Fat Bodies and Fat Souls

Experiencing Childhood Obesity in 21st century Poland

Zofia Boni


People perceive the food habits of others not only as shaping their bodies but also their characters (see e.g. Coveney 2006; Biltekoff 2013; DuPuis 2015). A person is judged as being moral or immoral depending on whether they eat according to dominating norms and expectations. This connection between food habits, bodies and characters is particularly evident when we look at the current discussions of childhood obesity.

In Poland, overweight and obesity rates have been growing with the highest pace in Europe and childhood obesity has become a widely discussed social problem (e.g. Currie et al. 2012). In that context, many people and various institutions, such as the government, supranational agencies including WHO, and non-governmental organizations, have been judging and making claims about what and how children eat and what they should eat. They judge and moralize both children and their parents’ food practices. Drawing on the ongoing ethnographic research on the social dynamics of childhood obesity in Poland, in this paper I propose to look at this issue through a critical lens. I ask not why some children in Poland might be fat, but why and in what way the “fact” that they are fat is conceived as a problem (see Guthman and DuPuis 2006; Guthman 2011)?

This paper will juxtapose the perspectives of different social actors on what is childhood obesity. For policy makers obesity is a problem of growing public health costs. They are concerned that “bad” eating habits can lead to ill bodies, experiencing type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, hypertension. They also lead to “bad” characters, as perceived lack of self-control, no discipline, submission to temptations often connected with childhood obesity, are seen as irregular and immoral. For the media childhood obesity is a source of moral panic. As we can read in media outlets “One in three 8-year-olds in Poland is overweight or obese.” “18% of Polish adolescents are overweight or obese”. “Research shows that 50% of children and adolescents in Poland eat in an unsatisfactory and incorrect way on a daily basis”. But by engaging in the “politics of large numbers” (Desrosières 1998) and speaking about obesity in terms of rates, what is lost is the actual experience of being fat. This paper looks at children’s and their families’ experiences of obesity, positioning them vis a vis the moralized debates and dominating narratives. Building on critical nutrition studies, fat studies and childhood studies, I propose to discuss what being a fat child means in 21 century Poland; and how “fat bodies” and “fat souls” are made and experienced.