This week we explore Lone Grøn’s The Tipping of the Big Stone—And Life itself. Obesity, Moral Work and Responsive Selves Over Time. Grøn explores moral work and moral selves in the context of the obesity epidemic and weight loss processes. Cheryl Mattingly’s notions of “moral laboratories” (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014, available here) explore moral cultivation over time that cannot be disconnected from notions of biographical and narrative self. Building off Mattingly’s concepts, as well as philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels’ phenomenology, Grøn proposes the notion of a responsive self.
Grøn begins by introducing Rita, a participant in the obesity program at The Lifestyle Center, a Danish patient school which teaches self-care, diet, and exercise practices to people suffering from or at risk of what is termed “lifestyle-related diseases.” Grøn explores Rita’s reflections on obesity and weight loss, with specific attention to the transformation in notions of self, agency, and morality from fieldwork between 2001-2003 and 2014-2015.
Rita asks herself questions about her weight loss struggles, such as, “Why don’t I grow-up enough to take responsibility for my own well-being? Why is what I know to be the right thing to do a million miles removed from what I do in reality?” References to fighting the evil will or desire of your body, to sinning and backsliding, are plentiful and situate weight loss in the domain of morality. This places the concerns and reflections on weight-loss within broader historical and cultural ideas on self, agency, and morality, asking what kind of self one is able to be in the face of conflicting wills and moral demands.
Grøn takes up an argument that Mattingly put forward and developed, namely that moral cultivation over time cannot be disconnected from a notion of self. Up until the last decade of the second millennium, attention to the relationships between body weight, food, and health were scarce in a Danish setting marked by cultural practices and values of “hygge,” that is, socializing by sharing food and alcohol, often to excess. Over the past two decades, this relationship has changed dramatically, and the consumption of food and drink have become morally charged in all corners of Danish society, from family spaces to the widespread network of institutions constituting the Danish welfare system. Further, a politically announced “paradigm shift” in the beginning of the second millennium in Danish health care services shifts attention from the treatment of acute diseases to the prevention of chronic diseases.
Grøn states that in many ways being obese has become an uninhabitable position. What used to be big and cozy (“hyggelig”) has become obese and alien. In the face of overwhelming personal and family histories of unsuccessful attempts at weight loss, temporary success is usually followed by increasing weight gain in a pattern widely documented in the scientific literature on weight loss processes over time. Both personal and family experience and scientific evidence define success as improbable, yet families struggling with obesity continue to experiment against the odds all the same. Thus, for Grøn, life itself becomes a laboratory.
Taking the experienced and biographical self seriously has allowed acknowledgement of the immense work of moral experimentation that Rita has engaged in over a lifetime. Furthermore, many other events and projects make up her life, including the cultivation of healing powers, of a garden of flowers, as well as of a home, family, and work life. This picture of Rita’s moral self could easily be lost if we were only concerned with the “obese” self, which can be constituted through workings of the bio-power and governmentality techniques of the Danish welfare state.
Grøn concludes by detailing the characteristics of the responsive self, emerging within the demand response dynamic. The responsive self displays both an event form that persists over the years (“I respond, therefore I am”), but also changes in terms of the content of the response. Thus, the notion of the responsive self stresses equally the suffering and the agentive dimensions of action—”an active passivity and passive activity.”
Lone Grøn is a Senior Researcher at VIVE The Danish Centre of Applied Social Science in Denmark, as well as a Senior Project Manager at KORA. She has done extensive anthropological research and ethnographic fieldwork on patient perspectives on chronic diseases, obesity, and behavioral change, highlighting the complexities of health work in the contexts of everyday lives. Her recent areas of research concern include social contagion in epidemics of non-communicable diseases and conditions, specifically in relation to kinship, relatedness and obesity; vulnerability and inequality in old age and the search for the good old life; and theoretical developments within philosophical and moral anthropology as well as phenomenological approaches in anthropology, which serve as the epistemological ground for experience-near and close-up studies of patients, citizens and families.