A Systems of Provision Perspective on Obesity Media Rhetorics

The-Fast-DietMy inspiration for this post came from reading Karen Throsby’s excellent post Tis the Season to be Hateful: Critical Reflections on the New Year’s Anti-Obesity Media Rhetorics’ posted on the TheSP website on 27th March 2014 and a rather unusual Christmas present from a relative. In her blog, Karen argued that obesity is portrayed in the media as ‘the embodied moral failure to discipline the self’. Such discourses perpetuate the idea of individual blame and responsibility for being over-weight and construct our consumption of food as purely governed by individual desires. This overly simplistic portrayal of obesity abstracts individuals out of the social world in which they live and fails to recognise how that social world shapes our consumption of food.


Here I turn to the work of Ben Fine and his ‘Systems of Provision’ approach to broaden our perspective of the culture of food consumption. The Systems of Provision approach was developed by Fine to offer an alternative to individualistic economic approaches to valuing commodities such as food, energy and infrastructure. Fine argues that the value of commodities is constituted within and through specific systems of provision, understood as specific chains from production through to final consumption. These systems involve particular socio-cultural activities, processes, institutions, relations and structures. In his book The Political Economy of Diet, Health and Food Policy Fine argues that our consumption of food, its meaning to us and our responses to it are heavily influenced by the specific system through which that food is provided; where and how food is grown and transported and the sometimes contradictory ways in which it is advertised and sold. In particular, Fine highlights two opposing marketing forces attempting to guide our food consumption. On the one hand we are overwhelmed by glossy cookery books presenting delicious (often high fat, high sugar) meals to cook; on the other we are deluged by a bewildering range of diet books, recommending different regimes that propose to guarantee weight loss within weeks.


fast cakesThis absurdity was beautifully exemplified on Christmas morning this year when I unwrapped a neat little package from a relative to find two books – Mary Berry’s ‘Fast Cakes’ and Michael Mosely and Mimi Spencer’s ‘The Fast Diet’. In the past few months, I confess to consulting Mary Berry rather more often than Spencer and Mosely. While there are many factors which affect our consumption of food (for example, gender, class, ethnicity etc), it would be difficult to deny that such books, associated advertising and the lifestyles portrayed within them have a powerful effect on our consumption of food. Remember the ‘Delia effect’in the early 2000’s when ingredients recommended in her cookery books sold out of supermarkets? Jamie Oliver’s Sainsbury’s advertshave also helped the supermarket to increase sales of products in his recipes. Our consumption of food is much more complex than individual desire and is subject to opposing market forces attempting to either slim us down or fatten us up. By portraying obesity as purely an individual choice, current media discourses of obesity shift public attention away from the powerful interests behind those marketing forces and, in doing so, shields their overt challenge.