On health, marketing, and morality: a guest post by Josey Ross

On health, marketing, and morality: a guest post for Super Strength Health by Josey Ross

Hi folks! Last time I was here on Super Strength Health I talked about the problematic nature of the “obesity epidemic,” the profound limitations of the BMI, and how, contrary to what the media and diet gurus tell us, the science linking health to weight is often ambiguous, sometimes contradictory, and very limited. This time I’m going to look at how health has become a moral issue and a way that we (are expected to) contribute to society, which has profound implications for the ways we understand the roles of food and exercise in our lives and our culture.

Okay, so it used to be that the way that we, as a society, thought about “citizenship” (not in the “what it says on your passport” way, but in the “what it means to be a fully participating member of society” way) involved both participation in the public sphere (voting, running for office, sitting on boards) and the dual contributions to society of both the production and consumption of goods. But as more and more production is moved overseas, the primary way that the citizen contributes to society is through consuming and thus supporting global capitalism. Thus, “we buy and eat to be good subjects”.[1]

However, as you all may have noticed, we society has a lot of issues around fatness. Unrestrained consumption doesn’t quite “work”, and so we are subject to this horrid, ever-present tension to consume more than at any time in the past, while striving to be thinner than at any time in the past. In the realm of these contradictory edicts, success is gained by the citizen who can self-sacrifice through deprivation and discipline in order to achieve thinness while simultaneously engaging in the hedonistic consumption of readily available, highly palatable foods.

Walking that tightrope is very, very difficult. It involves near-constant surveillance in the form of calorie counting, points counting, carb-eschewing, steps counting, and just generally being very vigilant about what goes in your body. This constant surveillance is a very, very good distraction. Because it’s hard to concentrate on foreign policy when you’re dreaming about the doughnut in the kitchen that your coworker brought in but you don’t feel like you “earned” it in your morning spin class. And this surveillance isn’t just expected of bigger bodies, because those who are currently “normal” weight are considered at risk of becoming overweight and then obese.

Remember all those issues we have around fatness? Well, here’s the really insidious part: those folks who are able to stay thin while consuming lots—and remember this doesn’t have to mean consuming lots of burgers and french fries, it can be $16 fresh-pressed juices and cleanses—are considered good, active citizens who are self-disciplined and rational (even though you and I know that self-discipline and rationality have little to do with body size) while those who fail to achieve the twin duties of eating and thinness are considered irrational and lacking discipline. And it’s no coincidence that those who are often unable to stay thin in the face of abundant consumption are usually poor and often people of color.

It is also no coincidence that we focus on individual efforts at health (or at least thinness) rather than structural issues ranging from economic inequality to lack of safe outdoor spaces to be active in. And there’s even a name for this single-minded, individualistic, focus on health via thinness: Healthism. Rather than improving health, this overwhelming focus on thinness is actually really dangerous for a lot of folks. From the lopsided social status of those who are and aren’t able to meet societal ideals of thinness to the disordered behaviors many (primarily—but not solely—young women) engage in while trying to get ever thinner, healthism does a lot more damage than good. And as citizenship has come to be represented by our ability to be thin in the face of overwhelming consumption, what we eat and whether we exercise become morally fraught decisions.

Though how I move my body should be about no more than how it makes me feel alive and grounded and energized, the choice to exercise is not morally neutral in contemporary North American culture. One way to think about the increasingly moral weight of exercising (or not exercising) is to look at the increasing secularization of society—as more of us split from organized religion (or are raised without it entirely) we no longer have one agreed upon set of morals such as, oh, say, the ten commandments. We are also an incredibly individualistic society, which has turned the moral realm into one of individual actions and consequences. In this context, the pursuit of fitness has become a morally positive act individuals can take not just for themselves but for the good of society as well. But the attitudes we see surrounding exercise—especially in health promotion—reinforce social separation since certain populations have lower rates of physical activity (due to less free time, for example, because of multiple jobs, and inadequate safe space to exercise) and are thus considered in need of governmental intervention (notably, though, that governmental intervention is never in increasing minimum wage or affordable childcare—factors that would very much improve the health of many economically marginalized people—but rather informational campaigns promising health in exchange for walking and vegetables).

We turn, now, to the politics of food. While those in the upper classes in North America have increasing availability to high-quality food thanks, in large part, to globalization, those living in poverty are largely limited to a diet of highly palatable, high fat and calorie, low nutrient foods. The fast food industry, in many ways, serves as the ideal case study for this. The increased availability of food, due in large part to government supports in the form of subsidies, as well as the deregulation of health and safety mechanisms allows fast food to fill the need created by the attack on living wages: profoundly underpaid workers can afford to eat (and thus contribute by consuming) substantial amounts of calories because hyper-processed fast food is so cheap.

Finally, I want to talk about “nutritionism,” [2] which refers to the focus of dieticians, nutrition scientists and public health authorities on individual nutrients rather than foods as a whole. See, the thing is, we know what a healthful diet looks like: largely plant-based, few processed foods, not too much. And recommendations along those lines basically don’t change. Yet the public is more confused than ever about what to eat: Paleo? Primal? Raw vegan? Gluten-free? Raspberry ketones? Bacon-wrapped-bacon smothered in bacon?

Nutritionism has also been heavily used in the marketing of various foods over the past three decades, often using the qualities of a single nutrient to imbue a sense of health into the product as a whole.  As you can see any time you walk in to Whole Foods or (and I do not recommend this) watch Dr. Oz: every week there is a new “super food” that will cure all that ails you (because a small study found that a super concentrated extract of a substance found in that juice may be correlated with a slightly lower risk of some-scary-disease). Because there is a lot more money to be made in the supplement of the week than in living wages, affordable childcare, safe environments, and universal medical care.

[1] Guthman and DuPuis (2006),

[1] (Scrinis, 2008)

Please visit Josey’s blog Here 

Illustration by the wonderful and talented Joanna S. Quigley