Experiencing Obesity in an Unequal World: The Muted, Desiring Body Under Neo-Liberalism

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 12:00 PM
Room: F206
Distributed Paper
Paul BISSELL , School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom
Marian PEACOCK , University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
Joanna BLACKBURN , Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Barnsley, United Kingdom
Christine SMITH , Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, United Kingdom
There is a well-documented social gradient in obesity, seen clearly amongst socio-economically disadvantaged women and children, but also amongst men. The prevailing discourse from contemporary health policy, views obesity (and also the gradient) as an outcome of an individual’s failure to exercise control over appetite and desire, irrespective of social position. Whilst this is challenged from political economy perspectives where the gradient is seen as a product of living in an obesogenic environment, there are few qualitative studies which locate the experiences of living with obesity in the context of social inequality.

This paper addresses this, drawing on data from biographical interviews with obese adults living in socio-economically disadvantaged parts of northern England. We found that participants sought to position themselves as responsible, autonomous agents when accounting for their weight and we describe the often painful biographical work undertaken where food practices and life histories were positioned in opposition to mainstream discourses of personal failure. We suggest these accounts can be viewed as weak forms of protective resistance, against ‘hostile’ anti-obesity discourses.

We also describe two additional themes. Firstly, we report on participants sometimes visceral but muted accounts of the enjoyment and desire associated with consuming food. We suggest that whilst these practices can be understood as providing sources of comfort and pleasure for self and others, they also had another purpose which was to establish spaces for agency and control in lives shaped by disadvantage. Secondly, we  highlight how ‘excess’ food consumption and ‘poor’ decision-making around food can be understood in the context of the growing literature around decisions made under scarcity and precarity. Finally, using Lazarrato’s notion of the ‘entrepreneurial self’ under neo-liberalism, we argue that living with obesity in an unequal world not only constructs embodied identities but also shapes capacities for discursive resistance and protection.