Is Health a New Way to Talk About Morality?

A white, female weather broadcaster recently responded to a viewers email attacking her for being overweight.  The writer made explicit statements such as “Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain” and “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle” (italics mine).

The anchorwoman, Jennifer, publicly responded to this email focusing on the bullying nature of it, but what I see happening is a much deeper issue that has to do with the public surveillance of health.  The writer of the email, who happens to be male, also included the opinion that Jennifer is a bad example for “young people, girls in particular”.  This remark implicitly raises the different pressures on men and women, especially regarding physical appearance, and the judgments society imposes on an individual based on weight.

On NBC’s Today website, nearly all of the comments support Jennifer speaking up and fighting back, arguing in her defense that obesity is not always a choice.  On Fox31, however, comments lean towards agreement with the writer and repulsion for her “unhealthy lifestyle”.  One commenter even uses the word intervention, implying that the writer of the email was well-intended, looking out for not only the health of Jennifer but of the children watching her.  The writer’s email was somehow a caring outreach to save Jennifer from her deviant lifestyle choices.  Commenters in opposition to Jennifer have bought into the notion that obesity is not a societal problem, but an individual one, disregarding all other possibilities.

In a capitalist system that profits on fast-food chains, diet programs and fit-focused media and a pharmaceutical business thriving on prescriptions for high-blood pressure and diabetes, it is unlikely that the focus will shift away from individual responsibility to a cultural one.  Jennifer’s so called problem with obesity was interpreted by society as a moral failing; that she, as a women, lacked a concern for her appearance and health and failed to consider how her poor choices would effect young girls watching her.  Blame was directly pointed towards the individual.  Instead, we should be asking: What is in our foods?  Why are fast-food corporations, knowing that consumption can lead to poor health, are so widespread and available to American citizens?  And in regards to gender: Would this issue have been given as much attention had it been a man?

Yes, I would agree with Jennifer in saying that this is a form of adult bullying and I accolade her courage to publicly confront the attack by the viewer, but I would say that the deeper problem lies in how society views obesity and how health, in biopower, becomes the normative value.  Just as most Americans have continued to buy into the idea that rehabilitation and jail-time is an effective approach to “fixing” addicts despite statistics that prove otherwise, we have bought into this same idea with obesity by considering it a moral failing and compulsive activity called eating.

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