled, without having to seem arrogant or racist.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, July 26th, 2009 at 12:54 pm and is filed under Behavior, Disease, Myths, Narratives, obesity, public health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.