Towards the end of the twentieth century the World Health Organization declared “obesity” a global epidemic. From 2001 onwards the term “globesity” came into use. “Globesity” is understood as a globally observable consequence of the spread of new “lifestyles” common in industrialized countries characterized by increased consumption of high-energy, industrially processed foodstuffs and low physical activity. According to this thesis, more and more people in the global North and increasingly also in the global South are “overweight” and suffer from “obesity,” measured by using the BMI. As “obesity” is classified as a risk factor for chronic, non-communicable diseases, “globesity” has been declared a public health crisis that threatens global society due to high healthcare costs and decreasing productivity.
More recently, a growing number of experts associated “globesity” also with the climate crisis, or to put it more precisely, understand both as sharing the same causes. They claim that the global food industry is accelerating both global warming and “globesity” in equal measure. Production and consumption of highly processed foodstuffs, so the argument goes, are not only responsible for environmental pollution and higher CO2 emissions but also lead to the spread of “obesity” worldwide. According to one well-received book on the dangers of “globesity,” this is resulting in even higher emissions. Cars with heavier loads burn more fuel, the authors suggest, and people who stay at home more consume more electricity, for example, by watching television for longer periods of time. In line with the study’s fat-phobic language, the authors argue that this in turn leads to insufficient physical activity, which then results in higher body weight.
Criticism of the global food industry is surely necessary. Exploitative working conditions, resource consumption, and diet products endanger the health of humanity irrespective of body weight. Yet widely accepted “globesity” narratives that see a direct correlation between the “obesity epidemic” and global warming contribute to fat shaming: to the subjection of fat people to greater pathologization and stigmatization by holding them responsible for their body size and the alleged global endangerment associated with it. This is particularly apparent in scientific calculations that situate CO2 emissions from persons with “obesity” in proportion to emissions caused by society as a whole, suggesting individual weight loss as a strategy against climate change.
Fat bodies function here as a sign of a double crisis: of climate and health. Protecting biodiversity is consequently construed as inseparable from realizing human rights (to a healthy environment). Despite the undisputed relevance of biodiversity, there is no room in these “globesity” narratives for the diversity of body forms: the global fight against “obesity” excludes being fat as a physical option.
“Globesity” instead evokes a fictional story with a long tradition that imagines thinness as the natural state – a status quo that “modern civilization” (and its spread from the global North) is now destroying. Changes to local diets resulting from the globalized food industry, so the argument goes, ultimately lead to uncontrolled weight gain in people in the global South. This narrative is racist, condescending and classist. It rehashes the colonial construction of “uncivilized” peoples who live “close to nature” and who cannot cope with the demands of a “modern” consumer society. It is no coincidence that in countries of the global North, “obesity” is considered first and foremost a problem of poor people and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and, thus, of demographic groups already portrayed as problematic and in need of intervention. Moreover, the narrative is contradictory and lacking in nuance, for only a limited part of the population can access industrially processed consumer goods and high-emission activities.
Such “globesity” narratives thus rather narrow our perspective on global health by declaring fat bodies to be problematic, by associating fatness with illness and modifiable risk factors (so-called “lifestyle diseases”), and by laying down an imperative of responsible subjects who supposedly act on a level playing field. Critical studies in public health and the social sciences together with current research in the history of medicine find fault in these reductionist narratives and suggest instead that we think about health as a relational phenomenon. These studies call on us to focus above all on life situations rather than primarily on lifestyle, which means recognizing structural, political and economic forces as well as environmental health dangers as strong (co-)factors of health-seeking behaviors and of the increase in (chronic) disease itself. Above all it is necessary to uncouple these problems from fatness. Saving the climate and fostering global health are both indispensable goals. We need to do this, however, in a manner that does not pathologize and blame fat bodies, but rather points to the multilayered and highly complex barriers to health.
A German translation of this text will be published in the upcoming publication Fat Studies: Ein Glossar (transcript, 2022).