Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 17

Journal of Canadian Studies * Revue d'6tudes canadiennes

Big Persons, Small Voices:

On Governance, Obesity,
and the Narrative of the Failed Citizen

Charlene D. Elliott

This essay probes the connection between obesity and citizenship In Canada, outlining
the ways in which the fat body or "failed body project" is equally positioned as that of
the "failed citizen." It examines how the personal body has been connected to that of the
citizen, and traces the evolving narrative that explains why the Ideal citizen is, literally
and figuratively, a "fit" citizen. Contradictions emerge, because the figurative concept of
citizen "fitness" is often mistakenly conflated with the visible look of leanness. The theo-
retical and practical implications of framing the larger body as a lesser citizen are then
explored In light of these contradictions. Given that nearly 60% of adult Canadians-or
14 million people-are classified as overweight or obese, the framing of the fat body as the
failed citizen is of considerable significance.

Cet essal, qui analyse le lien entre l'ob6sit6 et la citoyennet6 au Canada, se penche sur les
faýons dont le corps ob6se ou le <vprojet physique rat6 , rejoint celui du v citoyen rat6 ,. 11
examine comment le corps humain est relii A celul du citoyen et fait le r6cit qui explique
pourquoi le citoyen idWal est o en forme o, au propre comme au figur6. Le concept de la
v bonne condition physique P du citoyen, lequel se confond souvent avec le look visible
de ]a minceur, donne lieu A maintes contradictions. On y explore aussi les implications
th6oriques et pratiques qu'entramne l'6tiquetage du corps obse en tant que citoyen moin-
dre. ttant donn6 que pr8 de 60 % des adultes canadiens, soit 14 millions de personnes,
ont un exc6s de poids ou sont obses, l'tiquetage du corps gros en tant que citoyen rat6
rev&t une importance considerable.

n March 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a visit to the Canadian
troops in Kandahar. What proved fascinating about the news coverage that
followed was the extent to which the commentary focussed, not on the
political, national, social, or moral implications of the visit, but on the prime
minister's expanding girth. The front pages of several newspapers featured a
photograph of Harper at a mess hall meal with the Canadian troops-with an
offending can of root beer near his food tray. Other photographs focussed on
Harper's expanding belly. Headlines supported these visual images with vari-
ous puns on his size: The Globe and Mail punned on the "heavy duty" nature of

134 Volume 41 • No. 3 • (Automne 2007 Fall)

Journal of Canadian Studies - Revue d'6tudes canadlennes

being prime minister (Taber 2006), the NationalPost observed the "wide berth"
at the PMO (Smyth 2006), and the Vancouver Sun's lead was "PM Fights Battle of
the Bulge in War Zone" (Weeks 2006c).1 Days later, the prime minister was back
in the spotlight over his refusal to meet with Brigitte Bardot regarding the East
Coast seal hunt-yet, once again, the "news" focussed more on Harper's fat than
the plight of the baby seal. Sue Bailey's CanadianPress article (2006), picked up
by several newspapers, announced, "PM Takes Flak about His Weight ... Denies
Photo Op with Film Star." The article raised the question of whether the prime
minister was setting a good example for Canadians by being so visibly out of
shape, and then ended by discussing animal rights activists and Brigitte Bardot.
What proves interesting about this coverage is the way in which the body
of the politician is framed as if relevant to the interests of the body politic.
More specifically, this "news" captures some of the central issues surrounding
Canada's preoccupation with fatness and the ways in which the fat body-what
Samantha Murray identifies as the "failed body project" (2005, 155)-is equally
positioned as that of the "failed citizen."
While issues related to health and well-being rank extremely high with
Canadians2 and the problem of obesity receives consistent media coverage, little
focus has been placed on the relationship between obesity and Canadiancitizen-
ship. This article seeks to probe how obese individuals are implicitly and explic-
itly framed as "less equal" citizens, and how the conspicuous body is read as,
not merely the sign of moral failure, but the failure of personal responsibility as
well. To this end, I briefly examine how the personal body has been connected
to that of the Canadian and American citizen, and then trace the evolving nar-
rative that explains why the ideal citizen-one in good health and/or visibly
lean-is figuratively framed as a "fit" citizen. This narrative, I argue, is problem-
atic on various levels, including those pertaining to questions of morality, per-
sonal accountability, and responsibilization. Moreover, the figurative concept
of "fitness" is often (incorrectly) equated with the visible look of leanness. The
discussion of the narrative of the "good" citizen provides the basis for some
theoretical interventions pertaining to the construction of the obese body as a
physically and morally failed body, or what Bahktin (1984) would classify as a
carnivalesque body.
Since this article focusses on the relationship between the body and citizen-
ship, the final section explores how the issue of the "citizen consumer" brings
new questions to the literature on obesity and society. I argue that contemporary
citizenship privileges the conspicuous body-but a very particular form of con-
spicuous body, which raises a series of questions and problematics for the visibly
"big" person. Given that nearly 60% of adult Canadians--or 14 million people-

Charlene D. Elliott

are classified as overweight or obese (Salinas 2006, F10),3 the framing of the fat
body as the failed citizen is of considerable significance.

