Moral Panics, Moral Crusades, and the Obesity Folk Devil

I’m currently doing research into moral panics and moral crusades, partly because they’re interesting on their own merits (and a hell of a good way for a writer to get some meta-knowledge of societal movements), and partly because as time goes by (and I do more research), I realize that we’re both in a moral panic AND and moral crusade.

Moral panics are characterized by exaggerated responses to perceived (sometimes not even real) threats to society, with a necessary, stereotyped “folk devil” scapegoat who can do no right. Here’s a link to the Wiki article on moral panics.

Our folk devil is the fattie.

That’s not to say other forms of prejudice don’t exist, but that we are in the midst of a moral panic that is the “Obesity Epidemic,” and the moral crusade that is “The War on Obesity.” Never in history have they been spelled out so transparently.

Though I’m going to post in more detail on it in the future, how well does the “Obesity Epidemic” fit the model of a moral panic? Judge for yourself. Here’s a quote from the Wiki article:


Moral Panics have several distinct features:

  1. Panic/anxiety: This is often very intense and there seems to be no problem greater than the subject of the panic.
  2. Short lived: The Panic lasts for only a few months at the most and can recur.
  3. Emotive language and images: Phrases such as “monsters”, “decay”, and “crisis” are used to emphasize the acuteness of the problem. Medical language can also be used out of context such as the word “epidemic”.
  4. Case Studies: These are often dramatic and unrepresentative.
  5. Statistics: Often misused or written in such a way that makes the reader think the problem is worse than it is; for example, “400% greater” may mislead some into thinking that something is 400 times higher rather than 5 times.
  6. Demonization of a group: Sometimes the chosen group does not even exist[citation needed] and those that do are mostly socially or economically marginal. Often the media can portray a group in a way that they don’t really exist and the group will eventually live up to the stereotype created for them.
  7. A Media led or generation phenomenon: Printed to start with and then TV and radio follow amplifying the panic which is then reflected elsewhere such as politics. Even in Victorian society moral panics were seen to be adopted by the media in the form of pamphlets, handbills and newspapers.[5]

With the exception of the Wiki’s reference to a necessary short-lived character to the moral panic (which is contested as not necessarily true by one of the leading experts in the field, N. Beh-Yehuda, in his book, “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance” ), what do you see paralleling the common fears created by/associated with the “Obesity Epidemic”?

Also, a point that Ben-Yehuda touches upon is that some moral panics can be accompanied by moral crusades, which is the torch-carrying by activist groups to eliminate a group or behavior deemed to be the “root of all society’s ills” by those same activists. In a moral crusade, moral entrepreneurs jump on the bandwagon of a moral panic for profit. Media, the government, etc all take part in the propaganda associated with the perpetuation of the moral crusade.

More and more, I’m beginning to believe that, in fact, we are in the midst — I’d argue even not at the peak, as of yet — of a moral panic and moral crusade against fatness.

What has been so fascinating to me, reflecting upon this possibility, is the fact that moral panics and moral crusades often have a catalyst, an overreaction to which begins the panic and/or crusade. Sometimes the catalyst seems far removed from the panic itself, like the anxiety towards privileged youths which caused the Mods and Rockers mess of the 1960s in the UK.

I’m positing a possible catalyst to the “Obesity Epidemic” moral panic and the “War on Obesity” moral crusade: an aging population who is afraid to die, and are desperately seeking a Fountain of Youth for both themselves and their children. Weight gain is associated with increasing age (at least until about 60-65), and that’s right about where the Baby Boomer generation is, now.

For you see, at the bottom of the “Obesity Epidemic” and the “War on Obesity” is a movement called Healthism. Drink one glass of wine a day, for optimal health! No, two! And don’t eat broccoli. Wait, remember to eat your broccoli! Buy this anti-aging anti-cellulite super-sunblocker cream, and make sure to go tanning before you hit the beach in your tankini! Spend at least 90 minutes a day in a gym, but don’t get water-bottle wrinkles around your mouth!

The ultimate goal of Healthists is, in fact, the Fountain of Youth. Tall order, you say? No kidding. Then again, the ultimate goal of Prohibitionists was a familial Utopia, where all families had doting dads and innocent fathers. The ultimate goal of the War on Drugs people is similar. But now that our nation isn’t in such a crisis over families (my theory is the War on Drugs was a response to the growing number of divorces and the increasing acceptability of the legitimacy of non-hetero relationships), our aging population has begun to panic over impending death.

Why do you think age-related diseases are the ones that they believe “curing” obesity will exterminate? Obesity is just a stand-in for their own terror at the inevitable. And millions of people are paying the price — such is the stereotyping, scapegoat-making nature of the moral panic and moral crusade.

What are your thoughts? Do you think I’m way off the mark here? Or do you think some of these ideas hold water?