“Eat right and exercise”: amid the cacophony of diet fads and aids, conflicting reports regarding what causes obesity, and debate about whether and what kind of fat might be good for us after all, this seems like pretty sound and refreshingly simple advice. On the surface, it is: it’s hard to argue against good nutrition or circulation. But dig a bit deeper and it’s a veritable political and cultural minefield.
In the first place, the “eat right and exercise” maxim places full responsibility for weight on the individual’s shoulders: it’s on him or her to monitor and regulate intake and output. A variation of this theme is the “calories in/calories out” narrative of obesity, featured in every “official” public obesity campaign originating from health or government agencies: we are encouraged to make wise choices by these agencies, who stand by to offer resources, but don’t presume to cross the line in ways that might compromise our autonomy. Moreover, what does it mean to “eat right?” Perhaps calorie restriction is part of that, but it’s mostly understood to mean quality of food—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, for instance. As Michael Pollan succinctly surmised in his Eater’s Manifesto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But in the context of the obesity crisis and the discourse surrounding it, this is grounds for a host of debates regarding how such foods are grown and processed—considerable science suggests, contrary to the caloric imbalance narrative, that obesity is a consequence of endocrinal and hormonal imbalance, perhaps prompted by “adulterated” food, whether via pesticides, hormone or antibiotic treated livestock, GMOs, refinement/processing, or preservatives. And of course, those debates are inherently political and ideological because they inevitably lead to questions about food politics in particular, and the political economy in general: Big Agriculture, food subsidies, greed, and profit. Which brings us back to the individual: if industry is responsible for the obesity epidemic, what is our role? What is the government’s?
In fact, the core issues that inform each of these competing narratives are reflections of the broader political economic crisis that the United States (and most of the world) has been grappling with since 2008—a crisis in neoliberalism, a political economic philosophy that promotes a market unfettered by government oversight and justified by individual autonomy: that is, individuals are articulated as having more and better choices if the industry responds exclusively to their demands. Government regulation is understood in this view to be patronizing and oppressive to the individual. In 2008, when the bottom fell out of neoliberalism, this self-serving (for industry) logic was called to task, in particular as relevant to its insensitivity to the material realities and experiences of everyday citizens, a sentiment popularized in the “99 percenters” movement. This same impasse is evident in the “official” story of obesity—the rational individual monitoring her/his consumption, unfettered by structural intervention and aided by the market—and the reactive, environmental obesity story that posits the individual as the hapless victim of corporate greed.
Between these stories exist a number of competing cultural narratives of obesity. While all of them, like any story, contest “the facts,” at heart they are attempting to give shape to a piece conspicuously absent from the original narratives: authenticity, a powerfully resonant sensibility in our culture today. The official story turns on a rational agent who successfully resolves or avoids obesity by engaging in simple caloric budgeting; the reactive narrative posits instead a passive subject acted upon by industry. Neither acknowledges the experienced intimacies, materialities, and sensualities entailed by body and food that lie at the heart of obesity— and for that matter, of identity. Writ large, we are struggling with these same issues on a broader cultural scale: the contemporary tensions, anxieties, and imperatives that characterize visceral, literal consumption are likewise written upon the national body. As obesity goes, so goes the nation.
Featured image credit: scale diet health tape by mojzagrebinfo. Public domain via Pixabay.