From Healthfully Fit to Visibly Lean: Tracing Shifts in the Citizen's Body

In their 2002 article entitled "Citizen Bodies," Carol Lee Bacchi and Chris Beas-
ley observe that the academic literature on citizenship and the literature on bod-
ies (or embodiment) rarely overlap. Connections between body and citizenship
are infrequent, they argue, because the body is generally "constituted in singular
terms and as quintessentially private," whereas citizenship is framed "as a public
activity concerned with establishing ... boundaries between people and groups
of people" (2002, 328). The fact that academic literature on citizenship generally
fails to connect to bodies, however, does not mean that citizenship and the body
have not been consistently linked elsewhere. There is a rich literature on the
body and society.4 On the "citizenship" front, recognition of the relationship
between the individual body and the health of modem democracy traces back
to de Tocqueville's 1840 tome Democracy in America. De Tocqueville observes
that Americans have a remarkable passion to satisfy "even the least wants of
the body" and that the unique characteristic of this young democracy is that
"everybody"-and every body-works because "work opens a way to everything"
(chap. 18). For de Tocqueville, "It is not the ruin of a few individuals ... but
the inactivity and sloth of the community at large that would be fatal to such
a people" (chap. 18). In the context of the working body, sloth is not merely a
frame of mind but the physical failure to carry out the responsibilities accorded
to a member of the democracy. It is the active body, the working body, the non-
slothful body, that makes democracy strong.
In the Canadian context, this connection between the healthy body and
the (figuratively) fit citizen was powerfully articulated during the Second World
War, when the requirement of physical health became nothing less than a patri-
otic duty. In 1942, the federal government created Canada's Official Food Rules,
which listed a range of "health protective" foods that would improve the stam-
ina of the nation's citizens: "Canada at war cannot afford to ignore the power
that is obtainable by eating the right foods," affirmed the CanadianPublic Health
Journal (Pett 1942, 565), essentially echoing de Tocqueville's sentiment about
the responsible body being the active and properly working body. Canada'sOffi-
cial Food Rules were deemed important because an ill-nourished body was ill-
prepared to defend the country. Men who did not take care of their bodies could
not be good soldiers or productive workers; similarly, women needed to adhere
to the Food Rules "in order to do a good day's work" (Pett 1942, 565). Various

Journal of Canadian Studies - Revue d'dtudes canadiennes

headlines published in the Toronto Star in January 1942 bear this out: "Good
Health Said [a] Vital Victory Tool"; "Keeping Well [is] Now Everyone's Duty";
and "Adequate Nutrition Helps Bolster National Stamina" stand as representa-
tive examples. Promotional materials distributed in support of the Official Food
Rules directly stated the social and civic responsibility of proper eating. As a pro-
motional spot published 4 January 1943 in The Globe and Mail counselled:
Now we've got to think of more than just flour or tastiness ... because we
must have more strength and energy to do the jobs we have to do to win
this war.
... After all, to eat carefully is an important part of our war effort and we'll
be all the better for it, too ... healthier, happier and better fitted to help our
country. (The Globe and Mail 1943, 10)

In this context, the media discourse surrounding national nutrition during

the war years clearly reflects Foucault's notion of "biopower," which focusses on
power, "control of the body," and how "the body is viewed as something to be
manipulated" (Welland 2001, 117). Foucault argues that the "inapt body" can
be formed and deliberately constructed:
The classical age discovered the body as object and target of power. It is
easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body-to the
body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes
skilful and increases its forces.... The body is docile that may be subjected,
used, transformed and improved. (quoted in Welland 2001, 118)

Improving the personal body, in the war context, was in the best interests of the
nation. Media discourse surrounding national nutrition during the war years
also underscored the proposition that Alan Hyde has observed in the context of
the legal treatment of the body: namely, that "individuals' right to control their
own bodies is not absolute and may be subject to public demands" (Hyde 1997,
242). Again, the public demand here is a national one, in which one's com-
mitment to national duty is physically inscribed on the individual body. The
body, in other words, visibly displays whether one has followed Canada'sOfficial
Food Rules, rules that make the individual-and in aggregate, Canada-strong.
Since rationing of foods such as fats, meat, and sugar was positioned as central
to Canada's war effort, heavier people might be assumed to be undermining
the effort by indulging in rationed goods, a presumption that historian Hillel
Schwartz has documented in the American context during the Second World
War. The war, Schwartz observes, "transformed gluttony into treason" (1986,
143). Even the name of Canada's Official Food Rules underscores how questions

