Four talks in Europe, June 2017

I’ll be giving four talks in Europe in June this year. Here are the details and the links to the events.

Call for abstracts – Digital Food Cultures symposium

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I am convening a one-day symposium on Digital Food Cultures, to be held at the University of Canberra on Friday 20 October 2017. If you are interested in presenting at this symposium, the call for abstracts is now out.

This symposium is directed at the social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of representations and practices related to using digital technologies for food production, consumption, preparation, eating out, promoting healthy diets or weight loss, marketing, ethical consumption, food activism and environmental and sustainability politics.

Topics may include, but are not limited to food-related apps, online videos, GIFs and memes, other platforms, digital food-related games, wearable devices, digital food data and 3D printed food technologies.

I plan to edit a special journal issue from selected symposium papers.

Please send abstracts (with your name, university affiliation and title of paper) of 150-200 words to me by 1 June 2017 at deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

My publications in 2016

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Books

Lupton, D. (2016) The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Edited special issues

Digitised health, medicine and risk’, Health, Risk & Society (volume 17, issue 7-8), 2016 (my editorial for this issue is available here).

Book chapters

Lupton, D. (2016) Digitized health promotion: risk and personal responsibility for health in the Web 2.0 era. In Davis, J. and Gonzalez, A. M. (eds), To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. New York: New York University Press, pp. 152—76. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital risk society. In Zinn, J., Burgess, A. and Alemanno, A. (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 301—9. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) You are your data: self-tracking practices and concepts of data. In Selke, Stefan (ed.), Lifelogging: Digital Self-Tracking: Between Disruptive Technology and Cultural Change. Zurich: Springer, pp. 61—79. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital health technologies and digital data: new ways of monitoring, measuring and commodifying human bodies. In Olleros, F. X. and Zhegu, M. (eds), Research Handbook of Digital Transformations. New York: Edward Elgar, pp. 84—102. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Personal data practices in the age of lively data. In Daniels, J., Gregory, K. and McMillan Cottom, T. (eds), Digital Sociologies. London: Policy Press, 335—350. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) ‘Mastering your fertility’: the digitised reproductive citizen. In McCosker, A., Vivienne, S. and Johns, A. (eds), Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest and Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 81—93. (A preprint version is available here.)

Journal articles

Thomas, G.M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Threats and thrills: pregnancy apps, risk and consumption. Health, Risk & Society, 17(7-8), 495—509.

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital companion species and eating data: implications for theorising digital data-human assemblages. Big Data & Society, 3(1), online, available at http://bds.sagepub.com/content/3/1/2053951715619947

Lupton, D. (2016) Towards critical health studies: reflections on two decades of research in Health and the way forward. Health, 20(1), 49—61.

Michael, M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Toward a manifesto for ‘a public understanding of big data’. Public Understanding of Science, 25(1), 104—116.

Lupton, D. (2016) The diverse domains of quantified selves: self-tracking modes and dataveillance. Economy & Society, 45(1), 101—122.

Lupton, D. (2016) The use and value of digital media information for pregnancy and early motherhood: a focus group study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 16(171), online, available at http://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-016-0971-

Lupton, D., Pedersen, S. and Thomas, G.M. (2016) Parenting and digital media: from the early web to contemporary digital society. Sociology Compass, 10(8), 730—743.

Lupton, D. and Pedersen, S. (2016) An Australian survey of women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps. Women and Birth, 29, 368—375.

Sumartojo, S., Pink, S., Lupton, D. and Heyes Labond, C. (2016) The affective intensities of datafied space. Emotion, Space and Society, 21, 33—40.

Pedersen, S. and Lupton, D. (2016) ‘What are you feeling right now?’ Communities of maternal feeling on Mumsnet. Emotion, Space & Society, online ahead of print: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S175545861630010X

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital media and body weight, shape, and size: an introduction and review. Fat Studies, online ahead of print: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21604851.2017.1243392

Lupton, D. (2016) Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies. Leisure Studies, 35(6), 709—711.

