How Do You Know if It’s a Moral Panic?

I was working on a post for Pith about the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce [sic], which reminded me of the upsetting discovery that their early promotional material included illustrative photos of what a problem fat people were that showed fat people as slovenly and ridiculous and as a step down on the evolutionary ladder. And something dawned on me. When you have a situation like obesity, which is linked to bad health outcomes, how can you tell if you’re dealing with an actual health crisis or a moral panic?

And I think the way to tell is that, in a moral panic, the people who are ostensibly helping openly ridicule the people they think need help.

I’ve just come to this realization, so I’m not certain it pans out 100%, but I’m trying to think of any time I’ve heard of a natural disaster or an outbreak of illness where the people who showed up to help–not the assholes who might sit back and do nothing but take potshots, but actual show-up-to-help folks–openly made fun of the people they were helping. And I can’t think of any.

But here are the people who have showed up to help fight obesity, openly making fun of obese people.

I think that’s a tell. It’s a little involuntary twitch that lets you know this isn’t about health, but about morality.

Ooo, I mean, think of it this way. “Oh, we need to do something about poverty”–concern about well-being. “Oh, we need to do something about thugs with their stupid music ruining our city.”–moral panic. Right? It holds true.

I’m going to have to keep an eye out for more examples.

6 thoughts on “How Do You Know if It’s a Moral Panic?

  1. I like this. I think you’re probably right.

    I’m thinking there’s something else, too, something I can’t quite formulate. Like, the obesity scare is supposed to be about health, right? But “health at every size” researchers will write all over the web and newspapers all sorts of articles citing actual medical research that obesity isn’t a health problem, per se, and that HAES works when dieting doesn’t, and so on. But commenters and experts who respond don’t absorb the information, and keep blathering on about eat-less-move-more.

    There’s something about that dynamic that shows, I think, that this isn’t about health. It’s about something else, either the moral panic that you mention, or about aesthetics. Or probably both.

    Linda Bacon posted on Huffington Post today and you can see it in the comments, they immediately go off the rails.

    I can’t imagine that same dynamic in one of the helping scenarios you suggest.

  2. For the record, Health at Every Size does in fact involving eating less and moving more. That’s the whole point of it. The idea that you have to be thin to be heatlhy is false. The idea that you have to eat less (as long as your nutritional needs are met) and move more to be healthy, is true.

  3. No, that’s not true. Eating “less” as a general goal for everyone is, in fact, a terrible idea. Not everyone needs to eat less in order to have health at their size. There are plenty of people who need to eat more in order to achieve or maintain good health than they currently do and those people are still, as far as I know, welcome in the HAES movement.

    HAES is about eating better, but that’s not at all the same as eating less.

  4. Eating less is appropriate when you are consistently eating too much–especially if it’s not the most healthy food in the first place.
    I’d certainly plead guilty to that every time I go to Ryans or the Sunday brunch at Copper Kettle. :)

  5. This is brilliant!

    I work at Harvard’s women/gender/sexuality studies department and last night I forwarded your post to several of my colleagues — one of whom just lectured on moral panic in her class yesterday.

    Then this morning, I arrived to find this on the university news office’s website: (Extra moral panic points for the pun in the URL. Yeah, “big setup,” yuck, yuck.)

    One of the professors quoted in the article used to have that same picture of fat person as a step down on the human evolutionary ladder on his lab’s website.

  6. Amy, I’m glad you think so. And man, that article! Jeez. The tone… I mean, you wonder if they even remember that this is people’s bodies they’re talking about.

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