Charlene D. Elliott

of health have been dictated and sanctioned by governmental authority for a

public purpose. These were not guides for food consumption; rather, they were
labelled "Official ... Rules"--connoting a much more formalized and politically
sanctioned directive for eating.
Victory in the Second World War did not terminate the rhetorical or concep-
tual link between war and physical bodies. In fact, the physical war against Hitler
which demanded strong soldiers' bodies and productive bodies as a patriotic duty,
has evolved into a conceptual war against the non-productive and slothful body,
which equally weakens our nation but for different reasons. Canada'sOfficialFood
Rules, introduced in 1942, has softened its language over time, transforming into
Canada'sFood Guide and reflecting a less militant approach to eating in a postwar,
post-rationing context. The language of war is still evident, and particularly fren-
zied in the United States, where skyrocketing obesity rates make Canadians appear
positively svelte in comparison.
US Surgeons General C. Everett Koop and David Satcher "respectively launched
Shape Up! America in 1994 and the 'war against obesity' in 2001" (Hemdon 2005,
128). The Shape Up! America initiative repeatedly called for the need to "combat"
obesity, while David Satcher initiated his 2001 "war" by holding a press confer-
ence with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson in which
they announced that "all Americans-as part of their patriotic duty-[should]
lose 10 pounds" (128). Thompson's call for patriotic weight loss underscores an
interesting shift, in which the idea of a healthy body becomes reframed as one
pertaining to size. That is, the healthy body becomes equated with a lean-looking
Canada, it seems, proves no less conciliatory towards fat. On 23 October
2006, Quebec unveiled a "national" plan for dealing with obesity, entitled Invest-
ing in the Future. This initiative commits $200 million over 10 years to prevent
weight-related problems and promote healthy living habits, and articulates an
objective closely aligned with that of our Amercian counterparts: by 2012, to
reduce obesity in Quebec by 2% and overweightness by 5%. This provincial move
reflects developments that have occurred on the national stage. Just months after
America's 2001 Inaugural War on Fat, Canada's then-health minister Anne McLel-
lan announced our own patriotic "war": "We are a nation, or becoming a nation,
of obese people," she said (Kennedy 2002, Al). This war against fat, however, is
far removed from the demand for bodies fit for physical war or physical labour.
In an economy driven by technology and intellectual labour, the failure of the
fat Canadian has been reconfigured into a failure on economic terms. Present-
day narratives frame obese citizens as failed citizens because they place unfair
demands on health care--one's personal choice of what to put into the body is in

Journal of Canadian Studies * Revue d'dtudes canadiennes

fact a citizen's responsibility because the consequences of personal consumption

will impact all taxpayers. McLellan's "war on fat" was announced by the National
Post under the headline "Fat Canadians Imperil Health Care," quoting McLellan
as stating that "the medicare system could become unaffordable unless citizens
take more responsibility for their health" (Kennedy 2002, Al).
This responsibilization theme dominates much of the popular and politi-
cal rhetoric surrounding adult obesity. Responsibilization, "the social process that
imposes specific responsibilities on some category of social agents" (Rous and
Hunt 2004, 826), is clearly framed within the political discussion surrounding
Canadian obesity. In July 2005, for instance, Ontario's Minister of Health Promo-
tionJim Watson argued that civil libertarians may not approve of his government's
campaign to direct health habits; however, it is in fact the government's business.
"As a taxpayer," Watson argued, "I don't want to fund this person's quadruple
bypass because they haven't taken care of themselves" (Dare 2005, B1). Canadians
are treated to a host of statistics that underscore the staggering public costs of the
individual obese citizen. Recent research has pegged the annual direct health-care
cost for obesity at $4.3 billion (Salinas 2006, Fl); Canadians are repeatedly urged
to take responsibility for their health because otherwise it will be impossible to
sustain our health-care system. 5

Assessing the Citizen Body: The Logic of Larger and Lesser

The previous overview intends simply to introduce the link between the body
and the citizen, and more importantly to sketch the way in which the lean
body (framed as the healthy, active body) is regarded as somehow more worthy,
whereas the obese body is presumed to be unhealthy,6 and stands as that of
a "lesser" citizen. Indeed, researchers have documented a widespread bias and
discrimination against obese people; "weight stigma" is very strong in North
America, and discrimination based on weight has "been documented in key
areas of living, including education, employment, and health care" (Puhl and
Brownell 2003, 213). What are the theoretical and practical implications of
framing the larger body as a lesser citizen, and how has it come to pass? The fol-
lowing section will address this question in three parts. First, I would like to sug-
gest that part of the problem is rooted in the tension between Mikhail Bakhtin's
concepts of the "classical body" and "carnivalesque" body-with the classical
body positioned as that of the autonomous citizen and the carnivalesque body
positioned as that of the failed or lesser citizen. Second, I will outline how ideas
of the "citizen consumer" privilege a very particular form of conspicuous body.
Third, I will address how the theme of personal accountability plays out within

Charlene D. Elliott

a Canadian environment that is increasingly recognized to be obsogenic. Since

obese citizens are not silent citizens, I will conclude with a brief look at some of
the strategies employed (and problems encountered) by those who demand to be
viewed as equal regardless of size.

