Obesity Moral Panics and the Gendered Presentation of Disordered Eating

The news here recently reported on a new study suggesting that eating disorder rates in Australia have more than doubled in the last decade, and the rates of “regular disordered eating” (that doesn’t necessarily coincide with a diagnosable eating disorder) have nearly tripled.

One of the researchers indicates that the issue spreading to ‘groups not typically affected by weight issues’. Whilst I think it is a problem that the sort of weight-and-food-obsession that drives disordered eating is spreading, what Professor Hay’s comment suggests is that disordered eating and eating disorders aren’t a problem if it only affects those we believe to be ‘typically’ affected – that is, women. Of course, this presentation isn’t only about the researcher’s comments, but how they’re framed in reporting.

Women were five times more likely to have a disorder than men, but the study found a sharp rise in males with the problems, particularly bingeing.

“It’s a clear problem when it’s spreading into groups that weren’t typically affected by weight issues,” Prof Hay said.

Eating disorders double, The Courier-Mail, 29 April 2007

Of course, when you frame ‘groups typically affected’ as women (which, incidentally, obscures the class and race issues that also tend to shape the notion of which women are affected), the idea that “it’s a clear problem when it’s spreading” suggests that it wasn’t a problem before. Which of course is perfect fodder for the idea that eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are just about women being weak and silly.

That said, the study isn’t all bad news. Despite my issues with how it frames the issue in terms of gender, the study does do some good things. I’m not sure precisely how it distinguishes between ‘full blown eating disorders’ and ‘regular disordered eating’, but I suspect that’s largely because I’m not trained in psychology or psychiatric research. And despite my lack of knowledge, my intuition is that the distinction is important (if problematic), because whilst eating disorders are obviously quite serious, I think the prevalence of ‘regular disordered eating’, and the very naming of the phenomenon that way, says a lot about how warped our relationships with food can be, and how normalised that problem can (and has) become.

The researchers also, albeit cautiously, suggest that the rise in eating disorders and disordered eating is at least in part related to the public moral panic about obesity. I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether the obesity epidemic is real or not, because that discussion gets old really quickly, but this research goes some way to pointing out just why panicking about obesity isn’t the way to go about combating the problem if you believe there is one. Making people feel bad about themselves tends to reinforce the bad relationships with food and undermine any solutions to ‘the obesity epidemic’. Those who don’t take heed of these warnings run the risk of looking like they’re more interested in making fat people feel bad about themselves.

I'm not going to be judgmental, I'm just judging you.

Australia’s Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is one of my least favourite people. He’s been on an anti-abortion kick for the last few years, and the recent jewel in his attack is a government-funded pregnancy counselling hotline which allegedly aims to help women make informed choices.

This doesn’t sound like a bad idea, right? A big part of feminism is about making sure women have the ability to make informed choices, and the resources available so that ability can be utilised in the fullest manner. So why do I have an issue? Well, let’s talk about that. Continue reading

Childcare in Australia

So, the media here has been all over a recent report released by the Federal Treasury Department that supposedly counters years of claims that there is a childcare crisis in Australia, and claims that childcare is ‘accessible and affordable’. One of the key claims is that there’s oodles of childcare available to parents, “just not of their preferred type”.

Now, I’ll admit to not being an expert on childcare, particularly since I was never in childcare (I was lucky enough to have my grandmother move to Australia from my mother’s country of birth, China, when I was a toddler, so she looked after me when my mother went back to work), and I have no children, so I’ve never had the need to access childcare. Maybe I’m just being strange, but childcare always seemed like something one should be able to exercise a reasonable amount of discretion over, given, y’know, you’re trusting these people with the care of your children. Basically, the report claims that the perception of a childcare crisis is masking the fact that parents just aren’t getting the type of childcare they want, and there’s no mismatch between supply and demand. I mean really, it sounds like “People who want Coke are having trouble getting Pepsi, and people who want Pepsi are having trouble getting Coke, but there’s lots of cola, so there’s no supply/demand problem.” except with something that I’d like to think is rather more important than cola preference. Now, even with my rudimentary understanding of supply/demand, which mostly comes from my partner, who’s a marketing academic, I’m not seeing how that’s NOT a supply/demand problem. Really, as far as government reports are concerned, I’d see it as a reason to encourage further research into what kinds of childcare are lacking and wanted with reference to other specific variables, like location that’s more specific than ‘urban/inner-regional/outer-regional’. Unsurprisingly, instead we’ve got a bunch of handwaving and data-massaging in order to pretend there’s not a problem.

As for affordability, the report goes from “affordability has remained fairly constant for middle and high income families, and decreased slightly for low-income families” in the bulk of the report, to a blanket statement about child care being generally affordable. Those more knowledgeable in this area are free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d think that affordability of child care was a particularly crucial factor for low-income families, given affordable and accessible childcare is likely to be fairly important if one is attempting to increase one’s income above poverty levels. I imagine it’s rather difficult to get a second (or third, or fourth) job, or get more training if you can’t afford to have your kids looked after whilst you do that. So, y’know, if anything, I think the decreasing affordability for low-income families outweighs the stability for middle and high income families. Now, the report does indicate that the data doesn’t account for a recent expansion of a government-provided childcare assistance payment for low-income parents, but I’m not really a fan of the assumption without exploration that this expansion would sufficiently address the problem. If later research indicates the further government assistance is addressing the problem, that’s great, but the assumption is just lazy undeserved pats-on-the-back.

Now, the television reports have taken great joy in summarising the report as claiming parents are being picky. Whilst I think the report is more subtle than that, the ‘picky’ claim will probably pick up a lot of momentum, particularly from conservatives. But honestly, particularly given the amount of criticism that’s often thrown at women if their children are in childcare at all (unsurprisingly, men get much less of this criticism), I’m not really seeing why being picky about where and how your children are looked after if you need to work/study is such a horribly bad thing.