Volume Eight, Issue 1
Fat panic in Canadian public
policy: Obesity as different and unhealthy
Natalie Beausoleil and Pamela Ward [*
Presently in the Atlantic Provinces and other regions across Canada,
the concepts of health and wellbeing are highlighted in a number of key
provincial initiatives that utilize the mainstream health literature to
identify and address health risks for local populations. Obesity
is at the forefront of the risks identified in recent health promotion
and population health documents in Canada, as in other neoliberal
Western nations (Fullagar, 2009; Rich and Evans, 2009). Growing
concerns about the apparent rising rates of overweight and obesity have
resulted in a general conflation of thinness with good health and
fatness with bad health. The messages about obesity in health policy
documents are most often derived from conventional scientific research
that offers dire warnings about the repercussions of what has come to
be described as a rapidly growing epidemic. For the most part, this
research is replete with generalizations based on assumptions about
people’s health practices and morality and fueled by the public’s
fascination with the sensational storyline. While such science
both informs and reinforces public discourse, health policy likewise
has been shaped by speculation cloaked in the shroud of scientific
certainty (Campos, 2004; Gard and Wright, 2005).
This scientific certainty has been implicated in the
creation of a health panic that raises concerns around body size and
what is considered to be the normative body, contributing to pervasive
levels of body dissatisfaction, poor body image, and disordered eating
within the population (Rail
and Beausoleil, 2003). The association of
fat with poor health has translated into a fear of fat within the
population and subsequent disdain for those who are different, who do
not fit the desired norm (LeBesco, 2004).
represented in popular culture and in interpersonal interactions as
revolting-they are agents of abhorrence and disgust” (p.1). Fatness
becomes an aberration (Huff, 2001), an
outward marker of deficiency and
difference (Murray, 2009). Like sex, race
and disability it has become
a symbol of a different “devalued identity” (Rice,
2007, p. 170).
Governments, in equating obesity with disease and ill health have
reinforced this difference rendering fat people as sick or unhealthy,
in need of “treatment” (LeBesco, 2004; Halse, 2009). The prevention of
the so-called “condition” of obesity is of paramount importance to
governments and policymakers alike and thus has become the focus of
initiatives that promote healthy eating, physical activity and weight
reduction. The endorsement of individualistic approaches to solving the
obesity “problem” we contend has fed into a consumer culture in which
health has come to be viewed as a commodity, permitting those in a
position to sell health solutions (such as fad diets, pharmaceuticals,
and other quick fixes) to prosper while the health panic continues to
intensify and the health of the population suffers (Jutel, 2009; Klacynski, Goold, and Mudry, 2004; Monaghan, 2007).
In this article we provide an examination of the obesity discourse and
the biopedagogies endorsed through government health documents within
the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. Here we draw upon Wright’s (2009)
definition of biopedagogies as the “normalizing and regulating
practices in schools and disseminated more widely through the web and
other forms of media, which have been generated by escalating concerns
over claims of global “obesity epidemic”(p.1). We provide an overview
of the biomedical approach to obesity as a health problem and a
critique of this approach with attention to the medicalization of
obesity and the perpetuation of fat hatred and institutionalized
intolerance for difference within the context of the current obesity
panic. We explicate how fat people, identified as different and
unhealthy, have been denied a social space within the dominant health
discourse. We also provide a discussion of the move toward
alternative approaches to conceptualizing health and the body with
consideration to factors that influence responsible and effective
policy development. Finally we identify strategies for change that move
us beyond individualistic approaches that seek to restrict body
diversity, with specific attention to our work with the Body Image
Network, a non-profit organization that strives to prevent disordered
eating and promote positive body image in Newfoundland and Labrador.
OBESITY CONSTRUCTED AS A HEALTH PROBLEM
As mentioned previously, obesity is an issue that pervades many of the
current discussions on health and wellbeing in the Western world. The
rise in obesity rates are widely discussed in the literature and are
most often described in extreme terms such as alarming, dramatic, and shocking, to name just a few. The
discussions around obesity however, also take place well beyond the
realms of research and public policy development. They are interwoven
in the fabric of our health conscious society. We are bombarded on a
regular basis with ominous messages that remind us of the obesity
epidemic which is threatening the health of adults and children alike.
