Individual versus corporate responsibility

Article: Individual versus corporate responsibility
By: Samantha Kwan
There is a pervasive belief in modern Western societies that bodies are malleable and that the
fat body is a product of individual choice. Despite biological and social limitations, individuals
often think that the body is an achievable state and a reflection of moral fiber (Edgley and
Brissett 1990). As Susan Bordo (2003) aptly describes, unwanted bulges are metaphors for
internal processes out of control—uncontained desire, unrestrained hunger, uncontrolled
impulse. Jeffery Sobal (1995) labels body discourses that centralize agency as “moral models of
fatness.” These models suggest that fat is bad and that fat people are weak and lacking in
willpower. Moral models of fatness place blame on overweight individuals and hold them
responsible for their bodies. The prevalence of these models corresponds in part to the
widespread stigma, stereotyping, and discrimination that fat individuals experience in
contemporary Western societies (Puhl and Brownell 2001).
In recent years, however, talk about the fat body has expanded and the role of social structural
influences on body type has entered public discourse. For example, nutritionists now point to
the food industry’s role in creating a “toxic environment” that facilitates weight gain (Brownell
and Horgen 2004). Moreover, research on “obesity causal claims” in the print media documents
the growing presence of a “systemic frame” or perspective on obesity (Lawrence 2004). Unlike
“individualizing frames” that limit causes to individuals, systemic frames have a broader focus
and acknowledge multiple social forces that shape consumption patterns such as the
abundance of inexpensive unhealthy foods. In popular culture, Morgan Spurlock’s Oscarnominated film Super Size Me (2004) and Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book Fast Food Nation
(2001) underscore the role of the fast food industry. Today, public discourse on fat not only
implicates the individual, but also the food industry as a culprit in the so-called “obesity
epidemic.”1 In sum, while individual agency is usually central to discussions of the fat body,
recently there has been some acknowledgment of the role that social structural forces play in
shaping body type.
In this paper, I examine meanings about the fat body in light of these issues of agency and
structure.2 Specifically, I examine the role of the food industry in shaping body type, the food
industry’s position, and lay perspectives. I begin by examining how the food industry shapes
consumption patterns by creating a “toxic environment” and the various public responses that
have emerged to induce corporate responsibility. I then turn to the food industry’s position—a
perspective that emphasizes agency that I label a “market choice” frame. With this discursive
context set, I then assess the resonance of this frame, paying specific attention to the issue of
responsibility. How do individuals, especially those who are central to these issues, think about
the fat body and issues of responsibility? Do they align themselves with industry’s position? Are
moral models of fatness still pervasive? To address these questions, I turn to original survey
data collected from respondents of various body sizes (n = 456) and interview data collected
from “overweight” respondents (n = 42). As a whole, the data point to resonance of industry
views and a strong belief in individual responsibility. In other words, moral models of fatness
remain pervasive. After I present my findings, I discuss their social implications.

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