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  • Risky Measures:Digital Technologies and the Governance of Child Obesity
  • Karisa Butler-Wall (bio)

Childhood and the Politics of Preemption

In a neoliberal climate of underfunded and overcrowded public schools, physical education has suffered. With only six states requiring physical education in every grade and only 2 percent of high schools offering it daily, gym class seems destined for the dustbin of history. As part of her campaign against childhood obesity, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Active Schools initiative aims to reverse this trend by reinvigorating physical education programs across the nation. Although evidence suggests that rates of child obesity are declining, Obama’s initiative is among an array of new antiobesity programs at the local, national, and even global level (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). Launched in February 2013, Let’s Move! Active Schools aims to reach fifty thousand schools in the next five years with a six-step program that mobilizes teachers, administrators, and parents to become “school champions” for their communities in order to “once again make being active a way of life for our kids” (The White House, Office of the First Lady 2013).

Central to this effort is the implementation of FitnessGram, a software and database platform that tracks body composition, aerobic capacity, and “health-related fitness levels,” and aims to inspire long-term health by teaching students to monitor their behaviors. Replacing the older President’s Challenge Youth Fitness Test dating back to 1966, FitnessGram will be implemented in 90 percent of U.S. schools by 2018 with ten million dollars in funding from General Mills (Let’s Move! 2014a). Although the program has come under attack for sending home report cards with [End Page 228] information about students’ body mass index (dubbed “fat letters”), FitnessGram represents a growing trend toward using new media and digital technology to promote health and fitness at ever earlier ages (Bindley 2013).1

While American cultures have a long history of policing body size and weight, it was not until the development of a media panic over an “epidemic” of obesity in the early 2000s that “overweight” became a medicalized term (Saguy and Almeling 2008). Yet as fat studies scholars have observed, rather than promoting health, antiobesity discourse often further stigmatizes fatness.2 In a neoliberal moral economy in which active citizens are expected to manage their own risk, fatness signifies a moral failing on the part of the individual. As scapegoats for larger social anxieties over national fitness and changing patterns of production and consumption, fat bodies have emerged as a primary target of “a vast network of surveillance, monitoring and regulating strategies and technologies” by medical, government, and corporate agencies (Lupton 2012, 32).

Yet even as antiobesity programs mark specific populations for social stigmatization and regulation, we need to understand how the discourse of “epidemic” extends new modes of ongoing surveillance and regulation over the entire population. While public health traditionally safeguarded national health through racialized policies of containment and exclusion, I argue that the obesity epidemic has engendered new measures of control that operate through a logic of preemption, constituting new populations for intervention according to a racialized calculus of risk. Far from metaphorical, the language of “epidemic” indexes the ways in which epidemiological measures of risk have shifted the register from a pathologization of fatness to a preemptive logic of health.

This preemptive logic takes shape around the construction of childhood obesity as a site of crisis. Within antiobesity campaigns, children serve as both a precarious group in need of protection and a symbolic figure for America’s moral and physical strength. As Obama puts it, “The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake” (Let’s Move! 2014b). The body of the child emerges as both an object of risk and a risky subject: the child both is at risk for the physical and emotional health tolls associated with obesity and is a risk to the nation, insofar as these unhealthy bodies constitute a security threat unto themselves.3 This discourse echoes the logic of reproductive futurity, which Lee Edelman describes as subsuming [End Page 229] all politics...


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pp. 228-245
Launched on MUSE
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