As academics and community activists who tackle this issue on a regular
basis, we must begin by deconstructing this discourse, considering
where it originated and continues to be reproduced, how it has become
what is generally considered to be legitimate
knowledge, and how this truth has come to influence social
interactions and ultimately the health of the population.
The obesity discourse has gained great power and been legitimized
through its relationship to science and the expert medical voice (Gard
and Wright, 2005; Campos, 2004). It
is further strengthened through
government endorsed strategies which are implemented through such
institutions as education and health (Cregan,
Foucauldian terms, the obesity discourse has become a “regime of truth”
(1973) which has gained such power
that disciplining of the body
through institutional and regulatory methods has become quite
commonplace and generally accepted. Medicine, health institutions and
government under the guise of public protection have declared a “war on
obesity”. As Monaghan (2007) suggests:
“powerful institutions routinely
present the message, with certainty, that fatness equals badness and
sickness and this is a massive and growing problem. This claim is
presented as taken for granted in societies where fatness is disdained
and discredited under the rubric of scientific rationality” (p. 584).
How then did we get to this point? According to Gard and Wright (2005),
obesity as a health risk or disease is a relatively recent construction
arising out of the medicalization of bodies and the determination by
mainstream science that excess body weight contributes to diminished
health status and disease. They argue that in no other area of research
do we see scientists make such sweeping claims with so little evidence.
While overweight and obesity have been suggested to greatly increase
the risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer (Katzmarzyk, and Adern 2004;
Reeves et al., 2007),
contrary exists. Gaesser (2002) for
example states that obesity in
itself is in fact a poor predictor of hypertension, high cholesterol,
hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis. He argues that for a number of
obese people who suffer from these conditions, along with conditions
like diabetes mellitus, significant improvements can be realized
through an increase in fitness, not necessarily weight loss or a
decrease in fatness. Thus, one can be fit and fat. This is completely
contradictory to the messages perpetuated through the current obesity
Campos et al. (2006) argue that
the obesity epidemic is more of a
moral panic than a health crisis. They state that the claims that
obesity is growing at an exponential rate are unfounded and they
question the validity of such measurements as the BMI or Body Mass
Index (a measure of a person’s weight divided by the square of her or
his height) which, although has been used as a standard marker for the
measurement of obesity, in fact does not measure adiposity. Scientists
and medical practitioners, according to Campos et al., using statistics
derived from the BMI, routinely draw grand conclusions and make dire
predictions about the impact of obesity that stretch well beyond the
realm of scientific evidence. According to Miller (2005), in the field
of obesity research scientists “often force data to fit their
pre-formulated or pre-existing paradigm or deny the existence of data
that fall outside their paradigm” (p. S89). In declaring a “war
on obesity” scientists are therefore breaking from the objective
scientific realm and entering into a moral realm where they are able to
make claims about individuals and society as a whole in promoting the
Within such discourse, it follows that if we are declaring a war on
obesity because of the moral failings of a gluttonous society than
those who are obese become symbols of gluttony. They come to represent
our deficiencies, our lack of moral fibre. Halse (2009) highlights the
ethical and moralistic qualities of the dominant health discourse in
what she describes as virtue
discourses which she defines as “ a set of values, beliefs, practices
and behaviours that establish regimes of truth and shape subjects and
subjectivities by articulating and constructing particular behaviours
and qualities as worthy, desirable and necessary virtues” (p.47).
Interestingly she views virtue discourses as open ended, meaning that
the degree to which one can strive for virtue is limitless. As soldiers
in the war against obesity, our efforts in the form of diet, exercise
and aesthetic improvement can never be what she refers to as “too
diligent” (p.48). This provides boundless opportunities for those
in a position to profit from the public’s obsession with weight while
utilizing messages that further marginalize those who are identified as
overweight and obese.
