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?


Is this a form of plagiarism, or am I reading into it too much?

Hi all,

I really need your help. Recently Carrie at ED Bites posted: “Overheight Epidemic.” Of course, many of you will remember my “The Tall Epidemic” post from March.

While my post is longer, with many more links, hers seems like merely a summary of mine, with nearly identical phraseology in parts (especially in how it begins. Hers:

“My friends, we are in the midst of a tall epidemic.”

(notice saying “tall epidemic” instead of “overheight epidemic”), and mine:

“We are in the midst of an epidemic.

I’m not talking about the Obesity Epidemic…no, I’m talking about the Tall Epidemic.”

And while she brings up a few different examples (I never mentioned basketball players), underfeeding children, the genetics of height, surgery to “correct” tallness, are all included in my post, at about the same points. The satiric voice is nearly indistinguishable. Even my mention of people breaking bones from being too tall because they’re farther from the ground — included in a *comment* on my post, not in the body — was nearly hijacked word-for-word.

What do you think? Is it paraphrased plagiarism? It seems way too close to a summary of my post with a few different “In your own words” moments, like how a teenager would paraphrase Wikipedia for a report.

Please check out my post, and then read what I’ve quoted below (just in case Carrie changes it at some point, I wanted to have it quoted here):

Monday, June 9, 2008

Overheight epidemic

America is having a massive overheight problem. Our children keep getting taller and taller. Even just 50 years ago, adults were, on average, one to two inches shorter than they are today.

My friends, we are in the midst of a tall epidemic. Too many of our children are too tall. We must do something about this. All of this additional height is wasting thousands of yards of fabric as we try to cover these too-long limbs. Children are being injured every day as their too tall heads crash into doorways that were perfectly fine only a few decades before. Look at school photos. Kids were much shorter–and much healthier–when I was a student.

But don’t despair. There are real solutions to this overheight problem. Only mate with short people- tall people are contributing to this problem and your kids are much more likely to be overtall if your mate is also overtall. Height is contagious. Do not doom your potential offspring to a life of ridicule and ill health by having a child with someone who is tall.

Should you accidentally have a child with a tall person, feed them formula with supplements designed to slow the secretion of human growth hormone. This will keep them from getting tall, and give them all the benefits of being short. As well, if your child begins to show signs of becoming too tall, drastically reduce their food intake. A good supply of nutrients is associated with extra height. By not preventing the consumption of nutrients, this extra height should not be a problem.

If you or your child has already begun to suffer the ill effects of overheight, do not despair. Doctors have also researched various surgical options to combat this growing problem. Portions of your limbs can be surgically removed and then you will be sewn back together. You might not have the same mobility or quality of life, but you will not suffer from the health dangers of being too tall.

Insurance companies will be penalizing tall people for things like head injuries from walking into doorways, broken bones from falling further when they hit the ground, and sports injuries sustained by basketball players (who we all know are especially at risk for overtall disorder).

This is an epidemic that must be taken seriously. Too many of us are just accepting this extra height without considering all of the health risks that tall can bring. You can do something about this. You must. Our society can no longer afford an epidemic of tall people.

(And I’m not the only blogger worried about this epidemic. Recently Big Liberty posted about these worries here at her blog.)

EDITED to mention: Carrie only put a link onto her blog — her parenthetical statement at the end — after I requested she did so, and then denied she’d ever read my “Tall Epidemic” post:


Hey, great minds think alike, huh? I didn’t read your post, and if it seemed like I copied, it was totally inadvertent. Thank you for sending me the link, and I will add it to my post.

Usage per pound doesn’t make good economic sense

So a lot of people in FA have been talking about this article: “Airlines Might Start Treating Passengers ‘Like Freight.'”

I don’t get the reasoning behind charging people per pound. Say that we just accept that people think it’s okay to discriminate against teh fatties. This policy, however, discriminates not just against teh fatties, but any body who is naturally heavier. That includes:

* most taller people
* most men
* some ethnic minorities and majorities
* people on medication with a side-effect of weight gain, i.e., depressed people, people on some other psych meds, and a whole lot of other potentially disabled people who are being helped by their drugs
* disabled people who can’t physically spend hours in the gym every day trying to conform to a thinner ideal

Regardless of what economic “sense” they think it makes to treat people like freight (should heavier people pay more for public transportation, too? To walk on public streets (since their heavier bodies wear the streets down faster, yanno!)? A fat tax for wear and tear on the floors of public places?), at bottom, it doesn’t make true economic sense.