 

 

Fat, thin and fit bodies in digital media

 

I have just completed an introduction for a special issue of the journal Fat Studies on digital media and body weight, shape and size. Here’s an edited excerpt from the introduction. (Update: the introduction has now been published, and can be viewed here.)

Numerous researchers have called attention to the ways in which often very negative portrayals of fat embodiment circulate in the popular media. Despite the growing presence of attempts to counter these portrayals, online representations of fat bodies that seek to challenge accepted norms and engage in fat activist politics continue to be far outnumbered by those that continue to stigmatize and shame fat people and portray thin bodies as more desirable, healthy and attractive. A content analysis of the representation of “obesity” on YouTube (Yoo and Kim 2012) found that highly negative representations of fat people were common, as were those that attributed personal responsibility for body weight (such as showing fat people eating unhealthy food) and made fun of fat people. Another study of YouTube videos using the search term “fat” (Hussin et al. 2011) revealed that many highly-viewed videos included content that devalued fat people. Men were targeted for fat stigmatization twice as often as women, and white people were the targets far more frequently than other ethnic or racial groups. The antagonists engaging in active shaming or vilification of fat people were also overwhelmingly white men.

My own search for the term “fat people” on YouTube in September 2016 returned many top-ranked videos in which fat people are held up to ridicule and scorn. These bore such titles as “Fat People Fails,” featuring fat people falling over, breaking furniture or otherwise publicly humiliating themselves as well as “The Top Fattest People in the World,” and “Fat People Cringe,” all featuring fat bodies in the style of the freak show. These videos all have millions of views. A Google search for “fat memes” similarly found memes that not only stigmatize fat bodies but are blatantly abusive and often cruel. Just some examples I came across include unflattering images of fat people with texts such as “I’m fat because obesity runs in my family. No-one runs in your family,” “I’m lazy because I’m fat and I’m fat because I’m lazy,” and “Sometimes when I’m sad I like to cut myself … another slice of cheesecake.” When I looked for “fat GIFs” on the GIFY platform, here again were many negative portrayals of fat people, including cartoon characters like Homer Simpson as well as real people, again engaging in humiliating bodily performances. Many of these GIFs showed people jiggling their abdomens or dancing to demonstrate the magnitude of their flesh, belly flopping into swimming pools, eating greedily, smeared with food and so on. Here again, fat white men predominated as targets of ridicule.

Apps are another dominant media form that often focuses on the monitoring, representation and even gamification of human embodiment. As I have argued elsewhere, the ways in which game apps portray social groups can often reproduce and exacerbate negative or misleading stereotypes, including racism, sexism, healthism and norms of feminine embodiment privileging highly-groomed, youthful, physically fit and slim bodies (Lupton 2015, Lupton and Thomas 2015). When I searched the App Annie platform using the term “fat,” a plethora of apps portraying fat bodies in negative ways were identified. These included several game apps that represented fat people as ugly, greedy, lazy and gormless figures of fun who need encouragement to engage in weight-loss activities. Many other apps involve users (who are assumed not to be fat) manipulating images of themselves or others so that they look fat. These include “FatGoo”, marketed by its developers in the following terms: “Gaining weight is now fun! FatGoo is the ultimate app for creating hilarious fat photos of your friends and family.” Others of this ilk include “Fatty – Make Funny Fat Face Pictures,” “Fat You!,” “FatBooth” and “Fatify – Get Fat.” Another fat app genre is that which uses abusive terms to shame people into controlling their diet and lose weight. One example is “CARROT Hunger – Talking Calorie Counter.” It is marketed by its developer as a “judgemental calorie counter” which will “punish you for overindulging.” The app can be used to scan foods for their calorie content. If it judges food as too high in calories, users are abused with insulting epithets such as “flabby meatbags” and even tweets shaming messages about them to their Twitter followers. While such apps may be considered by some as harmless fun, they play a serious ideological role in stigmatizing and rendering abject fatness and fat people.

