Empty plates, empty calories or empty minds?
Obesity: A Sociological Analysis #sociologymatters
After reading the news this past week about plans to ban fast food/snacks on public transport in an attempt to prevent childhood obesity, a sociological analysis is required. A simplistic correlation between personal choice & weight loss/gain needs to be given more context.
As an avid Dark Chocolate KitKat fan, I’ve realised that self-policing my health is so important.
The Obesity Debate: Why Sociology Matters.
Before we begin our analysis, I just want to openly state that Sociology matters. The subject matter of sociology is to analyse the social structures that shape the lives, actions, choices & life chances of social actors. Thus to detach the obesity discussion from sociological analysis, well, that’s un-sociological. Social structures dictate our perceptions of healthy & unhealthy lifestyles & body images. To individualise obesity through the neo-liberal veneer is to ignore social structure, that’s also un-sociological. To Foucault-esque ‘medicalise’ obesity, this also ignores socially contextual factors; again, un-sociological. To say obesity is an individualised dysfunction, yes, that too, is un-sociological.
In the UK alone, the obesity moral panic continues. Around 28% of adults are ‘obese’ in the medical sense. This article is not intended to challenge empirical evidence, as I too agree, obesity is a concern. But rather, I’m hoping to coalesce sociological perspectives to begin the prevention of crass misinterpretations of a really difficult topic.
Obesity is linked to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure & even depression. Conversations about childhood obesity have permeated into schools. Jamie Oliver famously began his motion to help create a healthier snacking culture amongst children. It’s clear, despite rising living standards, greater nutritional knowledge, vastly improving health care & technology, Western societies are having to cope with the demands of degenerative diseases. The evidence is stark, as a society we need to be doing more.
Obesity has become a hot potato for commentators. Despite costing the NHS over £5bn, a context-driven approach is imperative.
The classic structure-agency debate.
Sociology is marred by the question “what it society or is it the individual?”. In relation to crime, divorce, educational outcomes, life chances, and yes, in relation to obesity! We tend to take the more neo-liberal ‘lifestylism’ approach with obesity as quite simply, we’re brought up with the ‘it’s your body, you take care of it’ ideology. We are accountable for the decisions we make. If we don’t follow the law, we’ll be punished. If we don’t revise for examinations, we’ll fail. If we eat too much, we’ll become, yes, fat. The crackdown on fat shaming is picking up steam but that’s an altogether different discussion. As Wann (1998) notes, there’s been consistent but failed efforts to reclaim the word ‘fat’ and de-derogatory it.
Tv shows such as the Biggest Looser, they create hierarchies of bodies. A construction of what is and isn’t an idea body image is around us ubiquitously. Through the processes of socialisation, we do have tacit knowledge on what is deemed ‘healthy’. This dictates our choices. The frown a colleague receives when he bites into a Jaffa cake, the approval we attain from a light salad lunch! The health sector have worked hard into making these images & health choices so widespread. This ‘Bio-Citizenship’ which Kelly et al (2018) refer to is site of struggle. Body politics are as value and ideology laden as Westminster politics.
Obesity needs some historical context too. Murray (2010) notes that the archives of history are important. Obesity was once considered the ‘disease of the affluent’. As only the wealthy could afford to eat well. To over-indulge and be excessive. The wealthy had access to good quality food, the poor didn’t. Foods high in processed fats, sugars, salts, alongside alcohol consumption & smoking, these were the hallmarks of the wealthy. Over the past 60 years, we’ve seen changes in the social distribution of obesity and this is what needs to be taken with a pinch of salt!
A sociological perspective:
Neither Marx or Durkheim were able to witness this obesity epidemic. But their ideas remain important for the purpose of sociological analysis.
Marxism on Obesity:
Marxists would argue, when have capitalists ever cared about their workers let alone what they consume? Marx famously and in depth wrote about the exploitation of capitalism.
