What’s love got to do with it? Food, fitness and the family in public health policies and pedagogies

Year: 2016

Author: Burrows, Lisette

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Finding ‘family’ in public health policy and ‘education’ is not difficult. A raft of contemporary health initiatives start and finish with a focus on families, yet what is it that families, and parents, in particular, are being called on to do in the name of their children’s health currently? How are families hailed to engage in health enhancing (or fat-busting) projects, and what notion of family is imagined when family-focused health messages are imparted? In an effort to address the aforementioned questions, I draw on media, professional and scholarly commentary on families as health-enhancing sites and empirical material derived from and ethnographic studies with young children. Theoretically, analysis is informed by poststructural resources that hone attention to the ways public health discourses, and obesity discourses in particular, generate notions about how families are expected to function and what work they are required to do (Burrows, 2009). I am interested in not only what messages are conveyed to families about health, through government missives, health interventions, and family-focused programmes, but also what these resources do to and for families. That is, how do the instructions on ‘how to live’ (Foucault, 1977) transmitted to families produce family relationships, dispositions towards bodies, and shape who parents and children can ‘be’? Furthermore, I am interested in the kinds of families that are imagined in health discourse. What comprises a ‘family’, and what assumptions about ‘family’ drive the intensification of family focused health policies currently? Across popular/professional media and academic treatises on obesity, families are regularly cast as responsible and culpable for the size, shape and weight of children’s bodies with eating better and exercising more regarded as the keys to unlocking a slimmer and healthier future. Techniques for encouraging families in their pedagogical work include the re-contextualisation of scientific knowledge, liberal use of affect, provision of multiple ‘tools’, and calls for collective action. I argue that the kind of family envisaged at the heart of family health work is a monolithic ideal that barely resembles the reality of diverse family lives. Dispensing with metanarratives of family and disrupting health promotion’s claim to ‘know family’ may yield more promising health enhancing outcomes.