The Biggest Choosers? Individual choice and the bio-power of the 'obesity epidemic'

posted by The Rabbit Hole
Friday, January 11, 2013 at 9:31am EST

Blogger Courtney Szto is a Master's Student studying the socio-cultural aspects of sport, physical activity and health (or as some call it Physical Cultural Studies). Bachelor's in Sport Management. Former tennis coach & ropes course facilitator.

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In his seminal text Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault introduced the notion of disciplinary confinement as a form of power in society.  This way of using power has been gradually evolving since the eighteenth century when power became less personified in a sovereign to operate in a different manner.  Control was achieved by disciplining individual bodies.  This did not necessarily mean physical punishment or torture but rather the formation of a certain type of body as "normal," towards which individuals diligently and "voluntarily" worked.  Societal control was internalized by the obedient citizens, the docile bodies, as an invisible gaze tirelessly watched for signs of deviance. (Markula, 2008, p.54)

Photo fom J-14.This week the Biggest Loser aired a two-night premiere to kick off its 14th season.  This season has garnered more attention than previous seasons for two reasons: the return of everyone's favourite or most hated tv trainer Jillian Michaels, and the addition of three 'overweight' teenagers to the show as a way to help tackle childhood obesity.  There are plenty of opinions and posts floating around the internet about the possible exploitation of children by the show and I might chime in on that topic later on in the season but for today I would like to engage in a critical discussion about how the words 'choice' and 'normal' are used on the show.

Let's start with 'choice'.  One of the contestants, Nate, had a discussion with Jillian Michaels about his 'choice' to become overweight.  He said something to the effect that he finally realized that he had as much ability to choose to be healthy as he did to be overweight.  In other words, you can choose to be good at something or you can choose to be bad at something.  This is the overarching message of The Biggest Loser - choose to do something about your health, but choice is a fickle thing.  How many choices to we really make about our  everyday lives?  Don't worry I'm not taking you down a road of "this is your destiny"; rather this is coming from someone who takes a path dependent approach to life.  I like to believe that my achievements/opportunities/results/consequences are all because of choices that I have made at one point or another.  Yet, I also recognize that the choices before me are constrained by other circumstances such as experience, finances, time, safety, confidence, gender etc.  As retired British Member of Parliament Tony Benn has argued about health care, "Choice depends on the freedom to choose and if you are shackled with debt you don't have the freedom to choose." During the premiere the show cited a statistic that 80% of America is overweight/obese.  Similarly, although there don't seem to be any firm statistics, I have found internet articles that calculate 70-80% of Americans live in debt.  I wouldn't take either number at face-value and my guess is that probably both figures are inflated (although probably more to the obesity side than debt) but I find it hard to believe that high rates of obesity and debt exist independently of each other.  I'm not saying that becoming obese is completely out of one's hands but to conclude that obesity is a result of only individual choices is also a faulty statement.  If we accept this 80% obesity statistic to be true then shouldn't that number raise red flags about how the nation operates as a whole, rather than raise questions about individual choices?

At the ropes course where I have been a team building facilitator for a number of years we operate by a philosophy of Challenge By Choice. With every group we discuss what this means and the components that are necessary to make Challenge By Choice successful.  Everyone comes up with the "you choose what you want to do" answer immediately but when it comes to the team component most groups struggle in understanding how the group is responsible for someone's choices.  After some probing we ask that the group support and respect each person's choices and boundaries; thus, facilitating both individual and group success.  I believe that the same principle applies to individual weight loss and the health of a nation.  We can encourage people to make 'good' choices all we want but if the infrastructure is not in place to support their choices then what is the point in educating and inspiring people?

Additionally, during the premiere the three trainers put the three teenagers through their first fitness test. Considering how much publicity from the show stated that the kids would not be treated the same as the adults and that there would be more of a focus on health and fun I was disappointed to see the trainers testing the kids on pushups, pull-ups, and sit-ups.  Dr. Kwame Brown wrote on his blog, Move Theory:

They test the kids to show them how bad they are, and so they can have a "before and after". 
Sarcasm alert... 
Good move. It's a "crucial first step" because they didn't know they were unskilled and unfit and overweight before.  We need to test them so they will know these things.  They wouldn't be able to see an improvement in themselves without testing. 
Since the hardest thing in PE is when you "can't do pushups on the test", we should test them more to show how we need to train them.  Because it is out of the question to just teach kids skills through play in PE.  We're not letting go of the testing, so we had better prepare kids more to be tested.