ClassifiedBodies: The Classicaland the Carnivalesque

Feminist scholarship and cultural studies offer a rich literature on the heavily gen-
dered framing of size and obesity. We know that "fat is a feminist issue" (Wann
1999; Schoenfielder and Wieser 1983), and scholars such as Eve Sedgwick have
long argued for the possibility of "speaking" one's fatness or "coming out" as
fat in order to renegotiate the representational contract between one's body and
one's world (1993). In turn, Samantha Murray (2005) has penned personal and
provocative articles on the challenges of "coming out" as a fat woman, question-
ing whether it is even possible to make the fat body visible in new, enabling, and
politically empowering ways. The narrative of the failed citizen, however, tran-
scends gender. In this context, the obese body is, ironically, democratic-open to
all, irrespective of gender, race, or class. While one might reasonably focus on the
connection between race and obesity, or the control over women's bodies, it is
the idea of the body itself that proves of interest. The tension between the classical
and carnivalesque body, I suggest, is what allows the moral framing of the obese,
"lesser" citizen.
Bakhtin outlines the presence of two bodily archetypes: the classical body
and the carnivalesque body. The classical body "represents the dominance of the
body by the mind" (Carolan 2005, 89). It is a body ruled by reason, and reason,
indisputably, is one of the principle tenets of democratic participation. Cami-
valesque bodies, in contrast, represent the triumph of passion over reason, with
the body ruling the mind (89). Certainly, we can read bodies as classical or car-
nivalesque. As Michael Carolan has observed, the fit, toned body is a well-regu-
lated and restrained body, and it represents the body of beauty, of productivity,
and of superiority (92). Through the lens of public policy, the classical body is
the autonomous body, the one in which the neo-liberal model of governance
works best and where the concept of citizen responsibility is utterly validated. The
responsible citizen is the citizen in good health, the metaphorically "fit" citizen
who does not inflict (self-created) problems on health care. The carnivalesque
body in this context, however, is the uncontrolled body--a body subject to the
temptation of SuperSize fries and Twinkies, undisciplined and unrestrained. This
is the body of the lesser citizen, the one that explicitly cries out to be controlled
because it has shown that autonomy has led to poor choices. It is the body
that prompts calls for taxes on junk food, warning labels on soda pop, national

Journal of Canadian Studies - Revue d'dtudes canadiennes

Participaction programs, and statistics on the precarious state of our health-care

system. It is significant to note that Bakhtin's carnivalesque body bears remark-
able likeness to Samantha Murray's definition of the fat body, which "exists as a
deviant, perverse form of embodiment"--one that demands transformation "in
order to be accorded personhood" (2005, 155). The transformation demanded is
to that of a lean body.
What proves particularly problematic for Murray is the fact that, unlike other
bodies that have been constructed as deviant (such as the gay body), fat bodies
are always and irrevocably "outed." She observes, "we read a fat body on the
street, and believe we 'know' its 'truth': just some of the characteristics we have
come to assume define fatness are laziness, gluttony, poor personal hygiene, and
a lack of fortitude" (2005, 154). What might also be added to this list is a lack of
concern about the health (including the health care) of the nation.
The dichotomy between the classical and the carnivalesque body presents
a new context for framing the issue of obesity and public health. This distinc-
tion between the two bodily archetypes is supported, however, by other theo-
rizations explaining why obese individuals are stigmatized or viewed as lesser.
Puhl and Brownell, for instance, document that "obesity stigma results from a
social ideology that uses negative attributions to explain negative life outcomes"
(2003, 215). Attribution theory suggests that people search for the "cause" of
certain outcomes; in the case of obesity the "cause" is presumed to be found
in individual decision-making and due to a lack of self-discipline (215). Nega-
tive judgements on obese people, Puhl and Brownell relay, are rooted in "tradi-
tional conservative American values of self-determination and individualism ...
where people get what they deserve and are responsible for their life situation.
This notion closely resembles a Protestant work ethic that emphasizes internal
control and self discipline" (215). Attribution theory, which Puhl and Brownell
categorize as the most empirically driven theory of weight bias, is also evident in
Regina Lawrence's analysis of the framing of obesity in American news coverage
from 1994 to 2003. She found that the most conventional way of understanding
obesity is as a problem of individual behaviour (Lawrence 2004, 62), with "many
news articles, op-ed pieces, and especially letters to the editor articulating general
claims about the need for individuals to take responsibility for their own health-
related choices" (68). Lawrence theorizes this as an "individualizing frame," which
limits the responsibility to particular individuals afflicted with the problem. Even
though her analysis revealed that, over time, newspaper coverage has increasingly
acknowledged the degree to which an unhealthy environment contributes to obe-
sity, the coverage showed "less acceptance of the idea that that risk has been
incurred involuntarily by overweight adults" (71). Lawrence's analysis revealed
that "even relieving them of some responsibility appears difficult" (71).

