In the past twenty years the discourse of the weight-centred health paradigm (WCHP) has attained almost complete dominance in the sphere of public health policy throughout the developed English speaking world. The national governments of Australia and many countries around the world have responded to what is perceived as an ‘epidemic of obesity’ with public health policies and programs explicitly focused on reducing and preventing obesity through so called ‘lifestyle’ behaviour change.
Weight-related public health initiatives have been subjected to extensive critique based on ideological, ethical and empirical grounds (Solovay; Oliver; Gaesser; Gard; Monaghan, Colls and Evans; Wright; Rothblum and Solovay; Saguy; Rich, Monaghan and Aphramor; Bacon and Aphramor; Brown). Many scholars have raised concerns about the stigmatising and harmful effects of the WCHP (Aphramor; Bacon and Aphramor; O'Dea; Tylka et al.), and in particular the inequitable distribution of such negative impacts on women, people who are poor, and people of colour (Campos). Weight-based stigma is now well recognised as a pervasive and insidious form of stigma (Puhl and Heuer). Weight-based discrimination (a direct result of stigma) in the USA has a similar prevalence rate to race-based discrimination, and discrimination for fatter and younger people in particular is even higher (Puhl, Andreyeva and Brownell). Numerous scholars have highlighted the stigmatising discourse evident in obesity prevention programs and policies (O'Reilly and Sixsmith; Pederson et al.; Nuffield Council on Bioethics; ten Have et al.; MacLean et al.; Carter, Klinner, et al.; Fry; O'Dea; Rich, Monaghan and Aphramor). The ‘war on obesity’ can therefore be regarded as a social determinant of poor health (O'Hara and Gregg). Focusing on overweight and obese people is not only damaging to people’s health, but is ineffective in addressing the broader social and economic issues that create health and wellbeing (Cohen, Perales and Steadman; MacLean et al.; Walls et al.).
Analyses of the discourses used in weight-related public health initiatives have highlighted oppressive, stigmatizing and discriminatory discourses that position body weight as pathological (O'Reilly; Pederson et al.), anti-social and a threat to the viable future of society (White). There has been limited analysis of discourses in Australian social marketing campaigns focused on body weight (Lupton; Carter, Rychetnik, et al.).
Social Marketing Campaigns
In 2006 the Australian, State and Territory Governments funded the Measure Up social marketing campaign (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing "Measure Up"). As the name suggests Measure Up focuses on the measurement of health through body weight and waist circumference. Campaign resources include brochures, posters, a tape measure, a 12 week planner, a community guide and a television advertisement. Campaign slogans are ‘The more you gain, the more you have to lose’ and ‘How do you measure up?’
Tomorrow People is the component of Measure Up designed for Indigenous Australians (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing "Tomorrow People"). Tomorrow People resources focus on healthy eating and physical activity and include a microsite on the Measure Up website, booklet, posters, print and radio advertisements. The campaign slogan is ‘Tomorrow People starts today. Do it for our kids. Do it for our culture.’
In 2011, phase two of the Measure Up campaign was launched (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing "Swap It, Don't Stop It"). The central premise of Swap It, Don’t Stop It is that you ‘can lose your belly without losing all the things you love’ by making ‘simple’ swaps of behaviours related to eating and physical activity. The campaign’s central character Eric is made from a balloon, as are all of the other characters and visual items used in the campaign. Eric claims that
over the years my belly has ballooned and ballooned. It’s come time to do something about it — the last thing I want is to end up with some cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That’s why I’ve become a Swapper! What’s a swapper? It’s simple really. It just means swapping some of the things I’m doing now for healthier choices. That way I can lose my belly, without losing all the things I love. It’s easy!
The campaign has produced around 30 branded resource items including brochures, posters, cards, fact sheets, recipes, and print, radio, television and online advertisements. All resources include references to Eric and most also include the image of the tape measure used in the Measure Up campaign. The Swap It, Don’t Stop It campaign also includes resources specifically directed at Indigenous Australians including two posters from the generic campaign with a dot painting motif added to the background.
The epistemological position in this project was constructivist (Crotty) and the theoretical perspective was critical theory (Crotty). Multimedia critical discourse analysis (Machin and Mayr) was the methodology used to examine the social marketing campaigns and identify the discourses within them. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) focuses on critiquing text for evidence of power and ideology. CDA is used to reveal the ideas, absences and assumptions, and therefore the power interests buried within texts, in order to bring about social change. As a method, CDA has a structured three dimensional approach involving textual practice analysis (for lexicon) at the core, within the context of discursive practice analysis (for rhetorical and lexical strategies particularly with respect to claims-making), which falls within the context of social practice analysis (Jacobs). Social practice analysis explores the role played by power and ideology in supporting or disturbing the discourse (Jacobs; Machin and Mayr). Multimodal CDA (MCDA) uses a broad definition of text to include words, pictures, symbols, ideas, themes or any message that can be communicated (Machin and Mayr). Analysis of the social marketing campaigns involved examining the vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, visuals and overall structure of the text for textual, discursive and social practices.