Do the airlines really want to start alienating gigantic portions of their customer base? Do you think most women in our fatphobic culture, even thinner ones, want to be weighed in public? Also, how long before other groups who are less acceptable to discriminate against, like some of the groups I mentioned above, start hiring lawyers and filing anti-discrimination class action lawsuits?

It’s a stupid, stupid economic policy to treat people like freight. If the airlines are having a passenger weight problem, perhaps it could be mitigated by stopping trying to cram in more and more rows and seats every year on planes that already can’t even fit peoples’ carry-ons anymore. And blaming heavier passengers for the increase in fuel costs is insanely stupid and incorrect. Oil per barrel is at record highs. Not wanting to raise ticket prices (though they’re caving to that already) in order not to lose passengers, airlines are cramming more and more seats and rows into too-small planes. People are getting heavier — 15 pounds/person (average) in thirty years — but they’re getting taller, too, which means that people are more uncomfortable now in planes than they’ve ever been.

Is discriminating against huge chunks of your customer base going to solve your financial and comfort problems, airlines? I think not. Time to start looking for other solutions, you irresponsible, lazy-minded idiots. Fire your marketing people too, while you’re at it, because they’re doing a piss-poor job.

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

spacedcowedgirl had a great comment on Rachel’s post on the Wii Fit:

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that sure, eating disorders are a problem, but fat kids are KILLING THEMSELVES (or their parents are killing them) so desperate times call for desperate measures. I would be willing to bet that a majority of Americans would see basically no problem with shaming a fat child, destroying his or her mental health, and possibly triggering an eating disorder, as long as these steps put the kid into the normal BMI range.

What do you think of this? I, for one, agree with her. The culture is getting so toxic with respect to the Obesity EpiPanic Daily Media Scares (some of which include re-releasing panic-mongering press releases from last year) that people are getting hysteric. They would do anything to get their kids into the Arbitrary McMagic! SuperFittingIn “NORMAL” BMI, including putting kids on diets, sending them to boot-camp style fat camps to punish them for being fat and starve and overexercise them into conformity, even though it’s been shown to cause lower weights as well as stunted heights, and mental deficiencies (note: “malnutrition” doesn’t mean they had too little “good” nutrition defined as lean protein, wheat-based everything, fruits & veggies. They’re also talking about a fundamental lack of (gasp!) calories and (double gasp!) fats and (oh, the gasping horrors!) sugars).

A Quick Comment (having to do with Healthism)

In summary: tiffabee posted “French Women Don’t Get Fat: Part III.” She was sitting with a woman from New Jersey on her way back to the airport, during her trip to Paris. Fifteen minutes into the ride, the woman starts talking about how there were “no overweight people in Paris.” Since the two of them (tiffabee and the woman) would be considered not overweight, tiffabee made the point that the woman just assumed she would engaged in the negative, hateful talk about fat people. Of course, tiffabee did not (hooray!).

However, there were some interesting comments to the post (some which had nothing to do with the post itself, as is characteristic of our weight-obsessed culture, which uses nearly any hook to harangue fat people and/or the obesity “problem” — which was, quite delightfully, tiffabee’s point all along — thanks, commenters, for playing into it so well! LOL ). Here are two comments I specifically addressed:


But come on, you have to admit, being obese isn’t healthy; it’s not comfortable either. I am constantly pissed off at how the inner thighs of my jeans wear off so quickly to the point of tearing.

I’m all for body image acceptance; I wish I loved my body more than I do. I also wish I was healthier. In the context of my family medical history, my obesity isn’t a good omen.

In the end, it’s not really about fat for me; it’s about health, which is NOT equal to thin (see Nicole Ritchie and most runway models); but obviously, we’re all susceptible to the popular conception of beauty, so all people tend to focus on is whether I’ll be able to wear a bikini or not.

It’s a vicious circle; if a less-than-stick-thin woman wears a bikini, people will stare and gag; so that woman will focus on getting thin so people won’t react that way; so then she’ll be the next one to stare and gag at the next fat woman that wears a bikini; and it goes on and on and on…


I don’t think that O’Maolchathaigh was equating obesity to immorality. He was merely saying that obesity is a problem.. not that obese people are.

