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Childhood obesity is a term used to refer to children who are overweight by virtue of having excessive body fat, which can negatively affect their health and wellbeing. In light of the increasing number of children who are overweight and the embedding risk of young people developing complicated health problems, obesity in children has been referred to as an epidemic (Aphramor 2005, p. 315).
As a result, school health syllabuses, community resources, websites, television programmes, and health/physical education textbooks have been widely used to target young people in campaigns and intervention programs aimed at teaching them various ways of living healthy.
In so doing, societies and popular media have achieved to influence the way young people are thinking about their bodies and eating habits (Bordo 2003). In this paper, we will look at the various ways the society and popular media construct ‘the unhealthy child’ relative to the notion of bio-power.
The unhealthy child
As mentioned earlier, one of the major discourses driving the changes in the way people think about their bodies and eating habits is the ‘obesity epidemic’. Here, the notion of biopower has been used to create certain ‘truths’ or ‘imperatives’ about childhood obesity, which are now widely accepted and used to regulate bodies and certain desirable qualities of health among the young people (Aphramor 2005, p. 317; Bauman 2001).
These ‘truths’ are explicitly delivered through various avenues including physical/health education in schools and communities. Therefore, through various media and information sources, people are led to believe that there is a clear causal relationship between overweight and obesity, which in turn affects one’s health.
In most cases, obesity and overweight have been used interchangeably, which then follows that one major instrument of measurement (Body Mass Index) has been used for both concepts.
Besides the body mass index (BMI) scales for characterizing overweight people, the children’s weight has been directly linked to various behaviors including playing computer games, lying around on the couch, and watching too much television among others (Jutel 2000, pp. 113-125).
Moreover, unhealthy children are also associated with poor eating habits such as consumption of sugary foods, less fruits and vegetables, and foods high in saturated fats. All these are major ‘truth’ claims, which are implicated in the way the society views overweight or obese children.
In the long run, it is common practice to have overweight or obese children being stigmatized and victimized because they are referred to as the ‘other’. And the most immediate risk of objectifying overweight children as the ‘other’ revolves around the way in which other groups of children relate or treat them.
Various surveys document that most overweight people get accosted in streets or reprimanded by their personal physicians for their poor health practices.
These and other acts of humiliation suffered by the overweight people lead them to blindly accept the imperatives underlying the obesity epidemic and the need to change their bodies and lifestyles in order to fit into the normalized social health prescriptions (Jutel 2000, p. 120).
Bio-power and Obesity
According to Foucault (1997), the notion of bio-power involves certain truth discourses regarding the desirable attributes of human beings, authorities with the ability to hold the truth, intervention strategies to sustain life and health, and modes of subjectification, which allow people to work individually or collectively for the benefit of life and health.
As a result, the significant aim of bio-power is to improve life through seeking productive control over individual or collective life. Accordingly, the elements of bio-power highlighted in the foregoing discussions play a role in sustaining the idea of obesity epidemic in the society and popular media in many aspects.
Here, the obesity epidemic is treated as a ‘truth discourse’, thereby occasioning the popular intervention strategies delivered through various information channels such as health promotion policies, school curricular, and the media (Rabinow & Nikolas 2006, p. 185).
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Through various avenues, the notion of bio-power provides instructions underlying practices whereby individuals are engaged in activities aimed at changing their-selves for the benefit of individual or collective life and health.
Therefore, it is important to note that the school physical and health education textbooks, internet resources, and other forms of media targeting school-going children and their parents provide different defining parameters and imperatives that inform the idea of ‘obesity epidemic’ in schools and communities.
Most importantly, the sources of information provide details of why and how overweight children and their parents should behave for the benefit of themselves and others (Rabinow & Nikolas 2006).
Relative to Foucault’s notion of bio-power, schools can be described as institutions where discipline and control are exercised. Here, various scientific and research findings have been converted into ‘truth discourses’ in textbooks and websites where students and their teachers can obtain instructions regarding the way they should act for themselves and others.
For instance, many school textbooks and websites identify children as ‘at-risk’ populations. Accordingly, these sources of information define the base-line for normal weight and attribute various illnesses and diseases to weights that qualify as overweight and obesity.
For example, one Government website lists the most immediate consequences of overweight and obesity as low self-esteem, social isolation, heat intolerance, and other health complications such as diabetes, stroke, and some cancers (Foucault 1997; Bordo 2003).
Besides establishing the populations at-risk and the inherent consequences of overweight and obesity, various textbooks and websites provide interventions for health promotion.
For instance, many Government health websites note that the current lifestyles predispose children to cases of overweight and obesity, and therefore, it is important to engage the young people in physical activity and teach them the healthy eating habits. It is also important to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables while cutting down on sugary foods and those with high fat content.
On the other hand, other information sources provide facts and professional accounts about overweight and obesity, which help teachers, government policy-makers, and parents in instituting policies that can help the populations at-risk to act for themselves and others (Rabinow & Nikolas 2006, pp. 195-217).
The discourse of the ‘obesity epidemic’ is supported by the analytic model of bio-power in the foregoing discussions. As noted from the discussions, there is the need to make information regarding overweight and obesity available to children and their parents in order to help them in acting for the individual and collective life and health.
Furthermore, the net of consequences generated as a result of the ‘truths’ and imperatives underlying the ‘obesity epidemic’ spares no one, and therefore, it is important that everyone assumes the moral imperative of assessing his or her way of life and acting for one-self and others.
In the same spirit, it is important for governments, schools, and communities to expand the avenues through which information can be channeled to the populations at-risk while critically assessing the implications underlying various practices proposed as the most appropriate intervention strategies for students in managing their bodies, physical health, and food consumption.
Aphramor, L., 2005. Is a weight-centered health framework salutogenic? Some thoughts on unhinging certain dietary ideologies. Social Theory and Health, 3(4), pp. 315 340.
Bauman, Z., 2001. The individualized society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bordo, S., 2003. Unbearable weight: feminism, western culture and the body. 10th ed.. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Foucault, M., 1997. Ethics: Subjectivity and truth (trans Robert Hurley and others). New York: The New Press.
Jutel, A., 2000. Weighing health: the moral burden of obesity. Social Semiotics, 15(2), pp. 113-125.
Rabinow, P. & Nikolas, R., 2006. Bio-power today. BioSocieties, 1, pp. 195-217.