OBESITY IN GOVERNMENT HEALTH DOCUMENTS
While the present obesity discourse is one that permeates many facets
of society, and media has often been the primary target of many of
those critical of the discourse, government approaches to health
promotion have played a significant role in the social construction of
the thin ideal (Halse, 2009; Wright and Dean, 2007; Wright, 2000 ). As
Rice (2009) stated, the messages have
become dominant in part because
“they dovetailed with earlier state sponsored efforts designed to
improve health, fitness and competitiveness of nations” (p.143). She
highlights the example of ParticipAction, a health promotion campaign
launched in Canada in the 1970’s to promote increased levels of
activity in Canadians who were conceptualized as both unfit and
unhealthy. This campaign reinforces the individualistic approach to
health promotion by continuously positioning citizens as unmotivated
and in need of some sort of incentive to get moving. The proponents of
this program tout its success, and the Canadian government continues to
spend millions of tax dollars on this initiative. ParticipACTION has
demonstrated success in marketing its brand. Yet it has not
demonstrated success in relation to increased physical activity levels,
levels of physical activity protocol or levels of obesity, particularly
with those people in the lower socioeconomic category (Bauman, Craig,
and Cameron, 2005). According to MacNeill (1999), the
government’s approach to social marketing has established brand
recognition but has not established its positive impact on the health
of Canadians. The mere fact that people are aware of the brand does not
prove that the initiative is working. She argues that the approach
taken by ParticipACTION is grounded in the notion of individual
responsibility and behaviour change as the answer to enhanced health in
this country. She also points to the way in which this agency promotes
healthism with an extreme preoccupation with fitness and the
body. As Rice (2009) points out, by
setting up fatness as the
binary opposite of fitness, the ParticipACTION campaign has served to
reinforced the dominant obesity discourse and legitimize this healthist
approach to the body in Canada.
Considering the powerful role that government population health
strategies and documents play in the development and implementation of
policies that directly impact the lives of the population, we were
compelled to examine such documents in our region of Canada; the
Atlantic Provinces. In Canada many scholars report that the rates of
obesity are increasing, with Atlantic provinces such as P.E.I. and
Newfoundland and Labrador being highlighted as areas of particular
concern (Canning, Courage, and Frizzell,
2004; Raine, 2005; Statistics
Canada, 2005; Tremblay, Katzmarzyk,
and Williams, 2002; Twells, 2005).
There are however some studies in both Canada and the US which report a
recent plateau in obesity rates for both children and adults (Ogden et al, 2007; Statistics Canada, 2008; Starky, 2005). Claims of
the continuous increase in obesity rates are still used in much of the
current literature on obesity.
The growth of the population health approach in Canada has been quite
evident in the government documents we examined which highlighted the
role of the social determinants of health in the overall health of the
population. Obesity is one example of how health issues are examined
from a macrolevel but often applied at the micro or individual level.
The obesity rates are highlighted as expansive and thus the individual
is expected to do something to help solve the problem. This approach
has been criticized as it is seen to be rooted in the epidemiological
tradition which assumes that the world can be divided up into
categories or variables which are seen to reflect the lived realities
of individuals (Coburn et al., 2003).
According to Raphael and Bryant
(2002), this approach,
based predominantly within the biomedical model,
fails to address issues of social justice, health inequalities, and the
lived experiences of people within the larger social context.
Upon reviewing a number of documents from Newfoundland and Labrador,
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, we noted a number
of commonalities. Each document draws on the population health
approach with reference to the numerous factors that influence the
health of the population. Obesity is highlighted in each document to
varying degrees, viewed in each as a significant contributor to disease
and an essential reason for governments to support initiatives that
promote physical activities and healthy lifestyles. The Newfoundland
and Labrador Provincial Wellness Plan
(2006) for example
highlights obesity as a risk factor for chronic
disease which must be addressed in order to improve the overall health
of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. The Wellness Plan sets the focus
of government and communities on developing policies and initiatives
for a healthier diet and increase in physical activity to counteract
the “high risk” factors of obesity and physical inactivity in the
population of the province (Beausoleil,
2009). The Wellness Plan targets
youth in particular as a subsection of the population in need of
intervention and schools as ideal sites for specific initiatives aiming
at preventing or reducing obesity. Framed by the Wellness Plan, the
Department of Health and Community Services and the Department of
Education have created the Healthy
Students, Healthy Schools initiative, currently deployed in
order to promote healthier eating and increased physical activity among
youth in the province (Beausoleil, 2009).