While the kids were doing their exercises a "normal healthy kid score" would show up in the corner of the television screen.  The kids were doing 15-25 sit-ups in 60 seconds compared to the "normal healthy kid" score which was in the high 50's.  A questionable "normal" score if you ask me considering the physical abilities greatly differ between a 13 year-old and a 16 year-old.  Also a sit-up per second should be considered phenomenal for anyone, not just 'normal.'  I'm not a fan of standardized testing for anything really, but particularly where physical activity is concerned.  I certainly understanding the use of standardized testing from a pragmatic standpoint (i.e. it's the easiest way to evaluate people), unfortunately rather than encourage people to improve it too often discourages people from even trying.

Normalcy and choice actually work well in tandem because we are expected to voluntarily choose normalcy over abnormality.  Our bodies become marked by normal and abnormal.  Normal weight. Abnormal height.  Normal blood pressure.  Abnormal hair style.  Normal vision.  Abnormal diet.  But many scholars contend that the so-called 'obesity-epidemic' is exaggerated (Campos, 2004; Gard and Wright 2005; Oliver 2005) and that its existence is only possible because of this idea of 'normal':

What has made the idea of an obesity epidemic possible is the development of a discourse of a normative Body Mass Index (BMI) as the '"virtuous mean" to which we should all aspire' (Burry 1999: 610).  BMI is the mathematical (re)presentation of weight that is calculated by dividing a person's weight by the square of his or her height....But BMI is a slippery, contested creature.  It is premised on the assumption that there is an identifiable 'normal' weight that is 'true' across genders and across different cultural, socio-economic and geographical groups.  Yet even scientific experts who advocate the use of BMI as an epidemiological tool concede that it is an 'arbitrary' measure (James, Leach, Kalamara, and Shayeghi 2001: 228)....Nevertheless, the notion of a normative BMI has survived as a 'virtue discourse' that describes and defines weight, bodies and individuals. (p.46-47)

The New York Times recently published an article titled, Our Absurd Fear of Fat, which highlights a new meta-analysis published by The Journal of the American Medical Association citing findings that "ought to stun anyone who assumes the definition of "normal" or "healthy" weight used by our public health authorities is actually supported by the medical literature."

The study, by Katherine M. Flegal and her associates at the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health, found that all adults categorized as overweight and most of those categorized as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal-weight individuals.  If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn't increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.

What we should take from this study is NOT that being 'overweight' is better for one's health but that weight alone is a poor indicator over 'health' - whatever health is.  Yes, 'normal' is based on science but as my favourite television vigilante, Dexter Morgan, has reflected "even science is never certain, even the soundest of theories is subject to new data."  We use science to categorize people, which makes some people feel good about themselves and others lack social value.  It's funny that we so often use the term 'normal' to describe people when, if you think about it, people are the most varied thing on this planet.  We make cell phones, laptops, shoes, and cars all relatively similar but if the fingerprint is any indication of our diversity as a species it is almost laughable that we would even try finding a 'normal' or 'average' where people are concerned.

Digressing back to The Biggest Loser, the young 13 year-old boy who goes by the nickname Biingo (yes, double i apparently), tells the world that he just wants to be a normal kid at a normal weight.  He seems like a smart and likeable kid but the idea of normal is creating his downfall; he is striving for a fictional reality that was created to make him feel bad about himself.  Fear of abnormality is a powerful mechanism of control. The myth of normal, as one blogger puts it, produces abnormality for its own survival.

Is the hysteria about overweight and obesity over?  I’m sure not.  In today’s article, Campos — who was one of the first to explode the fiction of an obesity epidemic, with his 2002 book The Obesity Myth – reminds us of a crucial fact about public health: 
Anyone familiar with history will not be surprised to learn that “facts” have been enlisted before to confirm the legitimacy of a cultural obsession and to advance the economic interests of those who profit from that obsession. 
There’s too much at stake with the obesity epidemic for our culture’s power brokers to give it up so quickly.  One day, some other aspect of modernity will emerge to inspire dread (and profits).  In the meantime, we might at least hope to see some re-jiggering of the BMI boogeyman.

Works Cited

Halse, C. (2009). Bio-citizenship: Virtue discourses and the birth of the bio-citizen.  In J. Wright & V. Harwood (Eds.), Biopolitics and the 'Obesity Epidemic': Governing Bodies (pp.45-59).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Markula, P. (2008). Governing obese bodies in a control society. Junctures, 11, 53-65.

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