… Thinspiration is a profoundly gendered discourse. Far more female than male bodies feature in digital images tagged with #thinspiration or #thinspo. I noted earlier that white men tend to be targeted for ridicule in memes and GIFs. Interestingly, my search for “skinny” or “thin” memes and GIFs also hold up white male bodies to derision, this time drawing attention to thin men as lacking appropriate muscular strength. Many memes show half-naked thin men in body-building poses, seeking to highlight their lack of size. When skinny women are featured in memes and GIFS, it is usually in relation to women who falsely claim or complain about being fat or else are sexualized images of young women in swimwear displaying their lean bodies (often tagged in GIFs with #hot #beauty, #perfect and #sexy as well as #thin, #thispo or #skinny). Thin women, these memes suggest, are to be envied because they conform to conventions of female attractiveness. In contrast, thin men are deficient because they fail to achieve ideals of masculine strength and size. The fitspiration or fitspo terms are more recent, but they also take up and reproduce many of the ideals of thinspiration, and similarly have a strong focus on physical appearance and conventional sexual attractiveness. The bodies that are championed in fitspiration are physically toned, active, strong and fit as well as slim (but not emaciated), and are similarly eroticized, with both female and male bodies featuring (Boepple et al. 2016, Boepple and Thompson 2016, Tiggemann and Zaccardo 2016).

References

Boepple, L., Ata, R.N., Rum, R. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) Strong is the new skinny: a content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image, 17 132-135.

Boepple, L. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49 (1), 98-101.

Hussin, M., Frazier, S. and Thompson, J.K. (2011) Fat stigmatization on YouTube: a content analysis. Body Image, 8 (1), 90-92.

Lupton, D. (2015) Digital Sociology. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. and Thomas, G.M. (2015) Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal (5). Accessed 22 October 2015. Available from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/1012.

Tiggemann, M. and Zaccardo, M. (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: a content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, online ahead of print.

Yoo, J.H. and Kim, J. (2012) Obesity in the new media: a content analysis of obesity videos on YouTube. Health Communication, 27 (1), 86-97.

 

 

Call for abstracts for themed issue on body weight and digital media

I am editing a themed issue for Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society on the topic of body weight and digital media. Fat Studies is the first academic journal that critically examines theory, research, practices, and programs related to body weight and appearance.

If you are interested in contributing to this themed issue, please send me an article title and an abstract of 200-250 words outlining what you would propose to cover by 29 February 2016. Final submissions should be no longer than 7,000 words, including the abstract, all notes and references. Please email to deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au

In keeping with the journal’s emphasis on ‘body weight and society’, the themed issue will include contributions that address the following and related topics from a critical sociocultural perspective:

  • representations of body weight and size in the digital news media (and also how readers may comment on news reports online)
  • apps and wearable devices for weight control, physical fitness and energy expenditure
  • selfies and body size
  • the discussion and portrayal of such issues as weight loss, body size, fat activism, thinspo, fitspo, pro-ana, pro-mia and fat pornography and erotica in blogs, social media platforms and other websites
  • big data and body weight

If your abstract is accepted, the following deadlines apply:

  • Full papers by 31 May 2016
  • Revised final versions by 30 August 2016

 

My publications for 2014

This the list of my publications that came out in 2014. If you would like a copy of any of the articles, please contact me on deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

Books

Lupton, D. (2015) Digital Sociology (Routledge: this  has a 2015 publication date, but actually was published in November 2014).

Special Journal Issue

Editor of special issue on ‘Beyond techno-utopia: critical approaches to digital health technologies’, Societies (volume 4, number 2), 2014.

Book Chapters

Lupton, D. (2014) The reproductive citizen: motherhood and health education. In Fitzpatrick, K. and Tinning, R. (eds), Health Education: Critical Perspectives. London: Routledge, pp. 48—60.

Lupton, D. (2014) Unborn assemblages: shifting configurations of embryonic and foetal embodiment. In Nash, M. (ed), Reframing Reproduction: Conceiving Gendered Experiences. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peer-reviewed Journal Articles

Lupton, D. (2014) ‘How do you measure up?’ Assumptions about ‘obesity’ and health-related behaviors in ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns. Fat Studies, 3(1), 32—44.

Lupton, D. (2014) The commodification of patient opinion: the digital patient experience economy in the age of big data. Sociology of Health & Illness, 36(6), 856—69.