Charlene D. Elliott

Whether viewed through the lens of the camivalesque, attribution theory, or

individualizing frames, the link between responsibilization and obesity remains
central. Hidden in this theory, however, is the idea of the citizen. While the indi-
vidual adult may be responsible for creating his or her own size, where (beyond
the burden placed on health care) is the citizen in the question of obesity? In
part, the citizen resides within the role of the consumer.

ConspicuousBodies, Consumer Bodies

The dichotomy between the classical and the carnivalesque body unveils a sec-
ond, provocative tension within contemporary society. As citizens of a capital-
ist democracy, one's primary function is to consume. One might recall that, in
the wake of September 11, President George W. Bush exhorted all Americans to
show their patriotism via consumption. President Bush declared that the Ameri-
can economy was "open for business" (2001b); he insisted that "individual con-
sumer confidence remains high" and argued for the need to "act boldly at home
to encourage economic growth" (2001a). Vice President Dick Cheney similarly
advised Americans not to let terrorists "throw off their normal level of economic
activity" (Reich 2001, B1). This call for patriotism through consumption is one
instance of how consumption is becoming "increasingly suffused with citizenship
characteristics and considerations" (Scammell 2000, 351). Citizen consumerism
acknowledges that the "site of citizens' political involvement is moving from the
production side of the economy to the consumption side" (351). Citizen consum-
erism overtly plays out in marrying dollars to political projects: purchasing envi-
ronmentally friendly products, socially responsible brands, pink ribbon goods, or
organic foods; yet it also exists in the everyday activity of ordinary people "whose
regular conduct of leisure and consumption has an ever-stronger political edge"
(352). As Bush and Cheney implied through their calls to consume patriotically,
all consumption has political overtones.
Despite the fact that consuming is both a core value and a core function
of an individual, there is a near-visceral disgust at those who show their (over-)
consumption on their fleshly bodies. As attribution theory suggests, conspicu-
ous bodies that are visible simply due to size are subject to social condemnation.
Fat bodies represent the "failed body project" and are rejected for their aesthetic
transgressions (Murray 2005, 154). The only acceptable form of conspicuous
body is the classical, athletic, muscular body-the body that is disciplined and
"in continual need of maintenance" through the consumption of the services of
personal trainers, weekly tanning sessions, or monthly Botox injections (Carolan
2005, 96). Maintaining the classical body requires constant, and costly, consump-
tion-its form requires a much higher financial expenditure than the overweight

Journal of Canadian Studies * Revue d'6tudes canadiennes

body. As Carolan argues, "the classical body is a body in possession of money-the

'right' foods to eat are not cheap, nor are gym memberships, tanning sessions,
personal trainers, or dietitians" (92); but the personally incurred cost bolsters the
economy instead of straining tax dollars.
Or so it seems. Bacchi and Beasley have argued that the classification of
citizenship in relation to the physical body pivots entirely on the perception of
control. Those who are deemed to be in control of their bodies are considered
autonomous, constituted as "full citizens," and remain generally free from gov-
ernment surveillance. Political subjects surmised not to exercise this control,
"who are considered to be controlled by or subject to their bodies, do not mea-
sure up on the citizenship scale" (2002, 348), and are therefore subject to gov-
ernment regulation projects: "Conceptions about bodies act as a dividing line
between full and lesser citizens, with citizenship itself understood in terms of
'autonomy' from government" (348). The conspicuous body, whether conspicu-
ously sized or conspicuously sculpted, may have equal problems with control,
however. To underscore Bacchi and Beasley's point: "citizens" are perceived to
be in control of their own bodies. This creates an ambiguity of ownership. The
classical body represents a successful performance, although it might equally be
a control manifested through bulimia, surgery, diet pills, and smoking (and all of
these, too, place burdens on health care). The classical body, then, may also be a
This means that the indulgence that is read into the obese body, and that
works to justify its position as lesser citizen, might be unfairly allocated. "Virtu-
ous" health is grounded in a particular aesthetic of looking good (Jutel 2005,
12), or merely looking lean, but this aesthetic does not necessarily mean the
reality of rational control.7 Beyond this, the indulgence (which is so disparaged
when displayed on the body) is one that can be equally promoted as virtuous.
The Atkins diet, which took Canada by storm in 2004, operated solely on the
premise of virtuous indulgence. Rich sauces, gourmet cheese, steak, butter-all
of these promised to work in favour of a lean body, along with the assurance
that deprivation was unnecessary in the pursuit of a classical physique. Nota-
bly, Atkins promised that one could give in to cravings or relinquish control to
bodily demands for indulgence and still look lean; and so, while a key problem-
atic surrounding fat bodies is the presumption that they express a moral laxity
through indulgence or lack of restraint autel 2005; Murray 2005), the fact that
indulgence can be promoted and embraced as the virtuous means to attaining a
lean body suggests that the problem is not really moral at all. The real problem
seems to exist in the conspicuousness of the body itself.

