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Author: Steve Woods

Is the UK in a moral panic about obesity?

Updated Friday, 23rd May 2014
Three quarters of British men are predicted to be obese by 2030. Have we become greedier and less active or are more complicating factors at work?

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Cartoon of an obese man squashed into an aircraft seat while holding a plate of food and asking 'Excuse me, would you like my lettuce?'.

We live in an age of moral panics. They are becoming so common that in 2012 The Guardian produced a blog on the ten best moral panics. It showed that successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with society's wider anxieties, suggesting a far deeper anxiety such as rapid social change, economic uncertainty, and lifestyle clashes between diverse social groups. The ongoing obsession with obesity can now be added to the list.

Many now argue that health and lifestyles have become an important repository for new kinds of moralising in society. We don’t have to look too far to find evidence of this: consider UK Government healthy eating initiatives such as ‘The Responsibility Deal’, and the Change4life campaign. Each implores the individual, whether adult or child, to take personal responsibility for their weight and health or the nation will experience a health catastrophe.

A whole range of institutions, and individuals associated with those institutions, are provided with the responsibility to identify who might be ‘at risk’ and to regulate their behaviour. Doctors in the UK are being encouraged to ‘nudge’ patients at risk of overweight, counsel them about their risk and suggest weight management treatment (whether or not there is any other medical indication of risk).

Epidemic or panic?

In 1993, in England, 13% of men and 16% of women were obese – in 2011 this rose to 24% for men and 26% for women, according to an NHS report. The report estimated that one in 10 English children was clinically obese, a significant increase since the turn of the millennium. Health risks associated with obesity seem clear, but some argue that the true scale and nature of the obesity epidemic has been exaggerated and this has triggered a new moral panic.

In discussing blame and responsibility for the so-called obesity epidemic, scientists, journalists and politicians alike tend to focus on individual responsibility. And in doing so, they gloss over the ways in which body size is tightly controlled by genetic factors and shaped by social factor – such as socio-economic status and neighbourhood limitations, including poor access to healthy food outlets, a high density of fast food restaurants and a lack of open space for exercise. In this perspective, obesity is social.

But once obesity was listed among risk factors for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, statistical evidence accumulated about obesity’s widespread occurrence, dramatic graphs appeared linking it to wellbeing.

Fattest towns

Wikipedia provides a snapshot of obesity levels in the UK. If you live in Tamworth you might not wish to learn that your town is the fattest in England, with over 30 per cent of its inhabitants classified as obese.

Our obsession with body image and weight loss has exacerbated the issue. You cannot pick up a newspaper today without a story about body weight. There are hundreds of websites devoted to the issue. Just Google 'obesity time bomb' and you will find out the extent of the concern. Governments offer advice regularly on diet, health and fitness, and the Government's former Chief Medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, has talked up the obesity time bomb.

Characterising obesity firstly as a disease, and then one of epidemic proportions, requires immediate mobilisation of resources to bring about change. In the context of the ‘obesity epidemic’ this is translated into a sense that anyone might ‘catch it’. (Here we go, can you feel the ‘fat anxiety’ yet?). People who are overweight or obese have succumbed, and are thereby dangerous ‘carriers’ to be avoided. This permits the creation of notions like the obese ‘folk-devil’ (fat devil?), and permits actions to be taken because of the ‘danger’ to them, and to society.

Spreading fat fear

Social policy and health strategies target individuals’ behaviours as though all were at risk. We are all involved in helping to defuse a health time bomb! This feeds a media frenzy and is of course a gift for the multi-billion dietary industry. The preoccupations of the powerful with the body’s appearance of a few are visited on the wider population, through a fear of fat. The message is that anyone could get fat, everyone is at risk and that the risk begins very early in life. This stimulates a constant, anxiety-driven, routine of self-surveillance, and helps to produce a lifestyle for many that is riddled with needless anxiety and conspicuously short of fun.

Moral panic here? Certainly. Eat what you want? It is up to you. Go ahead, but remember, the fat devils await you.

Further reading

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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