The ‘Free Will’ of Obesity

This winter something rather interesting occurred on ‘the planet of slums’ that we call Earth. For the first time, obesity surpassed hunger in terms of the deaths it causes around the globe. This conclusion was drawn from a worldwide study published by The Lancet at the 13th of December, titled “The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010”. The obesity epidemic is now going global. Qatar, for example, has surpassed the United States in terms of statistics. It is alleged that 73 percent of Qatari men and 70 percent of Qatari women are ‘overweight’ (BMI between 25-30). If the trend continues, it is predicted, according to the newspaper Al Watan, that 73 percent of women and 69 percent of men would qualify as ‘obese’ (BMI over 35) within five years.

For my own part, these news rather surprised me since I did not figure the problem was that serious yet. As I started to investigate the matter it soon stood clear to me that it was no trifle. One thing that I noticed, though, was that the obesity epidemic highlights rather contradictory and insoluble problems for the notion of ‘free will’, and by extension for liberal capitalism itself. The reason is multifaceted, and the topic does not escape the scourge of ideology.

First of all, let us reflect for a second on the framing of ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ in popular media, especially television. From just watching a few of all those programs about weight loss competitions you kind of get the feeling that exercise seems to be the axiomatic solution to combat overweight. To exercise is expressed as a matter of ‘free will’: Either you exercise and ‘levers your meat’ in a typical Lutheran manner, or you have to live with the consequences of obesity. Seems simple, right?

In fact, these programs cannot be more about adressing ideology than they are. What these programs never tell you, is that there is in fact a 80-95 percent weight loss attempt failure in the long run. The timeframe for ‘long run’ is usually five years in these studies. Well, that sounds a little bit different than the rhetoric of ‘you can if you will’, spread through all these weight loss programs. I am even cynical enough to suspect that a great degree of the mental illness often affecting overweight persons in the West is due to these programs, but I have not yet seen any study on this matter.

Think for example about the weight loss program where overweight peple were sent to Anna Anka in the United States to achieve their dreams. The subjects in this program were initially weighed and had to stand next to a translucent tube in which Anna Anka poured the amount of fat they had on their bodies. Pedagogically, huh? In this way, they were able to see their inner ‘sickness’ of (in Lacanian words) the ‘real’. For the next coming weeks they were subsequently subject to the worst kind of ‘fascist’ praxis by Anna Anka that one could imagine; constantly being insulted and yelled at, while tears were incessantly imminent. Would this kind of mental abuse be allowed in any other context? The abuse of this program could hardly be legal in Sweden, and maybe that is why they recorded it in the U.S.

Further, why do these programs stress that ‘you can if you will’, even if science has concluded this to be a myth? This is worth thinking about, and here we enter the subject of discourse. Interestingly enough, ‘exercise’ is not really a measure which people would intuitively pursue once they notice that they are out of shape. A genealogy of ‘exercise’ by the sociologist Mike Featherstone (1991) finds that exercise, and especially ‘gym exercise’, is of course a German invention. It was developed during the late 19th century within the Prussian army and did not seem to be something that people outside of the military were concerned with. Featherstone notices that what initially required the whip of army morale slowly evolved into something that people started to conduct voluntarily. This process did not happen overnight, as people discovered its potential. It was rather the case that through relentless discursive praxis over a century of time (involving the educational system with ‘gymnastics’ and so on), people eventually started to think that ‘out-of-shape’ equals ‘lack-of-exercise’. Following this mantra is also the common prejudice that overweights are ‘immoral’.

Further interesting, Featherstone also noticed that Christian monks during the 16th century considered ‘diet’ associated with asceticism, which also guarded against bodily pleasures. Today, this formula is completely the opposite. Hedonism and asceticism is now two sides of the same coin; in order to enjoy bodily pleasures (according to ‘healthist’ discourse) you must discipline your body. Even more paradoxical, the combination of ‘healthism’ and a discourse of ‘culinary desires’ has now made us inmeshed in an ideology speaking; ‘enjoy food as much as possible, but burn every calorie’.

This menace can only be the work of discourse. Thus, what these weight loss programs are really doing is to exert what Nicholas Rose would call ‘liberal control’. They try to establish a mode of thought in which the individual bears all responsibility for problems that are actually of structural character. Most studies in fact point towards ‘genetic determinism’ as the culprit of obesity, therefore, the praxis of ‘healthism’ discourse is at best ‘ideology at its purest’, and at worst, complete nonsense.

Also, this modus operandi may have spurred more resistance than subjugation. People are not stupid – at least not in a subconscious sense. The production of ‘healthism’ discourse is clearly perceived as an instrument of power. As Michel Foucault once said: “where there is power, there is resistance”. Also, let us not forget the Freudian – and partly Nietzschean – insight which states that we essentially desire ‘the forbidden’.