Charlene D. Elliott

IndividualLives, NationalImplications:Looking at the System

Canada's government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper was elected on the
platform of accountability. "Accountability" stands as the government's keystone,
and the articulation of accountability to the Canadian public is concomitant with
the expectation that the Canadian public is accountable to the government.
Accountability places emphasis on individual actions and choices, and suggests
(along with attribution theory and individualizing frames) that combating obe-
sity is a personal responsibility.
Environmental factors are increasingly recognized as influencing personal
choice, however. An emerging body of research in Canada scrutinizes how the
built environment, from the number of parks to proximity to fast-food outlets,
contributes to being overweight or obese. This look at the obsogenic environment
suggests that the individual Canadian thrives in a larger Canada, and that the per-
sonal might be properly framed more broadly. It might be viewed through what
Lawrence identifies (in her analysis of American news coverage) as a "systemic
frame," one that views obesity as the consequence of larger social forces and there-
fore invites governmental action (2004, 57). The systemic frame suggests that the
body politic might "bear some responsibility for the shape" of individual bodies
(57). Indeed, that philosophy underpins the requirement for nutrition labelling,
the reassessment of urban design, tax deductions for sports lessons, and, among
other initiatives, the tabling of Bill C-283 (which would require nutrition labelling
on menus at large chain restaurants) in Parliament on 8 November 2006.
Treating obesity at a policy level, then, can span the spectrum of "responsi-
bility," ranging from McLellan's "war on fat" (in which individuals must assume
complete responsibility) to the government-funded obesity programs focussing
on the obsogenic environment (in which individual responsibility is lessened).
While individual responsibility may be lessened by focussing on the environ-
ment, however, the adult consumer citizen is rarely absolved. In popular news
discourse, the pattern is to use an individualizing frame to respond to a sys-
temic frame (Lawrence 2004). That is, while one might accept that an unhealthy
environment contributes to obesity, the call for personal accountability is still
paramount. A classic example of this resides in Dr. Diane Finegood's 8 May 2006
discussion of the solution to Canada's obesity crisis. Finegood, scientific director
of the nutrition, diabetes, and metabolism unit of the Canadian Institutes of
Health Research, argues that "unless we try to find ways to change our environ-
ment so people can make healthier choices, we're not going to effectively tackle
this epidemic" (Lem 2006, 15). This acknowledgement of a systemic problem is
immediately followed by a strong individualizing argument: "Excess calorie con-
sumption and insufficient activity needs [sic] to be seen as unhealthy choices. We

Journal of Canadian Studies - Revue d'1tudes canadiennes

succeeded in denormalizing tobacco smoking as cool and desirable. Now we have

to denormalize obesity" (quoted in Lem 2006, 15). As such, the obsogenic envi-
ronment is still only host to a series of micro, and personal, choices. Beyond this,
Finegood's call for denormalization of obesity is rather jarring. In light of attribu-
tion theory and camivalesque bodies, one might reasonably argue that obesity
is already denormalized. Calling for its denormalization places another layer of
stigma on an already overburdened form.
Even when considering the system, then individual accountability and
responsibilization factor strongly; yet a second strategy, found in Quebec's
recently released action plan to combat weight-related problems, also operates
to foreground the citizen's location in relation to obesity. The 49-page action
plan released 23 October 2006 argues that overweight people give off "negative
externalities." One of the government's articulated priorities is to employ social
campaigns to "promote favorable social standards" that help to develop healthy
practices. Significant about framing the initiative around the idea of externalities
is that it appeals to an individual's self-interest. The negative externalities of obe-
sity are the burdens it places on the health-care system. So if another Canadian
loses weight (which is presumed to be an indicator of improved health), then
even "classical" bodies benefit because health-care costs drop and (technically)
classical and carnivalesque bodies alike may enjoy lower taxes. The key lies in
the individual recognizing the benefit of fostering the public interest. Investing
in the health of others, as Quebec's action plan suggests, ultimately will benefit
the individual financially. Note, however, that the obese body is still framed
here as if symbolically polluting (or literally taxing) the social system.