Lupton, D. (2014) Precious, pure, uncivilised, vulnerable: infant embodiment in the Australian popular media. Children & Society, 28(5), 341—51.

Lupton, D. (2014) Quantified sex: a critical analysis of sexual and reproductive self-tracking apps. Culture, Health & Sexuality, online first, doi: 1080/13691058.2014.920528.

Lupton, D. (2014) Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitised HPE (response to Gard). Sport, Education and Society, online first, doi: 1080/13573322.2014.962496.

Lupton, D. (2014) Health promotion in the digital era: a critical commentary. Health Promotion International, online first, doi: 10.1093/heapro/dau091.

Lupton, D. (2014) Apps as artefacts: towards a critical sociological perspective on health and medical apps. Societies, 4, 606—22.

Lupton, D. (2014) Critical perspectives on digital health technologies. Sociology Compass, 8(12), 1344—59.

Editorials

Lupton, D. (2014) Beyond techno-utopia: critical approaches to digital health technologies. Societies, 4(4), 706—11.

Other Academic Publications

Lupton, D. (2014) Risk. In Cockerham, W., Dingwall, R. and Quah, S. (eds), The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Health, Illness, Behavior and Society. New York: Blackwell, pp. 2067—71.

Lupton, D. (2014) Feeling Better Connected’: Academics’ Use of Social Media. Canberra: News & Media Research Centre.

The digital tracking of school students in physical education classes: a critique

I have had a new article published in the journal of Sport, Education and Society on the topic of how school  health and physical education (HPE) is becoming digitised and technologies of self-tracking are being introduced into classes. As its title suggests – ‘Data assemblages, sentient schools and digitised HPE (response to Gard)’ – the article outlines some thoughts in response to a piece published in the same journal by another Australian sociologist, Michael Gard. Gard contends that a new era of HPE seems to be emerging in the wake of the digitising of society in general and the commercialising of education, which is incorporating the use of digital technologies.

Few commentators in education, health promotion or sports studies have begun to realise the extent to which digital data surveillance (‘dataveillance’) and analytics are now encroaching into many social institutions and settings and the ways in which actors and agencies in the digital knowledge economy are appropriating these data. In my article I give some examples of the types of surveillance technologies that are being introduced into school HPE. Apps such as Coach’s Eye and Ubersense are beginning to be advocated in HPE circles, as are other health and fitness apps. Some self-tracking apps have been designed specifically for HPE teachers for use with their students. For example the Polar GoFit app with a set of heart rate sensors is expressly designed for HPE teachers as a monitoring tool for students’ physical activities during lessons. It allows teachers to distribute the heart rate sensors to students, set a target zone for heart rate levels and then monitor these online while the lesson takes place, either for individuals or the class as a group.

I argue that there are significant political and ethical implications of the move towards mobilising digital devices to collect personal data on school students. I have elsewhere identified a typology of five modes of self-tracking that involve different levels of voluntary engagement and ways in which personal data are employed. ‘Private’ self-tracking is undertaken voluntarily and initiated by the participant for personal reasons, ‘communal’ self-tracking involves the voluntary sharing of one’s personal data with others, ‘pushed’ self-tracking involves ‘nudging’ or persuasion, ‘imposed’ self-tracking is forced upon people and ‘exploited’ self-tracking involves the use of personal data for the express purposes of others.

Digitised HPE potentially involves all five of these modes. In the context of the institution of the school and the more specific site of HPE, the previous tendencies of HPE to represent paternalistic disciplinary control over the unruly bodies of children and young people and to exercise authority over what the concepts of ‘health’, ‘the ideal body’ and ‘fitness’ should mean can only be exacerbated. More enthusiastic students who enjoy sport and fitness activities may willingly and voluntarily adopt or consent to dataveillance of their bodies as part of achieving personal fitness or sporting performance goals. However when students are forced to wear heart rate monitors to demonstrate that they are conforming to the exertions demanded of them by the HPE teacher, there is little room for resistance. When certain very specific targets of appropriate number of steps, heart-rate levels, body fat or BMI measurements and the like are set and students’ digitised data compared against them, the capacity for the apparatus of HPE to constitute a normalising, surveilling and disciplinary gaze on children and young people and the capacity for using these data for public shaming are enhanced.