Albritton (2009) used a Marxist perspective to tackle the issue of obesity. He noted that global inequality whereby “one half of the global population is either: overfed, underfed or badly fed”. Albritton claimed that global transnational corporations deliberately enable consumers to over indulge & thus put on weight. Sugar levy’s and taxation are used as token gestures as it’s the poorest that have the limited resources & often knowledge to select healthier lifestyle options. TNCs need us to over-indulge, they need a Man Vs Food tv shows. Capitalism thrives off our overindulgence, it actually also creates it.
Does obesity have latent functions? Functionalists tend to say little about health and although obesity for them might not be ideal, it does create jobs (health care sector, medicine, paediatricians). Although obesity is a choice, it can create a distinction or boundary between healthy and healthy, normal & deviant. This hierarchy then helps us self-regulate our bodies.
A word from Bourdieu:
I’m a huge Pierre Bourdieu fan. I think his analysis was beyond his years and his book Distinction is a MUST read for us all. His overall idea, using a Marxist perspective, was that the middle classes are in a constant internal battle in the hope to draw a distinction between themselves & the working classes. Bourdieu stated how the middle classes once preferred the pale skin tone look when the working classes would be tanned following copious & back breaking work in the agricultural community. Once the working classes began to move towards factories through industrialisation, their pale indoors completions meant the middle classes had to draw a distinction; thus the tanned look.
The body according to Bourdieu was a site of constant struggle. When the working classes began to attain a higher standard living & could eat better, the middle classes began to prefer the more slimmer look. This distinction concept ties into Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital. In a case study, he wrote about a Foreman who was middle class by income but still brought a basic staple lunch to work. Class is in our psyche. So therefore, class is also a huge part of our decision making. Some have wider range of options to decide from, others have a much smaller menu.
So, structure or agency?
My guilty pleasure is a dark chocolate KitKat. I have choice, I have freedom & I know the implications of having too many of these treats. I am also aware that some people have limited choice due to access. The class gradient of health inequalities is one that cannot be ignored.
⁃ Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be obese,
⁃ Life expectancy is lower for those from more deprived backgrounds,
⁃ Rates of smoking & drinking also tend to be higher,
⁃ Cardiovascular diseases also have a skewed class distribution.
To really wade in on this debate, I want to look at access & in particular refer to Lynn Hanley’s biographical piece Estates. Growing up in a deprived council estate, Hanley notes that the obesity moral panic is laden with class inequalities. She notes how in poorer areas, access to healthier lifestyle options is limited. Healthier big branches like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s & Waitrose have a particular customer clientele they aspire for. These chains tend to be reluctant to open in poorer areas. Many of these stores are inaccessible by public transport.
In deprived area, residents are left with a narrow set of options, many of which (Aldi, Iceland, Lidl) offer a narrower range of options. Hanley believed that agency is crucial but the social-economic organisation of soviet is of paramount importance to consider too.
Is it culture? Is it agency? Is it structure? Obesity as a lifestyle choice needs to be carefully considered. Without context, we’re lead to believe that people, by choice and nothing else, wish to be overweight and suffer from degenerative diseases. As Sociologists we have to consider all angles, not sensationalise the issue, begin the structure-agency dialogue & then assess the evidence in front of us to come to a sociological analysis.
We live in a world that can provide all of us with diverse and rich diets. Yet we are still seeing people suffer from obesity, starvation, anorexia & suffering from the effects of poor quality foods. Yes, it’s agency, yes, it’s culture & yes, it’s structure.
Thank you for reading.
Biocitizenship: The Politics of Bodies, Governance, and Power
edited by Kelly E. Happe, Jenell Johnson, Marina Levina (2018)
Stratification: Social Division and Inequality By Wendy Bottero (2005)
Doing Politics or Selling Out? Living the Fat Body by Samantha Murray (2010)
FAT!SO? : Because You Don’t Have to Apologize for Your Size – Marilyn Wann (1998)
Let Them Eat Junk: How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity – Robert Albritton (2009)
Estates: An Intimate History – Lyndsey Hanley (2012)