I agree with many of you that people should be more accepting of overweight people. But we all make judgments, so I don’t see the point in being angry about it. When tiffabee says that she thinks people in LA could stand to gain a few pounds, she is essentially judging them on their weight. We are all guilty.

If we cannot say that people should lose weight, who are we to say that people should gain weight?
Unless we look at eating disorders such as anorexia and bulemia and so we must intervene for the people’s well-being. In which case, we must also say that we must intervene and say something about the eating disorder of eating excess to the point where you are putting your life at stake.

I think regulations on diet and exercise are important if a person cannot stick to one to save their lives (meaning this in the most literal way). That doesn’t mean I think all non-fat people should go out and start forcing overweight people to go on a diet. But some people are in need of regulation from a dietician or some kind of accountability from a friend or family member.

It’d be nice to acknowledge, also, that a lot of the spoken judgments about obese people stem from insecurity about one’s self-image. Perhaps that is the problem– the declining self-image today– and not the “status quo” or a lack of societal acceptance.

And my response:

I don’t “have to admit” being obese is unhealthy. You cannot look at a person and determine their health based on how much they weigh. That’s absolutely ludicrous, and no different from statistically-based assumptions about sex, religion, and class (i.e., not all women like romantic comedies, not all Catholics have big families, not all poor people live at McDonald’s).

Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. I merely understand the nature of statistics, and I also understand how odds ratios have been used in the calculation of obesity stats in order to make some “risk factors” seem far, far more determinant of health status than they are. Read about that here:

Besides, carrying the torch of healthism doesn’t give you to the right to impose your beliefs on someone else, regardless. You don’t want to be fat? Fine, don’t be. But don’t start making blanket statements about connections with health that you don’t understand, and using the “but it’s obvious!” non-argument to make your case, and expect anyone to take it seriously. Also, don’t assume that the rest of us ascribe to any so-called “popular” notion of attractiveness. I certainly do not.

“If we cannot say that people should lose weight, who are we to say that people should gain weight?”

Someone can be starving to death and need to gain weight (because it’s been shown, over and over, that without food you do indeed waste away and die, regardless of who you are). But no, nobody on the street can be *sure* of that. In fact, last time I checked, health and medical issues are *private,* and are supposed to be your and your doctor’s business. The point is, no one can tell by looking at someone what their health problems were, and even if they could, then it woulds STILL BE NONE OF THEIR DAMN BUSINESS.

The problem with our society (in respect to weight issues) is that people make other people’s weight their business. Family members, friends, teachers, bosses, colleagues, and strangers feel free to comment on your body, what you’re eating, or subject you to long tirades on their own weight issues, eating, dieting, etc. Food has become a symbol of morality and strength amongst more than just fringe circles, with Mickey Dees seen as the lowest of the low and vegan whole-foods local markets seen as the pinnacle of morality. People feel free to sneer at or feel superior to others (especially if they’re fat) if they’re seen eating the “wrong” foods, buying the “wrong” groceries, or feeding their kids the “wrong” foods. Think I’m exaggerating? Ask any fat person who’s grocery-shopped. Ask someone who eats fast food in public if they don’t feel embarrassed if they think they’re eating the “wrong” foods, or if they feel proud if they just have a bottled water and an energy bar.

We’re taught to be “proud” of weight loss, that it’s an “accomplishment.” How can you extract that from morality? Accomplished = good, = better than non-accomplished, i.e., better than people who didn’t lose the weight. Weight loss, for all but the very thin, is generally seen as an accomplishment.

Gaining weight is seen as an accomplishment only in extreme cases, usually when dealing with people who are severely underweight. Even pregnant women are being increasingly coached not to gain “too much weight” during pregnancy, or they’ll risk having a big baby. Of course, this is completely unsupported by *any* evidence at all, at best a misinterpretation of diet.

The fact is, most of the commenters here can’t imagine a society where people *weren’t* morally judged based on their weight. Healthism is just another excuse for passing moral judgment on those you believe are being “willingly” unhealthful. Athletic injuries are quite common; and, you can easily argue, athletes bring them on themselves by being athletes in the first place. Yet there is no vilification of these “unhealthy” people. &etc.

