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This paper analyzes the impact of obesity on the individual and society in Australia and discusses possible effective solutions for this problem.
Nutritionists describe obesity in terms of energy imbalance, usually caused by excessive calorie consumption and insufficient physical activity. In a previous era it might have been described, perhaps more usefully, in terms of gluttony and sloth. As with other excesses, promotion of gluttony-a form of overconsumption that directly affects the body-is a product of consumer society. Food manufacturers compete fiercely to win market share by engineering foods that appeal to the palate. The result is that most of the foods offered today in supermarkets and fast-food outlets are laced with fat, sugar and salt. This fierce competition does not simply persuade consumers to change from one product to another: it also means that consumers eat more.
More than forty per cent of Australian adults are now overweight (defined as having a body mass index over 25) or obese (body mass index over 30); 14 per cent of adolescents are in the same category (Gilman 2004: 23-27). This is a new phenomenon. The prevalence of obesity among adolescents has trebled in the past two decades. As with many other aspects of social change, Australia and the US lead the way, showing the future of the rest of the industrialised world.
Although genetic and metabolic factors play a role, the principal causes of the spread of obesity are behavioural and socio-cultural. Some people are better able to resist the temptations offered by food manufacturers. The overwhelming majority of obese people overeat for psychological reasons, just as other people indulge in overconsumption of cars, clothes and houses for psychological reasons. The so-called epidemic of obesity has occurred only in the last twenty or, at most, thirty years. Yet, as with other addictions and social pathologies (including ADD), it is safer to medicalise the problem and thus refer to it as an epidemic (Gilman 2004: 23-27).
Of course, medical problems are ones sorted out between patient and doctor and are best cured by drugs and surgery, especially drugs, so that the pharmaceutical industry can expand to undo the effects of the food industry. One of the primary demands of the obesity lobby is for obesity to be given formal medical status so that health insurance companies are required to pay for treatment. Both the pharmaceutical and the food industries profit from obesity and, once again, the medical profession and drug companies play a crucial role in diverting us from asking what it is about the society that gives rise to these pathologies.
The medical profession thus helps to validate overconsumption. According to the authors of an article in the British Medical Journal:
... the driving force for the increasing prevalence of obesity in populations is the increasingly obesogenic environment rather than any pathology in metabolic defects or genetic mutations within individuals. A paradigm shift to understanding obesity as normal physiology within a pathological environment signposts the directions for a wider public health approach to the obesity problem (Qtd in Sheehan 2003:13)
The impact of obesity on the individual and the society
Obese people may be thought of as behaving normally in a sick social environment, although characterising obesity as a public health problem should not conceal the fact that it is in reality a social pathology that spills over into health problems. Like all species, humans instinctively conserve energy, expending just what they need to feed and breed. The basic instinct is to minimise activity, something the modern sedentary lifestyle in rich countries permits as never before. Obesity, then, is an environmental health problem reflecting both the range of food choices available and the opportunity to reduce physical activity. Medical solutions to obesity will not work because they fail to tackle the causes. Prevention requires wholesale change in the culture of consumption, which itself is a reaction to the emptiness of affluence. This is not meant as an attack on people who have succumbed to obesity; they, after all, are the victims. Yet overweight people are often vilified; not, one suspects, for being too weak to resist temptation, but for revealing in such a confronting way the secret of overconsumption.
Consumption no longer occurs in order to meet human needs; its purpose now is to manufacture identity. The nature of consumption spending has changed from an activity aimed at acquiring status through displays of wealth to one of creating the self through association with certain products and brands. Consumers no longer want to keep up with ordinary goods; people want to be unique and different. The transformation of useful goods into lifestyle accessories has implications for production as well as consumption. In order for goods to serve as the accoutrements of lifestyle they must have additional qualities built into them, and the extra costs form part of their value. These extra costs are partly those of product differentiation and partly those of creating and renewing the image and the brand. Almost all consumer goods now have luxurious or stylistic aspects built into them that inflate their prices. This price inflation sometimes raises the cost of a product several times beyond the level required to make an item that satisfies some reasonable need for sustenance, shelter, clothing, education or entertainment.
Watches that sell for $2000, sunglasses with $700 price tags, running shoes and shirts that cost $200, highly engineered and luxuriously appointed cars for $50 000 and more, houses with double the necessary floor space-all these have features that are redundant and some have features that are undetectable even to the consumer. A fake Rolex is indistinguishable from a genuine one, except that the wearer knows he is only pretending to be the person he wants to pretend to be. Next to a photo of a stylish young mother with a smiling baby on her back, a magazine advertises what every mother and baby wants for their afternoon stroll, a chinchilla baby backpack selling for $12 000 (plus a matching chinchilla collar and cuffs for mother, priced at $4995) (Magarey, Daniels, and Boulton 2001: 562).
This value-inflation process is essential, since in its absence consumers would be unable to spend the incomes that have resulted from decades of sustained economic growth. In other words, in those parts of the world where most people have everything they could reasonably want in order to satisfy even sophisticated needs, people are faced with a conundrum: they must keep spending, and they must be persuaded to spend more. Indeed, much consumer spending today is not aimed at acquiring goods and services but is itself a form of entertainment.
A doctor, for instance, is bored with his job and his family and must always have a project to keep himself entertained-a second house that needs renovation, another house at the beach, a farm outside town, an overseas trip for professional development, a share in a racehorse, extensions to the family home. This is the pattern of restless over-consumers, who deploy their wealth as a means of avoiding confrontation with the essential meaningless of life that they fear may lie just below the surface. They keep themselves amused by changing the form of their assets.
Consumer society is built on self-delusion.
Australian consumers are often not conscious of being motivated by social status and are far more likely to attribute such motives to others than themselves. People live with high levels of psychological denial about the connection between the buying habits and the social statements individuals make.
It cannot be otherwise, for in creating an identity consumers believe they are living out authentic selves. If they admit that their purchasing decisions are social statements they are admitting that they are living false lives. Most consumer spending is therefore defensive in character; it must be maintained in order to avoid the realisation that individuals have no place in society, that they do not fit anywhere and so have no real self. Regardless of the longevity of the products purchased, the need to constantly recreate identity is relentless, and this fact is the psychological issue for the reproduction of modern consumer capitalism.
Wastefulness is thus essential to sustaining modern consumer capitalism in Australia. But it is a new form of waste: it is not the waste of packaging or built-in obsolescence; it is waste arising from the fact that the physical properties of the goods purchased are not the things being consumed. It is the style, the attitude and the image associated with the product that is consumed. The product itself is redundant. The ultimate product would be one with no substance at all but that could nevertheless be displayed; an invisible item whose symbols alone could be attached to the purchaser. Platinum credit cards come close to this. But most display involves the generation of huge amounts of waste, and the natural environment pays the price. There is, therefore, an intimate relationship between the creation of self in consumer capitalism and the destruction of the natural world. This is the unbridgeable gulf between the sustainability that politicians and business people talk about and the deep ecology of the environmentalists. Protecting the natural world requires not only far-reaching changes in the way we use the natural environment: it calls for a radical transformation of our selves.