Skip to content

Bodies In and Out of Shape: Obesity (Discourses) and Agency in Times of Self-Optimization

Sabine Sielke

Pages 511 - 533



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Creative Commons License

This essay examines a seeming paradox: on the one hand, current digital technologies and new knowledges in the biosciences and medicine have enabled us to track and optimize our bodies’ physiology and shape, driving many into adopting a rigid regime of “self-perfection.” On the other hand, bodies, all over the world, have become increasingly overweight, if not obese. What once was most evident in the United States has turned into a global “epidemic,” some argue, while others focus on and critique the oversupply of fattening foods and the medicalization of obesity. In its first part, this paper interrogates various accounts of this polarized development and traces the collision of discourses on fatness and fitness. As research illuminatingly highlights how we have come to “embody” neoliberalism, the central concern, in part two, is how discourses on obesity and self-optimization continue to put agency on the line, making it increasingly hard to weigh individual “input” and responsibility. As a consequence, these debates encourage the exploration of alternative models of agency.

Keywords: obesity; self-optimization; Fat Studies; food industry; agency

1 Andersen, Martin Marchman, and Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen. “Personal Responsibility and Lifestyle Diseases.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 41.5 (2016): 480-99. Print.

2 Bahnsen, Ulrich. “Darf ich?” Die Zeit 23 Jan. 2020: 29. Print.

3 Bauman, Zygmunt. Retrotopia. Cambridge: Polity, 2017. Print.

4 Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

5 Boero, Natalie. “Fat Kids, Working Moms, and the ‘Epidemic of Obesity.’” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther D. Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009. 113-19. Print.

6 Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Our Bodies, Ourselves. Boston, MA: New England Free Press, 1971. Print.

7 Boyle, T. C. The Road to Wellville. New York: Viking, 1993. Print.

8 Brittany Runs a Marathon. Dir. Paul Downs Colaizzo. Amazon Studios, 2019. Film.

9 Brown, Peter J. “Culture and the Evolution of Obesity.” Human Nature 2.1 (1991): 31-57. Print.

10 Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-31. Print.

11 Cederström, Carl, and André Spicer. The Wellness Syndrome. Cambridge: Polity, 2015. Print.

12 Cernik, Lizzie. “It’s Not Fine to Be Fat: Celebrating Obesity Is Irresponsible.” The Guardian. Guardian Media Group, 10 Apr. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

13 Chapman, Roger, and James Ciment, eds. Culture Wars in America: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2015. Print.

14 Craig, Pippa. “Obesity and Culture.” Clinical Obesity in Adults and Children. Ed. Peter G. Kopelman, Ian D. Caterson, and William H. Dietz. 3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 41-57. Print.

15 Crawford, Robert. “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life.” International Journal of Health Services 7.4 (1980): 365-88. Print.

16 Dockterman, Eliana. “Inside the Fight to Take Back the Fitting Room.” Diversity Now 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

17 Farrell, Amy Erdman. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2011. Print.

18 Frehse, Lea, and Henning Sußebach. “Eine deutsche Sache.” Zeit Online. Zeit Online, 5 Sept. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

19 Gard, Michael, and Jan Wright. The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.

20 Gardner, Benjamin, Philippa Lally, and Jane Wardle. “Making Health Habitual: The Psychology of ‘Habit-Formation’ and General Practice.” British Journal of General Practice 62.605 (2012): 664-66. Print.

21 The GBD 2015 Obesity Collaborators. “Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 Years.” New England Journal of Medicine. Massachusetts Medical Society, 6 July 2017. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

22 Goni-Lessan, Ana. “Sex, Drugs, and Fentanyl.” DigBoston. DigBoston, 15 Aug. 2019. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

23 Gremillion, Helen. “The Cultural Politics of Body Size.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34 (2005): 13-32. Print.

24 Guthman, Julie. Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism. Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. Print.

25 Guthman, Julie, and Melanie DuPuis. “Embodying Neoliberalism: Economy, Culture, and the Politics of Fat.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24.3 (2006): 427-48. Print.

26 Guthold, Regina, et al. “Worldwide Trends in Insufficient Physical Activity from 2001 to 2016.” The Lancet. Elsevier, 4 Sep. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

27 Henricks, Thomas. “Self-Improvement as Cultural Illness.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 10 Jan. 2016. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

28 Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance.” Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History. Ed. Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz. New York: Routledge. 292-97. Print.

