The obesogenic environment refers to “the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals and populations.” The obesogenic environment encompasses the infrastructural, social, and culture conditions that influence people’s ability and willingness to engage in health seeking behaviours. These include the advertising and availability of high calorie food, the lack of safe green spaces for activity and play, and the motorisation of daily life. 

It represents an ecological lens for understanding and solving the ‘problem of obesity,’ shifting the responsibility for fatness from individuals to environmental factors, and highlights that certain populations (poor people; usually people of color) live in environments that put them at greater risk for fatness. Concerns over obesogenic environments have resulted in providing fruit and vegetable vouchers to pregnant women in Scotland, banning new fast-food restaurants in lower-income areas in Los Angeles, and sugar taxes across a range of countries. 

Anna Kirkland notes that the obesogenic environmental approach to fatness may seem structural, but “it ultimately redounds to a micropolitics of food choice dominated by elite norms of consumption and movement.” She argues that such collective framing usually devolves quickly to “intrusive, moralising, and punitive direction” of the lives of fat people. Some might suggest that the focus on the obesogenic environment is welcome change from the neoliberal focus on individual responsibility and blame, but it would be incorrect to suggest that this view is any less fatphobic. And like with most dominant beliefs about, and approaches to, fatness, there appears to be little evidence to support the theory of the obesogenic environment.

For example, Lily O’Hara and Jane Taylor highlight systematic reviews that find little evidence of a significant relationship between the use and availability of active transport and physical activity levels in adults, or between the food environment that surrounds an individual and their ‘obesogenic’ dietary habits. They go further to illustrate the lack of evidence to support the theory of the obesogenic environment by reviewing an intervention enacted in schools in Arkansas and Louisiana in the United States. Schools across these states required healthy food options in cafeterias and at bake sales, banned food and beverage advertising, and removed vending machines; yet no significant change in the body weights of the students was found. 

The obesogenic environmental perspective shakes it head at fatness, “poor fatties, they were powerless to stop the fattening; they could not make good choices in their environments.” This paternalistic view sits nicely in the fatphobic rhetoric of the left/progressives. Instead of believing that fat people have made bad choices and deserve the consequences of their irresponsible actions, progressives instead position fat people as being unable to make good choices, due largely to their environments, and therefore deserving of pity rather than scorn. Neither position is conducive to fat liberation as both views position fatness as a problem to be solved. 

Within Fat Studies, a more appropriate focus would be on the “particular social, cultural, political, and economic environments that can make living as a fat body problematic.” We could refer to this environment as the fatpocalypse environment: the context in which fat people live all around the world, especially in Western countries, who have declared war on fat people in their efforts to eradicate fat bodies from their populations. The fatpocalypse environment defines fat bodies as immoral, diseased, and unworthy of equal protection under the law. The fatpocalypse environment creates structural discrimination against fat people across sectors such as housing, employment, education, and healthcare. It elevates non-fat people, alongside other appropriate ways to have a body, such as able-bodied, cis-gendered, and free from hair in inappropriate places. The fatpocalypse environment positions fat people as enemies of progress, interfering in what would surely have otherwise been successful attempts to resolve such issues as climate change, terrorism, and COVID-19. Many have argued that fat people are to blame for global warming and consumerism. At present, Western governments are insisting that the reason their countries have uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreaks, and so many deaths, are not because of their lack of pandemic preparedness. Rather, they have suggested that the blame lies on the bellies of fat people, who are somehow responsible for the poor morbidity and mortality results of the pandemic.    

About the Author

Cat Pausé

Cat Pausé, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in Human Development at Massey University. She is the lead editor of Queering Fat Embodiment (2014, Ashgate), and coordinated two international conferences – Fat Studies: Reflective Intersections (2012) and Fat Studies: Identity, Agency, Embodiment (2016). Fat Studies: Past, Present, Futures is running in Auckland, New Zealand in 2020. Her research is focused on the effects of fat stigma on health and well-being on fat individuals and how fat activists resist the fatpocalypse. She has called for a new fat ethics, acknowledging the role science has played in the oppression of fat people and ensuring that research around fatness centers fat epistemology. Her work appears in scholarly journals including Fat Studies, Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, Feminist Review, and Narrative Inquiries in Bioethics, as well as online in the Huffington Post, NPR, The Conversation, and in her blog (Friend of Marilyn). Her fat positive radio show, Friend of Marilyn, has been showcasing fat studies scholarship and fat activism since 2011.

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