The abstract of the article is below. If you would like a copy, please email me on deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

Michael Gard (2014) raises some important issues in his opinion piece on digitised health and physical education (HPE) in the school setting. His piece represents the beginning of a more critical approach to the instrumental and solutionist perspectives that are currently offered on digitised HPE. Few commentators in education, health promotion or sports studies have begun to realise the extent to which digital data surveillance and analytics are now encroaching into many social institutions and settings and the ways in which actors and agencies in the digital knowledge economy are appropriating these data. Identifying what is happening and the implications for concepts of selfhood, the body and social relations, not to mention the more specific issues of privacy and the commercialisation and exploitation of personal data, requires much greater attention than these issues have previously received in the critical social literature. While Gard has begun to do this in his article, there is much more to discuss. In this response, I present some discussion that seeks to provide a complementary commentary on the broader context in which digitised HPE is developing and manifesting. Whether or not one takes a position that is techno-utopian, dystopian or somewhere in between, I would argue that to fully understand the social, cultural and political resonances of digitised HPE, such contextualising is vital.

Thinking about the ethics and politics of public health campaigns

Over the past few years one of my research foci has been that of fat embodiment and obesity politics. This interest builds on my longstanding research on the sociocultural dimensions of health, medicine and public health, as well as the sociology of food and eating and the sociology of the body.

In July 2012 I wrote a piece for The Conversation critiquing a new Australian anti-obesity campaign, LiveLighter. The campaign included visual material and text that sought to evoke disgust (the ‘yuck factor’) about body fat in audiences. I argued in my piece that such strategies need to be examined for the ethical and moral issues they raise. Should health promotion campaigners be attempting to make people feel hatred and revulsion about their own bodies? To what extent are certain individuals and social groups identified by others as disgusting via such campaigns, and as a result subjected to social discrimination and stigma? How do such campaigns reproduce and exacerbate existing social disadvantage?

These questions have been addressed in several other publications of mine since then. In 2013 my book Fat appeared, in which I investigated the historical, social and cultural underpinnings of the disgust and revulsion that fat bodies tend to evoke in contemporary western culture. And I followed up my interest in public health campaigns and their use of strategies that attempt to arouse negative emotions such as disgust, shame and fear in two journal articles that were published recently.

One of these articles, published last week in Critical Public Health, builds on the piece I wrote for The Conversation by exploring the reasons why disgust is used in public health campaigns directed not only at obesity but also other issues, such as tobacco, excessive drinking and illicit drugs. It is entitled ‘The pedagogy of disgust: the ethical, moral and political implications of using disgust in public health campaigns’. Here is the abstract:

The developers of public health campaigns have often attempted to elicit disgust to persuade members of their target audiences to change their behaviour in the interests of their health. In this critical essay, I seek to problematise this taken-for-granted and unquestioned tactic. I assert that the pedagogy of disgust in public health campaigns has significant ethical, moral and political implications. In outlining my argument, the literature on the social, cultural and political elements of disgust is drawn upon. I also draw more specifically on scholarship demonstrating the ways in which disgust has operated in relation to health and medical issues to reinforce stigmatisation and discrimination against individuals and groups who are positioned as disgusting. It is concluded that advocates of using such tactics should be aware of the challenge they pose to human dignity and their perpetuation of the Self and Other binary opposition that reinforces negative attitudes towards already disadvantaged and marginalised individuals and social groups.

