Accepted paper:

Calculating needs or sensing desires: cultivated natures in obesity care


Else Vogel (Linköping University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper ties out and contrasts two figures of the 'natural body' enacted in obesity care practices - one an object caught in causal mechanisms, the other wise and sensitive. I explore how needs and desires are reconfigured as 'naturalness' is variously cultivated in these practices.

Paper long abstract:

While some anthropologists insist that obesity, apart from being a biological reality, also has cultural and moral dimensions, others argue that 'obesity' is altogether a social construction. This paper, rather than staging a distinction between biology and cultural meanings, foregrounds that what 'the body' wants, and how it ends up gaining weight, is contested throughout the obesity field. In doing so, I analyse overweight bodies not as part of larger social contexts but as realities enacted in socio-material practices. I will tease out and contrast two figures of the 'natural body' that emerge in practices - one an object caught in causal mechanisms, whose needs should be objectively calculated, the other wise and sensitive, regulated through subjectively feeling desires. The first account, often found in scientific and policy discourses, establishes a causal link between the incidence of obesity in 'Western' countries and an environment in which processed food is abundant. As this story goes, our bodies evolved to always anticipate periods of scarcity and 'naturally' select calorie-rich food. The second can be recognized in clinical practices targeting overweight people that I observed during my fieldwork in the Netherlands. After a long history of dieting attempts supposedly disturbed the body's 'natural' capacity to sense its needs, some dieticians, through feeling and tasting, encourage their clients to 'listen' to their body again. I explore how needs and desires are reconfigured as 'naturalness' is not only a quality mobilized in the field but also a reality variously cultivated in practices.

panel P17
Repositioning health, illness and the body: the challenge of new theoretical approaches to medical anthropology