Results and Discussion
The discourse of individual responsibility is strongly evident in the campaigns. In this discourse, it is ultimately the individual who is held responsible for their body weight and their health. The individual responsibility discourse is signified by the discursive practice of using epistemic (related to the truth or certainty) and deontic (compelling or instructing) modality words, particularly modal verbs and modal adverbs. High modality epistemic words are used to convince the reader of the certainty of statements and to portray the statement-maker as authoritative. High modality deontic words are used to instil power and authority in the instructions.
The extensive use of high modality epistemic and deontic words is demonstrated in the following paragraph assembled from various campaign materials: Ultimately (epistemic modality adverb) individuals must take responsibility (deontic modality verb) for their own health, including their and weight. Obesity is caused (epistemic modality verb) by an imbalance in energy intake (from diet) (epistemic modality verb) and expenditure (from activity) (epistemic modality verb). Individually (epistemic modality adverb) we make decisions (epistemic modality verb) about how much we eat (epistemic modality verb) and how much activity we undertake (epistemic modality verb). Each of us can control (epistemic modality) our own weight by controlling (deontic modality) what we eat (deontic modality verb) and how much we exercise (deontic modality verb). To correct (deontic modality verb) the energy imbalance, individuals need to develop (deontic modality verb) a healthy lifestyle by making changes (deontic modality verb) to correct (deontic modality verb) their dietary habits and increase (deontic modality verb) their activity levels. The verbs must, control, correct, develop, change, increase, eat and exercise are deontic modality verbs designed to instruct or compel the reader.
These discursive practices result in the clear message that individuals can and must control, correct and change their eating and physical activity, and thereby control their weight and health. The implication of the individualist discourse is that individuals, irrespective of their genes, life-course, social position or environment, are charged with the responsibility of being more self-surveying, self-policing, self-disciplined and self-controlled, and therefore healthier. This is consistent with the individualist orientation of neoliberal ideology, and has been identified in various critiques of obesity prevention public health programs that centralise the self-responsible subject (Murray; Rich, Monaghan and Aphramor) and the concept of ‘healthism’, the moral obligation to pursue health through healthy behaviours or healthy lifestyles (Aphramor and Gingras; Mansfield and Rich). The hegemonic Western-centric individualist discourse has also been critiqued for its role in subordinating or silencing other models of health and wellbeing including Aboriginal or indigenous models, that do not place the individual in the centre (McPhail-Bell, Fredericks and Brough).
Obesity Causes Disease
Epistemic modality verbs are used as a discursive practice to portray the certainty or probability of the relationship between obesity and chronic disease. The strength of the epistemic modality verbs is generally moderate, with terms such as ‘linked’, ‘associated’, ‘connected’, ‘related’ and ‘contributes to’ most commonly used to describe the relationship. The use of such verbs may suggest recognition of uncertainty or at least lack of causality in the relationship. However this lowered modality is counterbalanced by the use of verbs with higher epistemic modality such as ‘causes’, ‘leads to’, and ‘is responsible for’. For example:
The other type is intra-abdominal fat. This is the fat that coats our organs and causes the most concern. Even though we don’t yet fully understand what links intra-abdominal fat with chronic disease, we do know that even a small deposit of this fat increases the risk of serious health problems’. (Swap It, Don’t Stop It Website; italics added)
Thus the prevailing impression is that there is an objective, definitive, causal relationship between obesity and a range of chronic diseases. The obesity-chronic disease discourse is reified through the discursive practice of claims-making, whereby statements related to the problem of obesity and its relationship with chronic disease are attributed to authoritative experts or expert organisations. The textual practice of presupposition is evident with the implied causal relationship between obesity and chronic disease being taken for granted and uncontested. Through the textual practice of lexical absence, there is a complete lack of alternative views about body weight and health. Likewise there is an absence of acknowledgement of the potential harms arising from focusing on body weight, such as increased body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, and, paradoxically, weight gain.
Shame and Blame
Both Measure Up and Swap It, Don’t Stop It include a combination of written/verbal text and visual images that create a sense of shame and blame. In Measure Up, the central character starts out as young, slim man, and as he ages his waist circumference grows. When he learns that his expanding waistline is associated with an increased risk of chronic disease, his facial expression and body language convey that he is sad, dejected and fearful. In the still images, this character and a female character are positioned looking down at the tape measure as they measure their ‘too large’ waists. This position and the looks on their faces suggest hanging their heads in shame. The male characters in both campaigns specifically express shame about “letting themselves go” by unthinkingly practicing ‘unhealthy’ behaviours. The characters’ clothing also contribute to a sense of shame. Both male and female characters in Measure Up appear in their underwear, which suggests that they are being publicly shamed. The clothing of the Measure Up characters is similar to that worn by contestants in the television program The Biggest Loser, which explicitly uses shame to ‘motivate’ contestants to lose weight. Part of the public shaming of contestants involves their appearance in revealing exercise clothing for weigh-ins, which displays their fatness for all to see (Thomas, Hyde and Komesaroff). The stigmatising effects of this and other aspects of the Biggest Loser television program are well documented (Berry et al.; Domoff et al.; Sender and Sullivan; Thomas, Hyde and Komesaroff; Yoo). The appearance of the Measure Up characters in their underwear combined with their head position and facial expressions conveys a strong, consistent message that the characters both feel shame and are deserving of shame due to their self-inflicted ‘unhealthy’ behaviours.