The Collective Act of Healthism

Check out this article on JFS today: Public health – the collective act of prevention

Here’s a quote (the first part is commentary by Dr. Steven H. Woolf, M.D., MPH, of the departments of Family Medicine, Epidemiology, and Community Health at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the second is Sandy’s beautifully terse, and quite accurate, summary):

History teaches that citizens and leaders make sweeping changes when they sense a mutual threat. Lifestyles change and schisms give way to accommodation when national security feels threatened (eg, wartime, climate change). Finding the economy and public health in decline may be what rouses the public to get serious about prevention. Self-interest (living longer and healthier) and common interest (economic stability) may inspire the personal sacrifice of getting healthy and the collective sacrifice (by the private sector and the state) of mobilizing the resources to make it happen.

In other words, the duty of citizenry is a collective act of healthism. We already know where this philosophy has led humanity in the past.

As a libertarian FA blog, I thought that it was important for me to emphasize her point, here, and the thrust of the article. Though collectivism often has grand and good intentions (all people prosperous, happy, healthy, etc) it has had historically disastrous consequences (often resulting in a fascist, power-hungry, insider-network state where millions can be eradicated with no media protest – read up on the Stalinist regime).

In fact, the attempt to achieve collectivism has often resulted in the very opposite of that for which it was intended — instead of equality, there is institutional classism based on whatever set of defining, categorical characteristics is expedient at the time (often economic, though as we’ve seen from Sandy’s piece, these could also be healthist); instead of prosperity, there are food shortages for the great mass of people, and housing a mere step up from squalor; instead of happiness, there is rebellion, and anger, and a sense of great betrayal.

Everyone goes into collectivism thinking he is getting a Big Brother to take care of his worries — and he ends up with a Big Brother who cares more about setting and maintaining arbitrary and harmful controls on his person and his ability to speak, move, live, and think freely, than taking care of even his most basic needs.

Some of the greatest philosophers of the modern era have written about the necessity for government, at the same time protecting the economy (the marketplace) and individuals (the marketplace of ideas) from unreasonable encroachment. They defined “unreasonable” as equivalent to whatever encroaches upon a just definition of liberty (that is, liberty with standard rules of interaction, and moderate taxation to provide for moderate, necessary services that a private company would not reasonably undertake, like maintenance of roads).

And, with these definitions, the country prospered at a far faster rate than any other regime in recorded history. Poverty was no longer a life- or generation-sentence. It could be individually eradicated (not always, of course, but in comparison to other regimes of institutionalized poverty based on class, it was, and continues to be, a soaring success). The encouragement of a marketplace of ideas saw technological advancement on a scale historically unheard of, and a discouragement of discrimination based on religious or philosophical dogma (again, there are exceptions, but comparatively another soaring success). The marketplace of ideas also saw eradication of slavery on a massive scale, and later gave birth to the civil rights movement. Considering how long slavery and race/sex discrimination had been the norm — ten-thousand years? — to be addressed and for the most part systematically discouraged or eradicated in two hundred years is a testament to the success of liberty and individualism, rather than control and collectivism.

Do we really want to turn our back on the most successful, egalitarian, prosperous working model of a government in history? Do we really want to give into fear and adopt a Big Brother in the name of healthism, when our health has done nothing but improve over the past 100 years?

Know this: government, unhindered, is a dangerous thing. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Collectivist dreams are just that — dreams. The reality is far more gruesome. There’s one thing we can say quite confidently about government institutions — they’re always lobbying for more power and money. Behind the institutions are non-profits who want more power, and corporations who want to take advantage of a flaw in our system which is pipelining cash into their pockets (note: if the flaw didn’t exist, these corporations would not have this power).

I’m going to post further on healthism, and its parallels to other classist systems. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts.

The flaw in our system which is allowing corruption, and henceforth the push for a healthist collectivist regime, is the allowance of and non-disclosure of interest. If interested parties were forced to disclose or, even better, not allowed to contribute to writing policy which could potentially serve their interests, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Power cannot be wielded in the absence of trust. Hence the great danger in propaganda: if the people trust you, they will believe anything that comes out of your mouth. Then you can make them afraid. And when people are afraid, they’re at your mercy. They will jump off a cliff if you tell them it will help beat back that thing you fear, especially if it helps save your children. Every political babe in arms knows this. Don’t you see why it’s absolutely necessary government be constrained and not allowed to grow too large, or obtain enough power?

There’s a fine balance to maintain between the people and the size of their government, and it requires eternal vigilance. That is the greatest, and most unique observation by Publius. It is the reason for the success of political democracy, and we’ll damn ourselves and our children to fascism, control, poverty, murder, and fear by rejecting it.