Boys, girls and the prejudices of obesity research

Michael Gard

    Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter


    Despite the confident tone that often attaches to talk of an 'obesity epidemic', the field of obesity research is replete with uncertainty and confusion. And because it is has direct relevance to people's everyday lives, it is also an area of study that is particularly prone to the influence of stereotypes. In other words, because we all eat, move and think about the state of our own bodies, the world is full of obesity 'experts'. In previous research I have made the argument that there is a connection between the prevalence of social and cultural stereotypes, on the one hand, and the confused state of obesity science, on the other. Part of this connection seems to be explained by the simple fact that obesity researchers harbor the same kinds of prejudices as the rest of us. So, while academics in some fields might complain about how poorly the general public understands their area of expertise, my impression is that there is little to distinguish between popular scientific rhetoric when it comes to overweight and obesity. With respect to obesity, popular and scientific discourses are essentially one and the same thing.The influence of prejudices and stereotypes is particularly marked in the area of childhood obesity. For example, a great deal of research energy has gone into problematizing the behavior and body weight of Western girls. In the work of many childhood obesity researchers girls are a particular problem because 'we know' teenage girls become less interested in physical activity and more interested in social networking and personal grooming as they get older. However, while it is true that research consistently shows girl's participation in certain forms of physical activity (such as organized sports) declining through the teenage years, it is not always clear that this leads to greater levels of obesity than boys or greater levels ofobesity than men in later life. The constant refrain in the obesity literature that girls are a bigger problem than boys runs parallel to the stereotype that today's children are a generation of technology addicted 'couch potatoes'. And although the problem of technology is not often cast in explicitly gendered terms, the images that are used to accompany media stories about 'couch potato' children are almost always male, usually featuring one or two children, remote controls in hand and bowls of potato chips nearby. Similar images are regularly used in scientific reports. But while there is some empirical support for the idea that boys use televisions, computers and other forms of electronic technology more than girls, again it is not immediately clear why this should be cause for concern. Research consistently shows that physical activity and technology use have very little to do with each other; less of one does not mean more of the other and many children manage to do lots or very little of both.In short, what I will attempt to show in this chapter is how both public and scientific discourse has been poorly served by stereotypes. I show how research is generally ambiguous about whether Western boys are more overweight and obese than Western girls. I also show how research into the determinants of childhood overweight and obesity has been dogged by a priori assumptions about what boys and girls are like.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationBoys' Bodies
    Subtitle of host publicationSpeaking the Unspoken
    EditorsMichael Kehler, Michael Atkinson
    Place of PublicationNew York
    PublisherPeter Lang Publishing
    Number of pages15
    ISBN (Print)9781433106255
    Publication statusPublished - 2010


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