• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Government’s moral crusade turns body image into a political crisis

It is true many of us have adopted bad habits and often make choices that are not in our interest and that certainly contradict expert advice.

Nevertheless, a democratic society allows people to make choices, even “wrong” choices, so they can lead their lives in accordance with their private preferences.

The importance of restraining state intervention in the management of people’s lifestyles is not simply a matter of affirming the principle of tolerance and liberty.

Experience demonstrates such interventions—even when wholly well-intentioned—rarely improve matters and frequently make the problem worse. So instead of protecting us, government policy can inadvertently cause pain.

Take the interest government is taking in the size of our bodies. The federal government is funding campaigns designed to promote a “positive body image” among young people. The term is a typical bureaucratically constructed euphemism that simply means accepting the way you look. The government-sponsored campaign aims to help young people avoid negative body images.

There is no doubt that obsessions with the body are in part responsible for widespread anxiety and mental health problems, and are linked to eating disorders. However, it is far from clear how the promotion of alternative views of body image are going to make very much of a difference.

The body image lobby frequently complains about the pressure that the modelling and entertainment industries place on young people to look thin. What they often overlook is supermodels are not the only source of such pressure.

Constant crusading about healthy eating and people’s body weight has transformed the consumption of food into a quasi-moral activity. Government and public health professionals are in the forefront of encouraging people to become ever more pre-occupied with the size of their bodies. For some time now the principal weight concern of government has been Australia’s so-called obesity crisis. And the language used to pathologise people with the wrong body-shape can drive anyone down the eating disorder road.

A couple of months ago a report published by Monash University declared Australia was “ranked as one of the fattest nations in the developed world”. The negative image of a fat Australia is frequently used to communicate the message that compared with the rest of the world, this nation has become an unusually unhealthy society. The image evoked is of a community of fast-food families, where super-sized children are guzzling fizzy drinks.

As is the case with moral crusades, scaremongering about obesity transmits only a part of the story. Some Australians may have adopted bad habits but in reality they inhabit a very healthy nation. Australia compares extremely well with other countries in terms of life expectancy and health. Since the beginning of the 20th century we have been living longer and longer. Today, Australian men have the joint fourth highest life expectancy in the world. Australian women do even better and have the joint third highest female life expectancy.

Instead of recognising the great progress in people’s health, campaigns targeting the size of your body create moral confusions. One of the regrettable consequences of turning body size into a moral issue is it actually encourages a climate of anxiety and competitive fearmongering. The sin of gluttony is recycled into a health warning that demands people alter their behaviour.

Obesity serves as an exemplar of 21st-century moral hazard. The main protagonist of this scare is the flabby indolent child whose irresponsible parents are indifferent to his diet and feed him a regular diet of junk food. Poor parents are frequently depicted as stupid and inept mothers and fathers who are clearly the moral inferiors of the salad-eating consumers.

Worse still, the reinvention of the sin of gluttony as that of obesity has fostered a climate where it is OK to condemn people for the way they look.

The recent case of radio host Chrissie Swan serves as an example of a digitally fuelled morality play where the size of her three-year-old son symbolised her failure as a mother. In a different world, people would respond to her posing for the camera with her two sons by saying “what a nice family”.

However, matters are different when what you eat represents a moral statement of a person’s identity. In such circumstances body size continually invites moral affirmation or condemnation.

Those who felt called on to indict Swan’s competence as a mother and who viciously laid into her for “promoting a pro-fat attitude” were not simply lashing out at a culturally sanctioned target. They were also making a statement about themselves. Some were drawing attention to the fact the morally correct size of their children was proof of their superior parenting skills.

As many parents will confirm, insensitive and disparaging comments about their children’s weight by other adults is not uncommon. Is it any surprise such unhelpful comments make parents insecure to the point where their anxieties are communicated to their own children?

In the US there is already an insidious campaign to rebrand child obesity as a form of abuse. How long before similar alarmist messages are communicated to already insecure parents in Australia?

Which leads us back to the question of positive body images. Campaigns targeting obesity are not the cause of eating disorders. However, despite their best intention, they have helped to make a problem far worse by helping to turn a health issue into a moral crisis. Eating should not become a resource for fuelling moral disorientation. It should definitely not be politicised by governments in search of a moral crusade.

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.