(Goss Gilroy, 2008)
examining the Provincial Wellness Plan describes
the Healthy Students, Healthy Schools
as a very successful education initiative. Interestingly though while
the report draws on the opinions of a number of key informants
including professionals, organizations and stakeholders, no student
input was sought in the evaluation.
In Nova Scotia, the Active Kids
Healthy Kids Strategy was launched in 2002 and is still being
deployed (Government of Nova
Scotia, 2007). The Strategy intends to
promote an ecological approach to health. The document refers to
obesity as a “societal problem” which goes beyond individual
responsibility (p.4). In 2008-2009 initiatives coming out of the
strategy have focused on physical education in schools, with a
particular focus on increasing access and opportunities for girls from
grades 5 to 9 to engage in physical activity. In addition to promoting
increased physical activity the Strategy advocates healthy eating to
prevent or counteract the health risks they see as associated with
being overweight. The authors emphasize the importance of weight at the
population health level while writing that weight is not in itself a
sufficient indicator for assessing individual health status. Ultimately
though this Strategy emphasizes changes in individual lifestyle and
behaviors as solutions to the health ‘risks’ or ‘problems’ the authors
conflate with overweight and obesity.
In many instances the construct of overweight and obesity has been
moved beyond the realm of risk, as a contributor to disease, into the
realm of the absolute, as a disease itself. For instance, government
documents from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island go as far as to
define obesity as a disease. Interestingly, by utilizing this
framework, those on the border of overweight and obesity could
conceivably be disease free one day and diseased the next or both well
and sick in one day depending on normal weight fluctuations throughout
the day. Also, depending on the criteria for overweight which may be
different in different jurisdictions, an individual could be considered
disease free in one place and merely “at risk” in another.
In New Brunswick, the Wellness
Strategy Framework (Government
of New Brunswick, 2009) advocates
increased physical activity and increased healthy eating as ways to
counteract and prevent obesity (http://www.gnb.ca/0131/wellness-e.asp).
as a “chronic” disease along with cancer, heart
disease, etc. (http://www.gnb.ca/0131/Healthy-NB-en_sante/healthy_eating-e.asp).
the document Prince
Island’s Strategy for
Healthy Living (Government
highlights facts about obesity referring to the number of islanders who
not only fall into the obese category but those who fall into
overweight category, once again demonstrating the use of overweight
statistics to bolster the argument of spiraling trends in obesity (Gard
and Wright, 2005). The Prince
Island’s Strategy for Healthy Living goes on to discuss the
economic cost of obesity to the population suggesting that obesity
costs PEI between $9 and $15 million (they do not mention the time
factor here). The authors suggest that the strategy is about supporting
people in making healthy choices.
Although the Prince Edward Island’s
Strategy for Healthy Living suggests that the focus should be on
increasing levels of activity amongst the population, one action area
outlined in the document is healthy weights and obesity. Targets in
this area actually include an increase in healthy weights amongst
children and adolescents, and a decrease in obesity in adults all
evidenced by BMI measurements. This narrow approach to examining the
issue of weight and health is what we would consider irresponsible and
completely counterproductive as many researchers have argued that
constructing overweight and obesity as a disease reinforces dominant
discourses of the ideal body and in effect institutionalizes fat hatred
(Halse, 2009; Jutel,
2009). Within this document there is no space
provided for the larger person who does not fit the prescribed norm.
Fat is equated with bad and thus people are expected to subject
themselves to surveillance by measurement for the common good.
Upon reviewing government documents, we concur with Jutel (2009) who
emphasizes that the diagnosis or labeling of disease has a direct
impact on policy development and on profit-driven markets. Even the
term overweight at this point in time she argues, carries with it a set
of “risk factors, typologies, outcomes, treatment and prevention, all
suggestive of overweight as disease” (p.63). She goes on to highlight a
number of factors which contribute to the conceptualization of
overweight as disease. These factors include the notion that one’s
appearance is an important indicator of the person’s makeup, the
ability to actually measure a person’s degree of fat which provides
scientists with what they would consider an objective quantifiable
measure of the “truth” about a person’s body, and finally the medical
discourse which provides a space for those who are in a position to
market products through the promotion of overweight as a disease.