Reclaiming Space
Given democracy's long history of equating fit citizens with good health and/or
visibly lean bodies, and the various ways that the carnivalesque, over-conspicuous,
and consuming bodies are routinely marginalized, one question remains: what is
the large body to do? One wonders whether "coming out as fat," as Sedgwick
suggests, can really allow individuals to reclaim their rightful position as equal
citizens. Advocacy groups, such as the American Obesity Association, seem to
undermine the very prospect of equality by arguing that obese bodies are, in fact,
failing: "We want obesity understood by the health-care community and patients
as a serious disease of epidemic proportions," they claim. Other organizations,
such as the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and the
World Health Organization also support the definition of obesity as a disease. Six
years ago, the American Food and Drug Administration too declared that obesity
was a disease. Canada has yet to walk this infectious path; the government does

Charlene D. Elliott

not officially classify obesity as a disease. However, our incessant reference to the
obesity "epidemic," raises strong images of contagion-and contagious bodies
are always bodies to be avoided.


1. Similar headlines include the Ottawa Citizen's "Harper Lampooned for Bulging Belly"
(Weeks 2006a) and "Harper Gets Flak over Bulging 'Spare' Tire," (Weeks 2006c), as
well as the Montreal Gazette's "Harper's Bulging Belly Steals Spotlight: Prime Minister's
Fondness for Soft Drinks Sets Bad Example for Canadians" (Weeks 2006b).
2. Indeed, a recent Ipsos Reid poll indicated that 34% of Canadians currently rate health
care as the most prominent issue, well in front of terrorism and national security
(21%), education (13%), and the environment (10%) (Pynn 2006, A17).
3. It is important to note that the criteria for classifying overweight/obese are contested.
The categorization is based on Body Mass Index (BMI), such that persons with a BMI
over 25 are tagged as "overweight" and those with a BMI over 30 are labelled "obese."
Several researchers, however, claim that this classification is inappropriate (i.e., weight
does not necessarily predict health); and as such, it should not be at the centre of
public health debates (Gaesser 1996; Campos 2004; Campos et al. 2006; Oliver 2005).
Astudy conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, showed
that people in the "overweight" category actually had the lowest rate of mortality.
Statistically significant increases in mortality due to weight were not seen until the
BMI reached 35 (Flegal et al. 2005).
4. See, for instance, Chang and Christakis (2002), Brown and Zavestoski (2004), Lup-
ton (1995), Crawford (1980), Turner (1992), Richardson and Shaw (1998), Woodward
(1996), and Prout (2000).
5. This is precisely the message advanced by Ontario's Ministry of Health Promotion,
established in 2005 by the McGuinty government.
6. Campos's The Obesity Myth (2004) provides an exhaustive critique how the public
health scare of obesity is wrong-headed. Size does not indicate good health, argues
Campos, and there is little scientific evidence to support the argument that excess
weight causes excess risk for health issues (with the exception of a minority of people
that are at the extremes of body weight on both ends of the spectrum; namely, the
extremely thin and the extremely fat.
7. Indeed, there is little rational about bulimia, the abuse of laxatives, diet pills, and so

Journal of Canadian Studies - Revue d'6tudes canadiennes


Bacchi, C., and C. Beasley. 2002. "Citizen Bodies: Is Embodied Citizenship a Contradiction
in Terms?" CriticalSocial Policy 22 (2): 324-52.
Bailey, S. 2006. "PM Takes Flak about His Weight in Stride, Declines Photo Op with Film
Star." Western Star, Corner Brook, NF, 20 March, 9.
Bakhtin, M. 1984. Rabelais and his World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Brown, P., and S. Zavestoski. 2004. "Social Movements in Health: An Introduction." Sociol-
ogy of Health and Illness 26 (6): 679-94.
Bush, George. 2001a. "President Unveils Back to Work Plan." Office of the Press Secretary,
4 October, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2OO1/1O/2OO11OO4-8.htmfl.
-. 2001b. "Statement by the President in his Address to the Nation." Office of the Press
Secretary, 11 September,
Campos, P. 2004. The Obesity Myth. New York: Gotham Books.
Campos, P., A. Saguy, P. Ernsberger, E. Oliver, and G. Gaesser. 2006. "The Epidemiology of
Overweight and Obesity: Public Health Crisis or Moral Panic?" InternationalJournalof
Epidemiology35 (1): 55-60.
Carolan, M. 2005. "The Conspicuous Body: Capitalism, Consumerism, Class, and Con-
sumption." Worldviews 9 (1): 82-111.
Clendening, L. 1992. "Keeping Well Now 'Everybody's Duty.'" Toronto Star, 3 February,
Crawford, R. 1980. "Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life." InternationalJour-
nal ofHealth Services 10: 365-88.
Chang, W., and N. Christakis. 2002. "Medical Modeling of Obesity: A Transition from
Action to Experience in a Twentieth-Century American Medical Textbook." Sociology
ofHealth & Illness 24 (2): 151-77.
Dare, P. 2005. "Don't Ike Jim Watson's Tough Talk on Health? Too Bad: Health Promotion
Chief Says He's Only Trying to Save Lives, Money." Ottawa Citizen, 27 July, B1.
de Tocqueville, A. 1998. Democracy in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1945. Orig. pub-
lished 1840. AmericanReformation Project,
h ttp://www.americanreformation.org/Tocqueville/ch3_18.thtm.
Flegal, K.M., B.I. Graubard, D.F Williamson, and M.H. Gall. 2005. "Excess Deaths Associated
with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity." Journal of the American Medical Associa-
tion 293: 1861-67.
Gaesser, A. 1996. Big FatLies:The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health.New York: Fawcett
The Globe and Mail. 1943. "There's a New Note to the Noon Whistle." 4 January, 10.
Hermdon, A. 2005. "Collateral Damage from Friendly Fire? Race, Nation, Class, and the
'War against Obesity."' Social Semiotics 15 (2): 127-41.
Hyde, A. 1997. Bodies of Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Charlene D. Elliott

