Gyms, Bodies, Posters and Direct Action in Summer Hill

A new gym recently opened in Summer Hill. The gym replaced the old Blockbuster video store – no doubt to the delight of some public health advocates.

As the renovations were finished a large poster appeared of a ‘ripped’ man and woman with the threatening challenging imperative – ‘Be The “After”‘.

I was initially taken aback when I first saw this poster. I hadn’t seen many women thumbing their gym shorts in Summer Hill. Or hooded men with six-packs glaring. Both seemed a little out-of-step with the inner-west-come-north-shore aesthetics of Summer Hill.

The following morning my local council member was handing out leaflets at Summer Hill train station. I stopped and asked if he had seen the poster. No, but he’d go and have a look.

A week or so passed and I got more used to the poster. The local council member was leafleting again. I asked him what he thought of the poster.

‘A little surprising. I spoke to the owner who said it was temporary but would remove it if people complained.’ The local member told me that even some women didn’t like it.

Several weeks passed. The poster remained. I took a photo of it to show friends and ask their opinions. Most thought it was pretty “full-on”, some wondered what my problem was.

My Problem

It is not the exposed flesh or sexual pose as such, but the portrayal of unrealistic body norms as an ideal. If the models were from the production – Nothing to Lose – or the This Girl Can advertisement then I wouldn’t have a problem.

The slogan – ‘Be The “After”‘ – is also problematic for the insistence assumption that everyone needs transforming. However, such transformations are unrealistic and damaging to health and well-being.

This picture from Threadless illustrates this point. Many of the images of fit and healthy bodies are like the unicorn – they don’t exist. They are often photo-shopped. However, they are held up as an achievable goal for everyone.

Runnin' Rhino

If we work hard and truly believe, we can transform ourselves into the “after”.

But in reality we are the rhino – anxiously sweating away on the treadmill wondering when we will transform into a unicorn.

Click this link for more of my thoughts on bodes, health and obesity.

Back to the poster

Yesterday afternoon I went to do some shopping. As I came into the car park I noticed the poster had been defaced. It appears I was not the only one in the community who didn’t like this poster. However, unlike my approach of going through the office of elected representatives to bring about change, these folks went with the swifter approach of direct action.

Paint covered the walls above the poster and it appears the woman’s torso had been cut out. I am not sure if this was because something had been written there and the owners cut it out or if the people responsible for the defacing cut it out.

While I think it is unfortunate that this will cost the owner in re-painting the walls – and other approaches are perhaps preferable (at least initially) – I do think it was effective in sending a swift message.

Coda

After taking this picture I noticed a young boy (10ish) walk out of the gym. I left and went into the shops. While in the shops, I turned and noticed the boy was taking a picture of me with a phone. I said “Hello”. He turned and ran.

After a few minutes I noticed another boy-teenager (17ish) in gym gear waiting in the foyer. I looked at him. He looked at me. I continued my shopping.

When I finished, after about 10mins, the older boy was still in the foyer. I walked passed him. He started following me. I walked through the car park. Still following me. I walked out of the car park and towards some shop windows. I could see his reflection (super sleuth move I know). I quickly turned around and walked directly at him. He turned. I sat down at a park bench. He walked away and back into the gym. Then, I remembered, I forgot to buy light globes.

Morally Indigestible Listicles: Food, Experts, and the Burden of Choice

Never Eat

The Sydney Morning Herald (via the Telegraph, London) has published another “no-nonsense-straight-shooting-science-based” listicle of the foods YOU SHOULD NEVER EAT AGAIN! These lists seem to appear at least once every week on some form of news website.

This current list is prefaced with references to recent British Medical Journal studies that turned upside down “everything we thought we knew about eating and drinking healthily”. Instead of saturated fats being “the killer”, it turns out carbohydrates are!

Put down that bacon & egg roll and get yourself a KFC Double-Down sandwich!