This conceptualization of overweight and obesity has resulted in
a general risk discourse that serves to boost the fears of the
population in relation to fat and disease (Fullagar,
reinforce neoliberal discourses of individual responsibility (Burrows,
2009). LeBesco (2004) says that
defining obesity as a disease is not
merely a medical issue but a political one. In bringing this issue into
the political realm, we are allowing obese people to be defined in
economic terms as financial burdens or as drains to the system, in turn
reinforcing the call for individual responsibility thus further
equating “fat” with “bad”. Research papers and government documents,
such as the previously mentioned Prince
Living, routinely report
the “direct” cost of obesity to the system which is often relayed using
the term burden (Starky,
2005). Those who are considered then to contribute to this
become what many consider a social burden. Government health documents
have drawn on this concept of burden to highlight the individual
responsibility of good citizens to eat right, exercise and fit the
prescribed desirable norm.
THE MOVE TOWARD ALTERNATIVE APPROACHES
While many government documents have been seen to reflect a medicalized
individualistic approach to weight and the body, alternative ways of
examining obesity science and the relationships between fat and chronic
disease have been appearing to a greater extent in the literature
recently. Some of this research provides rationales for looking beyond
fat as the answer to society’s health problems. Yet much of this
research is still situated within the dominant biomedical paradigm
which conceptualizes obesity as an emergent problem that must be
addressed. For example, Egger and Dixon (2009) provide a
compelling argument that suggests that factors leading to chronic
disease, such as climate change, pollution, reliance on fossil fuels,
and inequalities in health, are not distinct to people who carry fat
above the desired norm. People within the normal weight are also are
seen to be affected by lifestyle behaviours that contribute to chronic
disease. They suggest that obesity has been targeted because it is an
outward marker of a complex set of circumstances which may contribute
to ill health. While Egger and Dixon question whether obesity is the
problem per se, they fail to address the issue of obesity discourse and
the impact of such discourse on the “lifestyle behaviours” that they
This issue is reminiscent of much of the mainstream literature we have
reviewed involving the psychosocial repercussions of obesity. This
literature provides useful insight into the issues that people defined
as overweight and obese are faced with; yet it often stops short of
questioning the way we conceptualize body size and the ethical and
moral implications of monitoring bodies through institutions such as
medicine and education (Fallon et al
2005; Friedlander et al, 2003;
Janicke et al, 2007; Murtagh, Dixey, and Rudolf, 2006; Schwimmer,
Berwinkle and Varni, 2003; Williams
et al, 2005). Many researchers in
the field continue to utilize and reinforce the dominant discourses
around health and obesity and simply suggest that the solutions lie in
reducing the rates of obesity through lifestyle interventions.
By focusing on lifestyle approaches in health policy development, a
number of scholars argue that governments, researchers, and policy
makers are in fact shifting responsibility of government away from
providing supportive healthy environments (Bercovitz, 2000; Coburn,
2000; Crawford, 2006; Poland et al, 1998; Raphael, 2004). This
neoliberal approach fails to hold the market accountable for the way in
which the science of overweight and obesity is used to legitimize
product claims and ultimately boost sales of pharmaceuticals, diet and
exercise merchandise, and cosmetics (Egger, and Dixon, 2009; Rail and
Beausoleil, 2003). Most importantly the biomedical focus on
lifestyle excludes fundamental cultural and sociopolitical productions
of the body and health (Rich and
While powerful discourses have the ability to influence policy and the
activities of daily living, we must assert that such discourses are not
fixed or absolute. Such discourses, as suggested by Foucault (1970),
are molded by dynamic social relations that transition within specific
times and spaces; they are historically situated. Powerful or hegemonic
systems of meaning are always open to contestation. Alternative
discourses that are pushed to the periphery may gain power through
resistance of the dominant discourses. There is space for these
alternative discourses, as they provide us with new ways of looking at
health and the body (Rich and
Evans, 2005). By conducting
research, writing, and accessing sites where the dominant discourses
are reproduced we can begin to effect change and diminish the power of
the dominant discourse. As LeBesco (2004)
research context by moving inquiries
about fat from medical and scientific discourses to social and cultural
ones, and to replace self-help literature with a different way of
looking at, and living in fat bodies” (p.2).