The most absurd forms of resistance in this manner are found in the United States. One especially stubborn rebel in this regard is the junk food restaurant “Heart Attack Grill”, which literally brags about the unhealthiness of their dishes. All of the personnel are dressed up as nurses and customers are weighed before ordering. The higher the weight, the less you pay for your food. And if you accomplish to eat the (already) legendary “quadruple bypass burger”, the personell will escort you back to your car in a weelchair. In a report by Al Jazeera, the owner of the restaurant stated that “the Founding Fathers fought and sacrificed for my right to be as stupid as I wanted, and I’m gonna continue”. I wonder what ‘liberal control’ can do about this guy?

An even more hopeless case for ‘healthism’ is that even if this discourse gives us the impression that ‘oh, everyone is exercising, being disciplined, except me’, the fact remains that fewer and fewer people are actually exercising, owing to the decline of organised sport within the working class. For instance, football – which people actually enjoy – has been ensured and achieved by the flexible market of diverse schedules of labour.

Let’s be clear about one thing. I am not trying to lament that obesity is in fact a health problem. So, borne in mind that the main reason is ‘genetic determinism’, how do we solve the issue without the production of a mental-illness-causing-discourse-of-healthism?

I think the most potential lies within regulation of food industry and bio-technology; which is where the painful spot lies for liberal capitalism. It is always expressed as simply impossible to try to subsidize healthy food for ‘junk food’, raising taxes on sugar or soft drinks, which is usually a desire that the ‘free rational individual’cannot refrain from. This is also a scam, since ‘junk food’ is often subsidized, and is often the only affordable choice for a large segment of the population, sometimes referred to as the ‘working class’.

In Britain, they recently made once another advance in the history of ‘free will’. They now demand from overweight people in London to submit information about their weight when they apply for social subsidy. If they, after attempts of coercion, refuse to exercise, they consequently receive less subsidy. If this carrot-and-stick logic is the future of ‘free choice’, then I think we are approaching a substantially abusive type of ‘biopolitics’. Once again, the discussion at the other end of this spectrum is of course ‘out of the question’, since regulating food industry is considered a threat to ‘free will’.

So how about this bio-technology thing? I think it might hold some potential. If developed, it is not impossible that our predisposition to collect excess energy (bluntly speaking, ‘packing on the pounds’) can be erased by manipulation of human DNA. That would be a true ‘equality of opportuniy’ in terms of genetic determinism. Yet, this of course hinges on the avaliability of these measures. As such, universal healthcare seems to once again be at the hot spot. But if we go scientific about it, a bodily ‘equality of outcome’ seems more reasonable than a bodily ‘equality of opportunity’, or rather a myth of such.

Finally, let us not forget that a lot of the activities that humans conduct, such as working under poor conditions, extreme sporting, partying, driving cars, and going to war, to name a few, also have a substantial effect on lifelength; yet these are not targeted by abusive discourse. We may want to keep that in mind.

Text: Dennis Halvordsson

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  1. Jonas Eriksson

    First of all, I have to strongly oppose the notion that any discourse in itself could somehow cause biochemical alterations in the human body leading to mental or physical illness. The idea of a connection between a discourse affecting how people feel about themselves and mental illness is of course tempting, but overwhelming evidence points towards this being a false hypothesis.

    I do believe that a society responsible for the health of its inhabitants should regulate, stimulate and educate the people to live soundly. Age restrictions and taxes on tobacco and alcohol are thus reasonable, and I agree that a suger tax could be motivated by similar health concerns. I think most people who are not ideological purists beliveve that the real question here is where the limit for societal intervention in people’s own health decisions should be drawn. In the USA there have been two opposing trends lately, with the legalization of cannabis in the states of Colorado and Washington, whereas the state of New York has banned soft drinks larger than 16 oz (0,5 liter).

    These discussions will always continue, and regulation will follow in accordance with the concerns that are currently in the spotlight. Some kind of final apolitical solution through bio-technology seems pretty far fetched though. Genetical predisposition for certain behaviors, energy uptake and diseases in general is of course a very interesting field of study, but as a general rule the correlation between the genetical code found on human DNA and the outcome in vivo is way too complex for us to come even close to accomplishing practical beneficial alterations of human DNA within foreseeable time.

  2. Dennis Halvordsson

    Then I think we have differing views about what ‘discourse’ is. I think it is evident that there is a materiality to discourse. Otherwise, why would we even care for discourse?
    Say for example that I would insult you by use of language. The emotion caused from my word is then a bio-chemical reaction in your body that either makes you feel bad, or if you dismiss it, makes you feel indifferent, or whatever. A discourse, to my view, is language dissiminated at a higher level of abstraction, such as a system of words circulating a certain message. If we have a system of words relentlessly telling people that they are ‘immorality’ embodied, then of course this causes bio-chemical reactions in their brains making them feel bad, if they not dismiss it. I do not however lament that there are other bio-chemical processes that is directly linked to overweight and non-discursive, but I don’t think mental illness can be reduced solely to this.

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