Surprisingly the article doesn’t question why these new claims have a stronger knowledge base than previous claims or how we can be sure that in a week there won’t be another “nutritional revolution” that will turn this all on its head and finger protein as Grandpa’s real killer.

Leaving aside the science-base of these claims – not to imply this is unimportant – what is most disturbing about these articles (and this article in particular) is the emphasis on individual food choices as the determining factor of health. “Expert” claims that “every bacon sandwich you eat knocks half an hour off your life” reinforce ideas that my heart disease or your diabetes are reducible to that sandwich or chocolate bar eaten six years ago.

When these factoids are spoken by folks in white coats during times of austerity cuts to health services there is a real danger of compounding already existing public health policy problems by pretending that structural influences can be addressed via a nice social marketing campaign or a Jamie Oliver TV show that teaches people how to cook, garden and “never eat those foods again”.

In the UK (where this article originated) David Cameron recently flagged that sick benefits may be cut from people who are obese and do not lose weight. The rationale for this idea is that obese people can lose weight simply by making “correct” and “healthy” food choices. However, according to Cameron, they aren’t making these choices because life is too good on benefits. Hence, cut the benefits and healthy food choices will be made.

While these listicle articles may be dismissed as “not too serious” or “a bit of fun”, they depend on and reinforce a moralistic and biopolitical perspective on the relation between food, choice and health. This perspective is often used to justify budget cuts to health services due to the expectation that health is simply a matter of individuals making the right choices.

In an article for Public Health Ethics, my colleague Donald B. Thompson and I argue that this perspective is morally and scientifically unjustified. Below is the introduction. If you’d like read the whole thing but the pay wall gets in the way send me an email.

Continue reading →

Bioethics, obesity and the harm principle

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Fat people should pay more to fly, because they weigh more and hence use more fuel.
Fat people can’t make good food choices so they should be coerced and stigmatized into making the right choice.
These and other spurious ideas are permitted to float around opinion pages of leading newspapers and journals because a) we think we have a fat people problem; b) shocking, blunt and simplistic solutions to complex problems are key ingredients to “click-bait”; and c) if we can reduce complex problems to economic calculations then we can pretend moralistic interventions into peoples lives are “neutral” because, hey it’s the raw numbers talking.
Anyway, in the below paper published this week I argue against Peter Singer and Dan Callahan’s attempts to justify direct interventions into the lives of fat people based on a simplistic use of the harm principle and a deep ignorance of empirical and public health research on obesity. Or as H.L. Mencken quipped, “For every human problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
If you can’t get beyond the paywall send me an email or message.

The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity

Abstract

Debate concerning the social impact of obesity has been ongoing since at least the 1980s. Bioethicists, however, have been relatively silent. If obesity is addressed it tends to be in the context of resource allocation or clinical procedures such as bariatric surgery. However, prominent bioethicists Peter Singer and Dan Callahan have recently entered the obesity debate to argue that obesity is not simply a clinical or personal issue but an ethical issue with social and political consequences.

This article critically examines two problematic aspects of Singer and Callahan’s respective approaches. First, there is an uncritical assumption that individuals are autonomous agents responsible for health-related effects associated with food choices. In their view, individuals are obese because they choose certain foods or refrain from physical activity. However, this view alone does not justify intervention. Both Singer and Callahan recognize that individuals are free to make foolish choices so long as they do not harm others. It is at this point that the second problematic aspect arises. To interfere legitimately in the liberty of individuals, they invoke the harm principle. I contend, however, that in making this move both Singer and Callahan rely on superficial readings of public health research to amplify the harm caused by obese individuals and ignore pertinent epidemiological research on the social determinants of obesity. I argue that the mobilization of the harm principle and corresponding focus on individual behaviours without careful consideration of the empirical research is itself a form of harm that needs to be taken seriously.

Keywords: obesity; Peter Singer; Dan Callahan; harm principle; public health

Mayes, C. (2015), The Harm of Bioethics: A Critique of Singer and Callahan on Obesity. Bioethics, 29: 217–221. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12089