Jutel, A. 2005. "Weighing Health: The Moral Burden of Obesity." Social Semiotics 15 (2):
Kain, Ij. 1942. "Adequate Nutrition Helps Bolster National Stamina." Toronto Star, 15
January, 26.
Kennedy, M. 2002. "Fat Canadians Imperil Health Care: McLellan." NationalPost,22 Feb-
ruary, Al.
Lawrence, R. 2004. "Framing Obesity: The Evolution of News Discourse on a Public Health
Problem." Press/Politics9 (3): 56-75.
Lem, S. 2006. "Make Obesity Uncool: Expert." Toronto Sun, 8 May, 15.
Lupton, D. 1995. The Imperative of Health:Public Health and the Regulated Body. London:
Murray, S. 2005. "(Un/Be)Coming Out? Rethinking Fat Politics." Social Semiotics 15 (2): 153-
Oliver, J.E. 2005. Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Pett, L.B. 1942. "Food Makes a Difference." CanadianPublic HealthJournal33 (12): 565-70.
Prout, A., ed. 2000. The Body, Childhoodand Society. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Puhl, R., and K. Brownell. 2003. "Psychosocial Origins of Obesity Stigma: Toward Chang-
ing a Powerful and Pervasive Bias." Obesity Reviews 4: 213-27.
Pynn, L. 2006. "Global Warming a 'Top Worry'." Vancouver Sun, 14 October, A17.
Reich, R. 2001. "How Did Spending Become Our Patriotic Duty?" Washington Post, 23
September, B01.
Richardson, J., and A. Shaw, eds. 1998. The Body in QualitativeResearch. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Rous, R., and A. Hunt. 2004. "Governing Peanuts: The Regulation of the Social Bodies of
Children and the Risks of Food Allergies." Social Science & Medicine 58: 825-36.
Salinas, E. 2006. "New Frontiers in the Fight against Fat." The Globe andMail, 28 October,
Scammell, M. 2000. "The Internet and Civic Engagement: The Age of the Citizen-Con-
sumer." PoliticalCommunication17: 351-55.
Schoenfielder, L., and B. Wieser. 1983. Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat
Oppression.Iowa City: Aunt Lute Book Company.
Schwartz, H. 1986. Never Satisfied: A CulturalHistory ofDiets, Fantasiesand Fat. New York:
Free Press.
Sedgwick, E. 1993. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press.
Smyth, J. 2006. "PMO Gives Wide Berth to Diet Talk: Harper's Office Says Leader Healthy
Despite Generous Waistline." NationalPost, 18 March, A6.
Taber, J. 2006. "Being Prime Minister, It Seems, Really Is Heavy Duty." The Globe and Mail,
18 March, F3.
Toronto Star.1942. "Good Health Said Vital Victory Tool.' Toronto Star,21 January, 24.
Turner, B. 1992. Regulating Bodies. London: Routledge.
Wann, M. 1999. FAT! SO?: Because You Don'tHave to Apologize for Your Size. Berkeley, CA:
Ten Speed Press.

Journal of Canadian Studies * Revue d'6tudes canadiennes

Weeks, C. 2006a. "Harper Lampooned for Bulging Belly." Ottawa.Citizen, 15 March, 1.

-. 2006b. "Harper's Bulging Belly Steals Spotlight: Prime Minister's Fondness for Soft
Drinks Sets Bad Example for Canadians." Montreal Gazette, 15 March, A4.
-. 2006c. "Harper Gets Flak over Bulging 'Spare Tire."' Ottawa Citizen, 15 March, AS.
. 2006d. "PM Fights Battle of the Bulge in War Zone: Kandahar Picture Shows Tubby
PM with Can of Pop." Vancouver Sun, 15 March, A4.
Welland, T. 2001. "Living in the 'Empire of the Gaze': Time, Enclosure, and Surveillance in
a Theological College." SociologicalReview 49 (1): 117-35.
Woodward, K. 1996. Identity and Difference. London: Sage.


TITLE: Big Persons, Small Voices: On Governance, Obesity, and

the Narrative of the Failed Citizen
SOURCE: J Can Stud 41 no3 Aut 2007

The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it

is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in
violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: