Moral Panics, Moral Crusades, and the Obesity Folk Devil

I’m currently doing research into moral panics and moral crusades, partly because they’re interesting on their own merits (and a hell of a good way for a writer to get some meta-knowledge of societal movements), and partly because as time goes by (and I do more research), I realize that we’re both in a moral panic AND and moral crusade.

Moral panics are characterized by exaggerated responses to perceived (sometimes not even real) threats to society, with a necessary, stereotyped “folk devil” scapegoat who can do no right. Here’s a link to the Wiki article on moral panics.

Our folk devil is the fattie.

That’s not to say other forms of prejudice don’t exist, but that we are in the midst of a moral panic that is the “Obesity Epidemic,” and the moral crusade that is “The War on Obesity.” Never in history have they been spelled out so transparently.

Though I’m going to post in more detail on it in the future, how well does the “Obesity Epidemic” fit the model of a moral panic? Judge for yourself. Here’s a quote from the Wiki article:


Moral Panics have several distinct features:

  1. Panic/anxiety: This is often very intense and there seems to be no problem greater than the subject of the panic.
  2. Short lived: The Panic lasts for only a few months at the most and can recur.
  3. Emotive language and images: Phrases such as “monsters”, “decay”, and “crisis” are used to emphasize the acuteness of the problem. Medical language can also be used out of context such as the word “epidemic”.
  4. Case Studies: These are often dramatic and unrepresentative.
  5. Statistics: Often misused or written in such a way that makes the reader think the problem is worse than it is; for example, “400% greater” may mislead some into thinking that something is 400 times higher rather than 5 times.
  6. Demonization of a group: Sometimes the chosen group does not even exist[citation needed] and those that do are mostly socially or economically marginal. Often the media can portray a group in a way that they don’t really exist and the group will eventually live up to the stereotype created for them.
  7. A Media led or generation phenomenon: Printed to start with and then TV and radio follow amplifying the panic which is then reflected elsewhere such as politics. Even in Victorian society moral panics were seen to be adopted by the media in the form of pamphlets, handbills and newspapers.[5]

With the exception of the Wiki’s reference to a necessary short-lived character to the moral panic (which is contested as not necessarily true by one of the leading experts in the field, N. Beh-Yehuda, in his book, “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance” ), what do you see paralleling the common fears created by/associated with the “Obesity Epidemic”?

Also, a point that Ben-Yehuda touches upon is that some moral panics can be accompanied by moral crusades, which is the torch-carrying by activist groups to eliminate a group or behavior deemed to be the “root of all society’s ills” by those same activists. In a moral crusade, moral entrepreneurs jump on the bandwagon of a moral panic for profit. Media, the government, etc all take part in the propaganda associated with the perpetuation of the moral crusade.

More and more, I’m beginning to believe that, in fact, we are in the midst — I’d argue even not at the peak, as of yet — of a moral panic and moral crusade against fatness.

What has been so fascinating to me, reflecting upon this possibility, is the fact that moral panics and moral crusades often have a catalyst, an overreaction to which begins the panic and/or crusade. Sometimes the catalyst seems far removed from the panic itself, like the anxiety towards privileged youths which caused the Mods and Rockers mess of the 1960s in the UK.

I’m positing a possible catalyst to the “Obesity Epidemic” moral panic and the “War on Obesity” moral crusade: an aging population who is afraid to die, and are desperately seeking a Fountain of Youth for both themselves and their children. Weight gain is associated with increasing age (at least until about 60-65), and that’s right about where the Baby Boomer generation is, now.

For you see, at the bottom of the “Obesity Epidemic” and the “War on Obesity” is a movement called Healthism. Drink one glass of wine a day, for optimal health! No, two! And don’t eat broccoli. Wait, remember to eat your broccoli! Buy this anti-aging anti-cellulite super-sunblocker cream, and make sure to go tanning before you hit the beach in your tankini! Spend at least 90 minutes a day in a gym, but don’t get water-bottle wrinkles around your mouth!

The ultimate goal of Healthists is, in fact, the Fountain of Youth. Tall order, you say? No kidding. Then again, the ultimate goal of Prohibitionists was a familial Utopia, where all families had doting dads and innocent fathers. The ultimate goal of the War on Drugs people is similar. But now that our nation isn’t in such a crisis over families (my theory is the War on Drugs was a response to the growing number of divorces and the increasing acceptability of the legitimacy of non-hetero relationships), our aging population has begun to panic over impending death.

Why do you think age-related diseases are the ones that they believe “curing” obesity will exterminate? Obesity is just a stand-in for their own terror at the inevitable. And millions of people are paying the price — such is the stereotyping, scapegoat-making nature of the moral panic and moral crusade.

What are your thoughts? Do you think I’m way off the mark here? Or do you think some of these ideas hold water?

