Document Type


Publication Date

August 2003

Publication Title

American Sociological Association Annual Meeting


Community Health and Preventive Medicine | Journalism Studies | Mass Communication | Public Health | Sociology | Sociology of Culture


Increasingly the term epidemic is being used to describe the current prevalence of fatness in the United States. Skyrocketing rates of obesity among all groups of Americans, particularly children, the poor, and minorities, have become a major public health concern. Indeed, it is difficult to open a newspaper or magazine without encountering a discussion of the expanding American waistline and the health problems associated therewith. In this paper I use 751 New York Times articles on obesity to examine the media construction of the obesity epidemic. I show that there is not one dominant discourse (i.e. medicine) constructing this epidemic, but that a layering of discourses becomes evident through an examination of the construction of the epidemic and the treatments recommended for its containment. Through a periodization and analysis of these articles, I examine the emergent and residual technologies of governance characterizing this epidemic. Through the identification and complication of three discursive pairings arising from these articles, I suggest that undergirding these seemingly contradictory pairings and the technologies to which they give rise is a general location of the problem of obesity within the individual. Obesity then is what I call a post-modern epidemic, an epidemic in which unevenly medicalized phenomena lacking a clear pathological basis get cast in the language and moral panic of traditional epidemics. I conclude with an analysis of how the construction of the obesity epidemic relies on gendered and racialized expectations of women’s embodiment and role as mothers.