Research approaches and community programs designed to explore and
address the ways in which health and thinness are conflated and the
ways the body is both monitored and regulated can provide us with the
tools to consider other more diverse ways of looking at the issue of
weight and health. These approaches and programs will allow space for
difference and a consideration of the lived experience of individuals
presently labeled as overweight or obese. It is our experience that
researchers, policy makers and the public at large are not necessarily
closed to alternative discourses but that they may not necessarily have
been introduced to or have access to research that provides them with
alternative conceptualization of the issues at hand. Also, it should be
noted that even when provided with research that supports alternative
ways of thinking, these modes of examination are often disrupted or
countered by competing interests and agendas within the policy arena
(Lang and Rayner, 2007).
Furthermore, while researchers may be in a position to positively
affect policy outcomes, there is often a disconnection between
researchers and policy makers. Lomas (2000)
“Researchers and policy makers tend
only to connect if they connect at
all around the product of their processes. Just at the point of
decision, after the issue has bubbled up onto the policy agenda, after
it has been framed within a particular context after the various
claimants for a voice have been adjudicated, the procedures for
negotiation and exchange agreed upon, and often after the limits have
been set around feasible options, the researcher arrives brandishing
his or her study” (p.140).
Research and policy are developed differently, at different paces and
for different reasons. As previously discussed, research in the area of
the body, health and obesity, is arising from a number of often
divergent perspectives. This according to Banwell, Hinde and Sibthorpe
(2005) can lead to confusion on the
part of the policy makers. This
type of situation has been referred to as “policy cacophony” (Lang and
Rayner, 2007). According to the authors, there are so many
competing voices in the “war on obesity” that it becomes more and more
difficult for policy makers to interpret the evidence. This confusion
is only compounded by the expansive nature of the issue from an
individual level to a socioeconomic/environmental level and research
that is replete with medical jargon. Even the apparently simple issue
of food is related to larger policy issues such as agriculture,
manufacturing, retail, education, culture, trade and economics.
Also, as previously stated, policies that impact the health of the
population are born out of processes that are not always
transparent. There are other influences aside from research that
serve to shape government policy that must also be considered.
Choi et al (2005) suggested that
policy makers are placed in a
challenging position where their decisions are not always based
directly upon research but are framed within the context of the many
diverging pressures placed upon them by key stakeholders within
government, the private sector and the public at large. In responding
to the demands of these groups, policy makers may develop policies that
do not address population health concerns but ones which are quick,
visible and that best satisfy the demands of the various groups. To
further complicate the situation we must recognize the research, the
policy planning and implementation are all occurring within the context
of the current obesity panic.
We argue that in order to effectively address this issue, researchers,
policy makers and the general public must recognize that the pervasive
obsession with fat (which has become greatly normalized) is
self-defeating and they must move toward strategies that promote health
in many sizes (Miller, 2005).
Considering the fact that research alone
does not determine whether policies are implemented, we would argue
that the voice of the researcher could be strengthened by developing
strategies that encourage ongoing dialogue between researchers and
policy makers. These strategies should be structured to move beyond the
norms, perspectives and jargon that Miljan (2008)
add here that more emphasis should be placed upon qualitative research
in the area of health and the body. As Labonte, Polanyi, Labontem, et
al. (2005) suggest,
population health research
historically favoured quantitative research with little recognition of
the important role of qualitative approaches. They state that there is
a “continued dominance of risk factor epidemiology within much
public/health promotion research and practice” (p.9). This is
particularly true in the field of obesity research. To address this
concern, strategies must be developed that promote the dissemination to
and use of qualitative research by policy makers. Also, there must be
strategies developed that encourage researchers and policy makers to
work together (Choi et al, 2005). An
increased knowledge and
appreciation of the forces that impact each role is vitally important.
Researchers must consider the issues of timelines and conflicting
demands placed upon policy makers while focusing on strategies that
facilitate knowledge translation to ensure that key areas of research
are well understood. Policy makers should value research as a resource
and strive to develop partnerships with those in research with
particular attention to the lived experiences of individuals and
Recognition of the barriers to effective health policy development and
the role of policy in the uptake of dominant health discourses is a
vital step in moving toward alternative approaches. While advocating
for social change through addressing these barriers and problematic
discourses is quite challenging, it is not impossible. This is
reflected in our work with the Body Image Network, a non-profit
organization based in Canada’s most easterly province of Newfoundland
and Labrador. This network, which consists of health professionals,
academics, students, and volunteers, struggles to prevent disordered
eating and promote positive body image in Newfoundland and Labrador
through challenging the dominant health discourses.
From a practical perspective, as members of the Body Image Network, we
have found that we must be opportunistic in our approach to affecting
policy. We have addressed many of the barriers to effective policy
making by forming relationships with those in key government
departments who are both indirectly and directly involved in policy
development. We have positioned ourselves on a number of
interdisciplinary research groups that range in focus from body image
issues, to eating disorders to obesity. This has allowed us to
influence the direction of research and forge a space for alternative
directions. We have also disseminated our messages through listserves,
presentations to and meetings with government officials in both
education and health, and presentations to teachers and health
professionals from various areas of the country. Funded by a wellness
grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government we have
challenged many of the messages that are present in government
documents in relation to health and obesity through a province wide
initiative which was designed to address school culture and curriculum
in an effort to counteract many of the dominant health and obesity
discourses. Our alternative message is reinforced through a website
developed to promote positive ways of conceptualizing the body and
health. Interestingly, while critical of the healthist approaches taken
by government, we now find ourselves in a position where we are being
consulted by government representatives on school curriculum in
relation to body image issues. While the Body Image
Network continues to develop a number of resistive strategies, we also
recognize that our position within the policy making arena is both
fluid and tenuous. Even though those in a position to direct policy in
the areas of health and education have been responsive to our
arguments, they are simultaneously involved in the development of
documents and strategies that reinforce the dominant health discourses.
The hegemonic forces of these discourses are growing ever stronger as
the rhetoric around the obesity epidemic intensifies. The social space
for those who fit into these marginalized positions is becoming
smaller. Our goal therefore is to continue to reflect upon our
own messages while maintaining a resistance to the dominant discourses
around health and the body. We must continue to strategically utilize
resources provided within the dominant health promoting framework
(those which most often serve to make the dominant discourses so
powerful), to neutralize hegemonic understandings of health, fitness
and the body. We must access the institutions through which dominant
messages are produced and reproduced including schools, health, and
post-secondary programs. We plan to utilize the media and remain
visible, alert, and reactive to the messages that are transmitted
through government endorsed strategies.
As long as governments continue to seek solutions within the context of
a narrow view of health and obesity, it is our belief that the problems
of exclusion and marginalization will continue to intensify.
Simultaneously, the fear of being labeled as overweight or obese will
heighten already unhealthy levels of body dissatisfaction and obsession
with weight, ultimately resulting in negative health consequences for
the population as a whole. We contend that it is vital that those in a
position to impact policy in this country consider the context in which
the obesity epidemic is being constructed, consider how biopedagogies
are produced and reproduced within health promotion and population
health documents, and how these documents influence institutions within
our society which have the power to regulate and normalize specific
forms of thought and social practices.
Finally, the vital role of research cannot be understated. We
must continue to explore the embodied experiences of those who interact
on a daily basis with the dominant health discourses. We should strive
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Natalie Beausoleil is an Associate Professor in the Division of
Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, Memorial
University of Newfoundland. Informed by feminist and critical
perspectives, her research focuses on the social production of gender,
body, health and illness through popular, medical and scientific
discourses. Recently she has been involved in projects which explore
experiences and meanings of the body, health, and fitness, and the
promotion of positive body image among youth.
Pamela Ward is a nurse educator in the Bachelor of Nursing Program at
the Centre for Nursing Studies in St. John's, Newfoundland, where she
teaches Community Health. Pamela is presently a PhD candidate in the
Faculty of Medicine, the division of Community Health and Humanities at
Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her PhD research is focused on the
discursive production of health and issues of body image and identity
formation in children enrolled in obesity treatment.