16 comments on “Moral Panics, Moral Crusades, and the Obesity Folk Devil

  1. integgy says:

    I certainly think some of these ideas hold water. I also think that your phrasing, “moral panic” is an entirely appropriate one, since the issue at hand with the “war on obesity” is basically the idea that “we don’t want you to be this way because it offends us (but doesn’t really affect us, despite what we would like to say)”. The “issue” of obesity is being carried out with the thinking that since group A thinks it’s wrong, they are going to punish group B, because group A is the group with all the political power. It’s even starting to become a moral issue when related to (certain denominations) of Christianity. Being fat is seen as giving into temptation, and therefore not being “as holy” as the thin person over there, nevermind that she’s cheating on her husband, because we can’t see that just by looking at her.

    I do hope that made at least some semblance of sense. It’s really just a big long post saying I agree, in a very wordy and sometimes incomprehensible way! xD

  2. vesta44 says:

    I think you’re on to something with this. And maybe the reason being fat (and facing death eventually) doesn’t bother me so much anymore is that I’ve been a fatalist ever since I was 18.
    I had been having the same dream every night for a couple of weeks (I was crossing the street after work and this big white car came bearing down on me and hit me). So I was being super-careful about crossing streets, trying to avoid getting hit. Didn’t work. I was crossing the street on a rainy afternoon, 3 lanes of traffic had stopped to let me cross the street, and when I hit the 4th lane, I looked up to see this big white car coming at me. I started running, and all I remember is flying through the air, then looking up to see people standing around me asking if I was ok (DUH! I got hit by a car, sure I’m fine). I don’t remember the car hitting me, and I don’t remember hitting the ground. I ended up with 3 fractures in my pelvis, both bones in my lower left leg broken, and 3 upper front teeth broken. I got thrown 1/2 a city block, so I figure I was lucky to even be alive.
    Ever since then, I’ve figured when it’s my time to go, I’m gone, and there isn’t a damned thing I can do to stop it. It’s not going to matter how thin I am, how healthy I ate, how much I exercised, NONE of that shit is going to extend my alloted number of days of life. So, if none of that is going to keep me young and alive forever, why the hell should I worry about dying? Death comes for all of us, sooner or later, and making health a moral issue isn’t going to stop death from knocking on your door when it’s your time to go. Too bad that this society is so focused on youth and supposed morality. There are much better ways to channel that energy.

  3. violetyoshi says:

    I agree with what you are saying. I’ve seen jokes about this in some cartoons as well.

    Like in The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, there’s this guy who thinks he can live forever, as long as he gets bonus life points by exercising and eating healthy. Grim is very annoyed by it, because this means he has to put off reaping those people time and time again.

    There was a joke in the Fairly Oddbaby movie where Timmy’s parents were jogging, and going on about how they were trying to outrun time and aging.

    So I think that it is seen by cartoonists, that it’s absurd as well.

  4. […] 13 June 2008 at 5:01 am (From Amy) I think all of you know I’ve been doing a lot of reading about fat and being overweight. I read a post the other day that I found particularly fascinating and thought you all might too. From Big Liberty: Moral Panics, Moral Crusades, and the Obesity Folk Devil […]

  5. […] is not falling” post over at Junkfood Science. I think it serves as a great follow-up to my post this week on the Obesity […]

  6. […] are powerful political tools. Since that statement sounded rather strange, I’ll explain: many moral crusades and moral panics gain foothold with an appeal to others that, in their current state, children are somehow being […]

  7. […] The Obesity Epidemic is a moral panic, and the War on Obesity is a moral crusade. The torch-carriers are Healthists. Their weapons are science by press release, and the belief in the moral imperative of health. […]

  8. […] a way that would most clearly represent what I had to say. Additionally, I’ve been studying moral panics and moral crusades as a historical phenomena in the interim, and it has really enlightened me as to how certain […]

  9. […] Making Fatties the Deviants 2009 November 27 by bigliberty In every good moral panic, one needs a deviant group on which to blame the ills of the current moral (financial, political) […]

  10. […] evidence suggests that dieting doesn’t work. The evidence suggests that we are in a moral panic where fat people play the part of folkdevil. The evidence suggests that the vast majority of fat […]

  11. […] the part of a so-called body image advocate to claim that highlighting feederism in the midst of a moral panic where fat people are the folkdevils isn’t harmful to fat people in […]

  12. […] The Obesity Epidemic is a Moral Panic, FTW! May 19, 2010 by bigliberty A quick hit today, for anyone who’s still wondering whether the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ is really a phenomenon rooted in concern over public health, or has reached the fever-pitch of a moral panic: […]

  13. […] Of course that’s incompatible with mainline discussion of the obesity crisis, which is a moral panic, and the opposite of science, at any rate indistinguishable from the pseudoscience patter that has […]

  14. […] literally use fat as short-hand for bad, wrong, excessive. Fat bodies are ridiculed, dehumanised, demonised and charged with […]

  15. […] is what we call a folk devil. When there’s a panic about some moral issue that is supposedly rending the very fabric of […]

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