Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I've written a lot about food, particularly recently. I've written about my problems with the way food is discussed and my problems with the way food is produced. But I haven't talked explicitly about the connection between my analysis of these two things.

I don't think either of my analyses is particularly unusual. Certainly an analysis of the effects of capitalism on nutrition is reasonably common, at least in the sort of cirlces that analyse the effects of capitalism on anything. Most people with a vague understanding that feminism exists have some sort of analysis of society's obsession with thinness. Many feminists who think about it develop this into a more thorough analysis, which includes an understanding of the role food plays in an eating disordered culture, particularly control of food.

And yet...

Most people make no connection between these two analyses, a fact that I find highly frustration. So many people treat them as two different analyses of food, and you pick one or the other, or if you lay one over the other then they cancel each other out, and there's just one bit of the strongest left (this approach seems to be most common in Britain, I was there a couple of years back and read not one but two articles in the Guardian/Independent (just search the Guardian archives for +poverty +obesity for lots of examples of exactly what I'm saying) that basically said "yes, anorexia is bad for middle-class girls, but we need to concentrate on the problem of obesity among those in poverty, size is a class issue not a gender one.")

What this means is that Supersize Me analysis* has become the common response to the 'obesity epidemic'. Fat is bad, and the poor are fat, therefore it's left-wing to criticse fat. If you're really lucky this analysis will then be extended, as Findlay McDonald did the other week, to say that maybe it's poverty we should have a war on, not obesity.

But this gives up ground that I'm not willing to give up. I think it's dangeorus and distracting to substitute discussions about food with discussions about weight. I think that one of the whole points of our fucked up discourse** around food is to distract us from the fact that the real problem with food is the way it is produced.

'Health' has become a commodity and this is most true when it comes to 'healthy' food. Labelling certain foods as 'healthy' or promoting their 'health' benefits has nothing to do with their nutritional value and everything to do with selling stuff. Often what food is portrayed as 'healthy' has nothing to do with promoting longevity and quality of life, and more to do with promoting certain behaviours and ideas. This discourse* has many different roles, but an important part of it is to hide the completely obvious, which is that capitalism is fucking up our food supply.

We don't fix that by having the same conversations as everyone else, and we don't fix that by focusing on individual problems and solutions, and we don't fix it by treating the two problems as if they're unrelated, because they're not.**

*Personally I think 'analysis' is a little bit of an generous word to use in conjunction with Supersize Me, but since I'm determined to scare quote 'healthy' and 'obesity epidemic' every single time I use them I thought it'd come across as a wee bit petty if I did the same to analysis. I'm trying to think of a good synonym for analysis which implies that it's not actually analysis, but my brain isn't finding one. Oh well.

**I'm sorry, but while 'discourse' is kind of a pretentious word, I think it's also useful. Talking about the 'discourse' makes it clear that you believe that public discussions of a subject are constructed, and that analysing how and why is useful.

***Did my rhetoric hide the fact that I don't know how we do fix it? Didn't think so. I have the usual answers their, educate, agitate, organise, but I just don't think we're going to be able to do any of that until change the way we talk about the issue. I guess that's the educate part (hey maybe I do have some ideas).


  1. Treating unhealthy food products the same as unhealthy drugs would be a solution.

    Tax the crap out of them at least, make the manufacturers pay for the health costs, $50/kg on processed sugar would be a fine start.

    Total ban on added MSG (no requirement to even label it in NZ, so it's in most everything that's cheap and full of fat). It serves no purpose other than shutting down the body's natural ability to know when it's full, and is the only reason "super-sized" meals with minimal nutritional value sell at all.

  2. The correlation between poverty and obesity is far too often confused with causality.

    The warriors performance this year has perfectly mirrored my soccer teams - but to say that they cause each other is patently ludicrous.

    Oddly enough the correlation with race is a more causal relationship - but one that is actually to do with the racial differences in upbringing and mindset, rather than anything genuinely genetic.