29 Kaulen, Hildegard. “Kinder wie Basketbälle.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 Sept. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

30 Komaroff, Marina. “For Researchers on Obesity: Historical Review of Extra Body Weight Definitions.” Journal of Obesity (2016): 2460285. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

31 Krashinsky, Susan. “Kellogg’s Special K Rebrands Dieting Image with Self-Empowerment.” Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 21 Sep. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

32 Krebs, Paul, and Dustin T. Duncan. “Health App Use Among US Mobile Phone Owners: A National Survey.” JMIR Mhealth Uhealth 3.4 (2015). Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

33 Lupton, Deborah. “Explainer: What Is Fat Studies?” The Conversation. The Conversation Trust (UK), 21 Sep. 2016. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

34 ---. Fat. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

35 ---. The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. London: Polity, 2016. Print.

36 Martschukat, Jürgen. Das Zeitalter der Fitness: Wie der Körper zum Zeichen von Erfolg und Leistung wurde. Frankfurt: Fischer, 2019. Print.

37 Milanovic, Branko. Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2019. Print.

38 National Women’s History Museum (NWHM). “How Highly Processed Foods Liberated 1950s Housewives.” 11 May 2017. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

39 Oerding, Henrik. “Die Welt ist unsportlich.” Zeit Online. Zeit Online, 5 Sept. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

40 Poole, Steven. You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture. London: Union, 2012. Print.

41 Powell, Alvin. “The Whys of Rising Obesity.” The Harvard Gazette. Harvard University, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

42 Putnam. Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

43 Reckwitz, Andreas. Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. Print.

44 Reichardt, Ulfried. “Self-Observation in the Digital Age: The Quantified Self, Neoliberalism, and the Paradoxes of Contemporary Individualism.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 63.1 (2018): 99-114. Print.

45 Rothblum, Esther D. “Why a Journal on Fat Studies.” Fat Studies 1.1 (2012): 3-5. Web. 20 May 2021.

46 Saguy, Abigail C., and Kevin W. Riley. “Weighing Both Sides: Morality, Mortality, and Framing Contests Over Obesity.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 30.5 (2005): 869-921. Print.

47 Schrempf-Stirling, Judith, and Robert A. Phillips. “Agency and Responsibility: The Case of the Food Industry and Obesity.” A Handbook of Food Crime: Immoral and Illegal Practices in the Food Industry. Ed. Allison Gray and Ronald Hinch. Bristol: Policy, 2018. 111-26. Print.

48 Scriver, Ama. “Can We Talk about Special K’s New Body Positive Campaign?” Personal website. 6 Dec. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

49 Simmank, Jacob, and Sven Stockrahm. “So süß, so gefährlich.” Zeit Online. Zeit Online, 4 Apr. 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

50 Spiller, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64-81. Print.

51 Stearns, Peter N. Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. New York: NYU Press, 1997. Print.

52 Straub, Jürgen. “Selbstoptimierung im Zeichen der ‘Auteronomie’: Paradoxe Strukturen der normierten Selbststeigerung: Von der ‘therapeutischen Kultur’ zur ‘Optimierungskultur.’” Psychotherapie & Sozialwissenschaft 15.2 (2013): 5-38. Print.

53 Sweeney, Chris. “Five Habits That Make for a Fit Family.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard University, 4 July 2018. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

54 Tulatz, Kaja. “Obesity, Political Responsibility, and the Politics of Needs.” Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 22.2 (2019): 305-15. Print.

55 UN News. “North Korean Families Facing Deep ‘Hunger Crisis’ after Worst Harvest in 10 Years, UN Food Assessment Shows.” United Nations, 3 May 2019. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

56 Walker, Sarai. Dietland. 2015. Boston: Mariner, 2016. Print.

57 Wann, Marilyn. “Foreword: Fat Studies. An Invitation to Revolution.” The Fat Studies Reader. Ed. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York: NYU Press, 2009. ix-xxv. Print.

58 Warin, Megan “Material Feminism, Obesity Science and the Limits of Discursive Critique.” Body & Society 21.4 (2015): 48-76. Print.

59 World Health Organization (WHO). “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.” 2004. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

60 ---. Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic. WHO Technical Report Series 894. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2000. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

61 ---. “Obesity and Overweight.” 2020. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

62 “Self-Tracking: Rund jeder Dritte würde gesundheitsbezogene Daten an Krankenversicherer weitergeben.” 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.

63 Zeyn, Martin. “Weltmacht Scham,” Deutschlandfunk. Deutschlandradio, 26 Jan. 2020. Web. 26 Jan. 2021.


Export Citation