The focus on ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ behaviours contributes to accepted and contested health identities (Fry). The ‘accepted health identity’ is represented as responsible and aspiring to and pursuing good health. The ‘contested health identity’ is represented as unhealthy, consuming too much food, and taking health risks, and this identity is stigmatised by public health programs (Fry). The ‘contested health identity’ represents the application to public health of Goffman’s ‘spoiled identity’ on which much stigmatisation theorising and research has been based (Goffman). As a result of both lexical and visual textual practices, the social marketing campaigns contribute to the construction of the ‘accepted health identity’ through discourses of individual responsibility, choice and healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, they contribute to the construction of the spoiled or ‘contested health identity’ through discourses that people are naturally unhealthy and need to be frightened, guilted and shamed into stopping ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and adopting ‘healthy’ behaviours. The ‘contested health identity’ constructed through these discourses is in turn stigmatised by such discourses. Thus the campaigns not only risk perpetuating stigmatisation through the reinforcement of the health identities, but possibly extend it further by legitimising the stigma associated with such identities. Given that these campaigns are conducted by the Australian Government, the already deeply stigmatising social belief system receives a significant boost in legitimacy by being positioned as a public health belief system perpetrated by the Government.
Fear and Alarm
In the Measure Up television advertisement the main male character’s daughter, who has run into the frame, abruptly stops and looks fearful when she hears about his increased risk of disease. Using the discursive practice of claims-making, the authoritative external source informs the man that the more he gains (in terms of his waist circumference), the more he has to lose. The clear implication is that he needs to be fearful of losing his health, his family and even his life if he doesn’t reduce his waist circumference.
The visual metaphor of a balloon is used as the central semiotic trope in Swap It, Don’t Stop It. The characters and other items featuring in the visuals are all made from twisting balloons. Balloons themselves may not create fear or alarm, unless one is unfortunate to be afflicted with globophobia (Freed), but the visual metaphor of the balloon in the social marketing campaign had a range of alarmist meanings. At the population level, rates and/or costs of obesity have been described in news items as ‘ballooning’ (Body Ecology; Stipp; AFP; Thien and Begawan) with accompanying visual images of extremely well-rounded bodies or ‘headless fatties’ (Cooper). Rapid or significant weight gain is referred to in everyday language as ‘ballooning weight’. The use of the balloon metaphor as a visual device in Swap It, Don’t Stop It serves to reinforce and extend these alarmist messages. Further, there is no attempt in the campaigns to reduce alarm by including positive or neutral photographs or images of fat people. This visual semiotic absence – a form of cultural imperialism (Young) – contributes to the invisibilisation of ‘real life’ fat people who are not ashamed of themselves.
Habermas suggests that society evolves and operationalises through rational communication which includes the capacity to question the validity of claims made within communicative action (Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society). However the communicative action taken by the social marketing campaigns analysed in this study presents claims as uncontested facts and is therefore directorial about the expectations of individuals to take more responsibility for themselves, adopt certain behaviours and reduce or prevent obesity. Habermas argues that the lack or distortion of rational communication erodes relationships at the individual and societal levels (Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society; Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). The communicative actions represented by the social marketing campaigns represents a distortion of rational communication and therefore erodes the wellbeing of individuals (for example through internalised stigma, shame, guilt, body dissatisfaction, weight preoccupation, disordered eating and avoidance of health care), relationships between individuals (for example through increased blame, coercion, stigma, bias, prejudice and discrimination) and society (for example through stigmatisation of groups in the population on the basis of their body size and increased social and health inequity). Habermas proposes that power differentials work to distort rational communication, and that it is these distortions in communication that need to be the focal point for change (Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society; Habermas The Theory of Communicative Action: The Critique of Functionalist Reason; Habermas The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere). Through critical analysis of the discourses used in the social marketing campaigns, we identified that they rely on the power, authority and status of experts to present uncontested representations of body weight and ‘appropriate’ health responses to it. In identifying the discourses present in the social marketing campaigns, we hope to focus attention on and thereby disrupt the distortions in the practical knowledge of the weight-centred health paradigm in order to contribute to systemic reorientation and change.
Through the use of textual, discursive and social practices, the social marketing campaigns analysed in this study perpetuate the following concepts: everyone should be alarmed about growing waistlines and ‘ballooning’ rates of ‘obesity’; individuals are to blame for excess body weight, due to ignorance and the practice of ‘unhealthy behaviours’; individuals have a moral, parental, familial and cultural responsibility to monitor their weight and adopt ‘healthy’ eating and physical activity behaviours; such behaviour changes are easy to make and will result in weight loss, which will reduce risk of disease. These paternalistic campaigns evoke feelings of personal and parental guilt and shame, resulting in coercion to ‘take action’. They simultaneously stigmatise fat people yet serve to invisibilise them. Public health agencies must consider the harmful consequences of social marketing campaigns focused on body weight.
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