This article argues for an affective approach to obesity that destabilizes the conceptual boundaries between the biological and the social aspects of food, eating, and fatness. Its approach foregrounds visceral experience, attends to food both inside and outside the body, and explores how bodies labeled “obese” consume their political, economic, and material environments. This approach is termed affective political ecology. The authors’ aim is to draw attention to how the entanglements between the physiological and social aspects of eating tend to be absented from antiobesity public health rhetoric. By exploring a range of ethnographic examples in high-income countries, they illuminate how such interventions often fail to account for the complex interplays between subjective corporeal experience and political economic relations and contend that overlooking an individual’s visceral relationship with food counterproductively augments social stigma, stresses, and painful emotions. They demonstrate, then, how an approach that draws together political economic and biomedical perspectives better reflects the lived experience of eating. In so doing, the authors aim to indicate how attending to affective political ecologies can further our understanding of the consumption practices of those in precarious and stressful social contexts, and they offer additional insight into how the entanglement of the biological and the social is experienced in everyday life.
Toward an Affective Political Ecology of Obesity: Mediating Biological and Social Aspects
Emma-Jayne Abbots is honorary senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. Her research addresses the cultural politics of food and drink and the embodied production of knowledge, with a particular focus on food, migration, and craft. Further interests include food work and labor relations; food, class, and gender; and eating, consumption, and the senses. She recently led the project “Food Stories: Fostering Cross-Cultural Dialogue through Food,” funded by the UK Arts and Humanties Research Council and has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Ecuador and in the Welsh Marches.
Karin Eli is senior research fellow at Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, and deputy director of the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity at the University of Oxford’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography. She collaborates extensively across disciplines and has published her long-standing research on eating disorders, childhood obesity, and food activism in numerous anthropological, clinical, and interdisciplinary journals.
Stanley Ulijaszek is professor of human ecology and director of the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity, within the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford. He presently conducts multidisciplinary research involving increasing understandings of obesity as a complex phenomenon, in two related fields: the political ecology of nutrition and obesity globally, using anthropological, life history, epidemiological, and economic historical frameworks; and nutrition in evolution and evolutionary medicine.
Emma-Jayne Abbots, Karin Eli, Stanley Ulijaszek; Toward an Affective Political Ecology of Obesity: Mediating Biological and Social Aspects. Cultural Politics 1 November 2020; 16 (3): 346–366. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/17432197-8593550
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