The other article was published last month in Fat Studies and is entitled ‘How do you measure up?’ Assumptions about ‘obesity’ and health-related behaviors and beliefs in two Australian ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns’. This article was based on research I undertook using documents reporting on the formative and evaluation research by market research companies that was undertaken for two other Australian anti-obesity campaigns: the ‘Measure Up’ and the ‘Swap It, Don’t Stop It’ campaigns. Analysing these types of documents provides an interesting insight into the mentalities and rationales that underpin their development on the part of public health authorities and the people they employ to develop the content and strategies of their social marketing efforts. This is the abstract:

This article presents an analysis of two related Australian government-sponsored ‘obesity’ prevention campaigns, including documents produced by commercial social research companies reporting the formative research and evaluation of these campaigns. This material is critically analyzed for its underlying assumptions about weight, ‘obesity’ and the public’s health-related behaviors and beliefs. These include the following: the concept of ‘good health’ has meaning and value that is universally shared; to be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ is to be physically unfit and at risk of higher levels of disease and early death; individuals are responsible for their own health status; individuals lack appropriate information about health risks and providing this information leads to behavior change; and information should be provided in a way that arouses concern and a belief that individuals should make a change. These assumptions are challenged from a critical sociological perspective.

Anyone who would like a copy of these articles can contact me on deborah.lupton@gmail.com.

A sociological critique of the Health at Every Size movement

The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement has become a popular alternative to the dominant scientific discourse on obesity, particularly among fat activists and the fat acceptance movement as well as some nutritionists eager to avoid an over-emphasis on body weight in their work with clients. First developed by American psychotherapist and nutritionist Linda Bacon (2010), the main argument of HAES is that good health and physical fitness can be achieved regardless of body size. As such, the approach agrees with the assertions made by many other obesity sceptics that fatness does not necessarily cause ill-health and premature mortality and that losing weight may not improve health status (see here for my previous post on the contentions of obesity sceptics).

A central plank of the HAES approach is that weight loss by means of continual dieting attempts and punishing exercise regimens should not be the main goal of those seeking to live a healthier life. Instead of attempting to follow the rigid guidelines of medical advice on losing weight and focusing exclusively on this objective, individuals should instead follow their bodies’ intuitive lead in choosing their diet and exercise activities. They should learn the instinctive hunger and fullness cues of their bodies and eat accordingly, whether or not following these cues lead to weight loss. For example, in an information sheet about HAES (2008) Bacon notes that ‘We all have internal systems designed to keep us healthy – and at a healthy weight. Support your body in naturally finding its appropriate weight by honouring its signals of hunger, fullness and appetite’.  In a YouTube video she claims that as long as ‘you stop fighting yourself, achieving and maintaining the weight that is right for you is effortless – your body does the job for you’.

A further integral part of the HAES philosophy, and one that bespeaks Bacon’s other training as a psychotherapist, is that people should accept their bodies’ size and weight, and learn to love themselves. The ‘Health at Every Size promise’ is that ‘You can feel better about yourself. You can feel loved, accepted, and vital – and you can improve your health – regardless of whether you lose weight’ (Bacon, 2010: 2, emphasis in the original).

For someone reading the HAES manifesto as put forward by Bacon and others, it all seems so simple: love yourself and others will love you; trust your body’s instincts and good health will follow. The HAES philosophy appears to be eminently laudable, avoiding the kinds of fat stigmatisation and victim-blaming that are so pervasive in medical, public health and popular discussions of body weight (Lupton, 2012). Yet I would argue that there are elements of the HAES discourse that should be held up to critical examination. It is time to challenge its assumptions and to identify the inconsistencies and the brand of rigid thinking that underpin HAES, just as critics have done in relation to scientific anti-obesity discourse.

In her writings on HAES, Bacon constantly refers to the body’s natural ‘set-point’ which ensures that too much weight is not gained if one makes sure to follow one’s body’s cues. References to ‘turning over control to your body’ assumes that the body is a natural entity that has its own wisdom independent of where it is sited or what experiences it has gone through.

While I agree with and support the major principles of accepting a range of body sizes and shapes and that everyone, regardless of their size and shape should seek a lifestyle that is both pleasurable and healthy, as a sociologist, I tend to approach the words ‘natural’, ‘instinctive’ or ‘internal cues’ with suspicion. From a sociological perspective, the ways in which we understand, view, represent and live our bodies are always sited within cultural and social contexts. The body is viewed as a complex interplay of biology, society and culture, in which it is extremely difficult to extricate one element from the other.

I also find the continual position of ‘your body’ as a separate entity from ‘you’ in HAES discourse problematic. This discourse reproduces the classic Cartesian duality of the mind/self as separate from the body/flesh and turns it on its head. Instead of the rational mind positioned as superior to the fleshly body, here the body is represented as ‘wise’ and all-knowing, to which the mind/self should relinquish control. Yet as theorists such as Merleau-Ponty have argued, we cannot separate ‘self’ from ‘body’: we always and inevitably experience the world as embodied selves.

Take the concept of ‘internal cues’ for example. The HAES literature suggests that such cues are natural, instinctive, biologically determined and therefore appropriate to follow. But if nothing else, the sociology of the body and indeed, the sociology of food and eating (Lupton, 1996) have shown us motivations can never be fully or purely ‘internal’. They are experienced via social and cultural lens, including our own life experiences and our siting within the particular cultural context into which we were born and grew up. Bacon acknowledges this to some extent when she compares French with American attitudes to food and eating practices in a brief section in the book, but does not extend this idea to the rest of her argument. She also acknowledges the emotional dimensions of eating and food cravings. Here again, however, Bacon positions these embodied sensations as individual rather than as social products, and as separate from, rather than an integral part of, the self: elements, indeed, of the ‘inauthentic body’ which one should not obey. So which sensations of our bodies should we listen to? Which are the most ‘wise’ and ‘authentic’ and on what basis should we make these judgements?

Another important aspect of HAES that requires more critical examination is the concept that we should accept our bodies whatever our size and the assumption that this will lead to better self-esteem, a goal in itself. But such attempts to improve self-esteem from within fail to recognise the continuing fat prejudice and loathing that continues to exist within our society. Bacon argues that HAES will ‘give you the tools … to live in a body you love’ (2010: 5). But this is similar to asserting that prejudice, discrimination and stigma based on such features as a person’s ethnicity or race, or their age, can be dealt with by ‘loving yourself’. Such an approach attempts to change individuals’ behaviours rather than wider societal attitudes, and the problem therefore remains personal (Murray, 2008). Whatever one’s own attitude about one’s body, the external societal meanings will remain unchanged, and prejudice, discrimination and stigmatisation will continue to exist. Fat people themselves, however, hard they try, may struggle to accept their body size in such a punitive social environment. Their inability to ‘love themselves’ may well become yet another source of shame and guilt.

References

Linda Bacon (2010) Health at Every Size: the Surprising Truth About Your Weight. Dallas: Benbella Books.

Deborah Lupton (1996) Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage.

Deborah Lupton (2012) Fat. London: Routledge.

Samantha Murray (2008) The ‘Fat’ Female Body. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Can a thin person write about fat?

In recent years a field of study that has come to be entitled ‘fat studies’ has developed, largely in response to the discourse around obesity in developed countries. Just as gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people have chosen to reappropriate the once pejorative word ‘queer’ for their own purposes, attempting to reinstate it as a positive self-identifying and political term, some academics and activists seek to use the word ‘fat’ to describe corpulent people in a positive, accepting manner.

In her foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, a ground-breaking collection of radical essays critiquing dominant cultural representations of fatness, well-known fat activist Marilynn Wann (2009: ix) defines fat studies as ‘a radical field, in the sense that it goes to the root of weight-related belief systems’. She contends that fat studies rejects the following assumptions: ‘that fat people could (and should) lose weight … that being fat is a disease and fat people cannot possibly enjoy good health or long life … that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly’ (2009: ix).

Interest in fat studies is such that there is now a new journal (Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of  Body Weight and Society) and regular conferences and sections of major conferences devoted to this topic. Taking its name from other critical areas of interdisciplinary study such as gender, queer, black, Latino/a, postcolonial studies, those who designate themselves as part of this field tend to share the following ideas:

  • they prefer the terms ‘fat’ or ‘fatness’ to what they view as the medicalised terms ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ or ‘obesity’;
  • they challenge the dominant biomedical perspective on the relationship between fatness and ill health and disease (see here for my previous post on the contentions of obesity sceptics);
  • they represent fat people as members of a minority group that contends with routine discrimination and marginalisation;
  • they seek to counter and resist such discrimination and marginalisation;
  • they often adopt a feminist or queer approach in their critiques.
The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bro...

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no lack of evidence to demonstrate that these writers are correct in identifying highly negative meanings and experiences around fat embodiment, many of which have been apparent in popular and medical discourses for centuries (see here for my discussion of fat phobia). A central theme for many writers in fat studies, as well as in the areas of what are variously entitled ‘fat activism’, the ‘fat acceptance movement’ or the ‘size acceptance movement’ is that they themselves identify as ‘fat’ people. Adopting the position that ‘the personal is the political’, they view their activities as part of a political project.

Other scholars prefer the terms ‘critical obesity studies’ or ‘critical weight studies’ to describe their writings on the social and cultural dimensions of obesity discourse (for example, the contributors to the collection edited by Rich, Monaghan and Aphramoor, 2011). The emphasis in these terms is on the word ‘critical’, as these scholars seek to identify and challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions circulating in mainstream lay discourses and in the biomedical and public health literature on obesity/fatness.  Here again, many of these writers actively avoid the use of the term ‘obesity’, preferring instead to use the term ‘fat’. Such writers may themselves identify as fat, but this is not the case for all or even many of them.

Some commentators in fat studies and fat activism have expressed very negative opinions about people writing on the topic who do not themselves identify as fat. When I was working on my book on fat politics and fat embodiment (Fat, published this month), this was an issue of which I was highly aware, as I have always been a thin person and have therefore never personally experienced the stigmatisation and marginalisation to which many fat people have been subjected.

However, as I point out in my book, fat people are not the only individuals who have been singled out for attention in contemporary anti-obesity discourse. Mothers of young children, regardless of their own body weight, have been positioned as key targets in anti-obesity campaigns and programs because they are viewed as responsible for monitoring and disciplining their children’s diet and weight. As one such mother, I have found myself the subject of moral discourses in relation to the ‘child obesity epidemic’ , implicated in the network of expert advice directed at mothers (see here for a previous post on the topic of maternal responsibility for children’s weight). The voices of mothers with young children have not often received attention, except when researchers want to determine how well they are conforming to advice on controlling their children’s weight. Yet there are many difficult ethical questions to negotiate as a mother in response to weight control issues. How, for example, do mothers ensure that their children are healthy without instilling a hatred and fear of fat or of their own body if they do not conform to the ideal of slim embodiment?

Another argument against the rigid categorisation of people as ‘fat’ or ‘not fat enough’ to write about the politics of fatness and obesity is that fatness is a fluid and unstable category, depending on the historical and cultural context and personal experience. People who may officially be categorised as ‘normal weight’ according to medical guidelines such as the Body Mass Index (BMI) may still feel ‘fat’, particularly if they aspire to or admire the kind of extreme thinness displayed by models and celebrities. People who were once medically categorised as ‘obese’ or ‘overweight’ but then lost a great deal of weight and reduced their weight to a  ‘normal’ BMI may still identify as  ‘fat’. Conversely, people who have always been large-bodied may resist being labelled ‘overweight’, ‘obese’ or ‘fat’ because they view their weight as normal and appropriate for them. What has been considered ‘fat’ in one historical era has fluctuated according to the prevailing norms of beauty and medical advice.

Further, it may be contended that everyone, regardless of body shape or weight, is caught up in or reacting to obesity discourse in some way or another. According to several public health campaigns and policies, we are all potentially fat people, unless we take steps to constantly monitor and discipline our bodies. Whether or not we identify as ‘fat’, it is difficult to escape the prevalence and dominance of anti-obesity discourse and fat phobia. Willingly or not, resistant or accepting, we are all implicated in the contemporary discourse that positions fat people as morally deficient, undisciplined, sick and inferior.

References

Lupton, D. (2012) Fat. London: Routledge.

Rich, E., Monaghan, L. and Aphramor, L. (2011) (eds) Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wann, M. (2009) Foreword: Fat Studies: An invitation to revolution. In Rothblum, E. and Solovay, S. (eds), The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press, pp ix-xxv.