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Created: April 24, 2003
Latest Update:July 4, 2004

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Site Teaching Modules Conceptually Linking Obesity to Structural Context

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, April 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This essay was prompted by an article in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, April 24, 2003: Researchers Point to Cancer's Links to Obesity By Thomas H. Maugh II, Times Staff Writer, at p. A1. Backup.

The very last paragraph in Thomas Maugh's article reaches the issue of structural context and it's effect on the actions of individuals:

"We have in the past considered this a problem of individuals," she said. "While individuals do have choices to make, in terms of food and physical activity, there are other levels of concern in terms of policy, cultural norms, and what we do in schools and the workplace. Right now, we have environments that make it difficult for people to be physically active, and that makes it very easy to eat large portions of high-calorie foods."

The American sense of frontier and freedom emphasizes the right of individual choice. But individual choice is complex and never uninfluenced by the social structure in which it occurs. The child is limited in its agency by the constraint of parental control and by peer pressure. That doesn't mean that the child has no agency. He/she does. He does get to make his own choices within the environment of flexibility permitted by his significant others. But there is an interdependence. Although often out of conscious awareness, the environment does have an effect on our individual choices, either by constraining us, or by persuading us to accept or choose the choices before us.

On the issue of obesity there are norms and situations that make it much easier to eat high-calorie foods than to resist them. There are constant advertisments designed to make those foods appear appetizing. Fat adds to falvor. And there is little attempt to devise healthful means of providing that flavor without resorting to fat. The latest and most spectacular desserts are laden with fat. The alternative low-fat substitutes are often a mere unadorned dish of berries.

We live in a society that adores fat. We have been fed fat since infancy. We have shared the sense that fat is "good." If individuls are left to battle all that socialization on their own, that's going to take enormous will power, at a time when stress is high and there is little discretionary time for contemplation or anything else. Fat soothes stress. And so we eat.

Exercise would help, but we are expected to work. Either at school or at work. And we are expected to be motivated to work hard. Well, you can't work hard and pop up every few minutes for stretches and exercise. Fat is as much a social issue as it is an individual issue. And each of our metabolisms handles fat and stress in its own way. Once we gain weight, it's even harder to exercise. some of us feel like we're always trying to catch up.

Weight Watchers and other "support" groups use the understanding that the environmental context counts. But they're on the losing side when advertisers keep showing off and piling on the calories. The fact that so much will power and support are needed to lose weight should make the message fairly obvious that our culture has a lot to do with what we eat.

Food is money for many corporations, and they're not going to reduce profits without a struggle. But there are more of us who need to watch our weight than there are of them. Here's a place where illocutionary discourse is helpful. If we stop insisting that we "know" that the Other would lose weight if she just wouldn't eat so much. If we recognize that our agency is limited by the social context inwhich we find ourselves. If we recognize that stress is relieved by "comfort food," which is almost always fattening. Then we can say to the corporations: "Enough of that! You're spending the money you make from our purchases to damage our health!" If we support one another in an effort to control the structural context, the corporations will find ways to increase flavor without the simple-minded reliance on fat.

Even the food pyramids we learned as children are now held in serious question. Little serious research has gone into how we help populations eat healthy AND leave more of the cooking to others as our discretionary time disappears. Their profit depends on our docile acceptance of their products. We do have the AGENCY to complain until they produce satisfactory products. One way to do that is to listen in good faith to one another about the food situation, and try to understand the dilemma of food that we face collectively. There is power in understanding followed by collective concern and action.

The media are doing their part. They are telling us where the dangers are. They're just continuing to accept the corporations push to make every bit of profit they can before they put their investment dollars into research for better food production and distribution.That's because the corporations' profit is what pays for their existence. We don't need a McDonald's on every corner, unless McDonald's is wiling to work with us on quelling the obesity of our children and ourselves.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we mean by the agency of the individual and the interdependence between agency and structural context?

    Consider: Henry and Milovanovic on agency and social structure See particularly Joanna Carillo's Application to Quotidian Experience and also Agency and Structural Context

    Do you know what "quotidian" means?

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary Search:

  2. How does a support group, like Weight Watchers, relate to the issue of obesity as interdependent on the structural context as well as the individual's choices?

    Consider attitude change and persuasion theory. To persuade people to accept our ideas we often link those ideas to a celebrith or a respected authority. Think of Fergie's connection with Weight Watchers. This is an implicit recognition of the effects of advertising and availability, and how it makes our choices harder.

    Do you know what "implicit" means?

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary Search:

    An "implicit recognition" means that by using Fergie, Weight Watchers is employing the theories of attitude and persuasion theory without actually mentioning that they recognize the importance of that kind of support for dieters. It would be explicit recognition if they came out and told you why they hired Fergie.

  3. How are the media doing their part?

    Consider how many articles on obesity are showing up in our newspapers and magazines. Most people are aware of the increasing concern over obesity, and are getting the message that it's bad for our health. We are also beginning to read and to see on TV discussions of the role fast foods and high fat are the main culprits. There is also more emphasis on the lack of exercise in our life styles. Making us aware is one of the first steps towards understanding our own behavior. The media in this country are not designed to change us, but to cater to our preferences. So it won't do to expect the media to urge us on to take matters into our own hands and demand more effective food processing and distribution. That's our job, and to some extent, our government's job.