Cooking ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a dispositif: Obesity policies, school food politics and corporations in neoliberal Mexico

Year: 2021

Author: Tenorio, José

Type of paper: Individual Paper

The results of the 2006 Mexican National Health and Nutrition Survey reported that Mexicans had considerably increased their body weight since the late 1980s. From 2006, state and non-state entities (corporations and non-government organisations) have proposed and launched myriad responses to the so-called obesity problem in Mexico. Underpinned by the idea that obesity results from an imbalance between the energy consumed and energy spent, these responses have sought to ‘educate’ people to eat healthy and to be more physically active. In this context, Mexican schools have been depicted as the spaceto promote ‘healthy lifestyles’ par excellence. Thus, school-based policies and programs promoting ‘healthy lifestyles’ have been celebrated as effective mechanisms to ‘fight’ obesity. However, little has been said about the politics around the knowledge which underpins these policies and programs, the political and economic forces shaping them or why they appeared amidst the implementation of policy shifts that, since the early 1990s, have radically transformed the eating practices of the Mexican population.Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, in this paper, I study ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a dispositif, or as a network of institutions, actors, discourses and practices that is working to govern the Mexican population. Through the integration of ethnographic stories from two primary schools in the state of Veracruz, Mexico; interviews with obesity policymakers in Mexico City and education authorities, teachers and school cooks across Veracruz, and an analysis of four obesity policy documents, I show how what I call the dispositif of healthy lifestyles has been significantly shaped by the economic and political interests of particular actors and how this dispositif has worked in the day-to-day lives of two primary schools. In this paper, I put forward four arguments. First, I claim that the emergence of ‘healthy lifestyles’ as a dispositif has been facilitated by the economic, political and cultural transformations that Mexico experienced after the adoption of neoliberalism as the form of government. Second, I argue that the dispositif of healthy lifestyles has successfully worked to divert attention away from the economic and political roots of obesity and shift the blame for the problem of obesity onto an ‘uneducated’ population. My third argument is that the policies and programs that are part of the dispositif have been mainly shaped by the interests, and for the benefit, of transnational food and drink corporations. Fourth, I argue that since dispositifs are malleable assemblages where power circulates omni-directionally, the discourses and discursive practices that are deployed through the idea of ‘healthy lifestyles’ are contested in the concrete practices of thinking and acting about food and health in the day-to-day lives of schools.