Thanks again to my colleague Jess for pointing out this interesting article. It features the research and opinion of Professor Doug Sellman. In my opinion Prof Sellman deserves our respect. As the director of the National Addiction Centre at the University of Otago he has been instrumental at conducting much research and teaching in the field of addiction over the past three decades. Recently Prof Sellman has turned his hand to considering the ‘obesity epidemic’. He has even written a weight-loss book in 2010 entitled Real Weight Loss.
His argument in this article is that the growing obesity rate is probably caused by an addiction to food, here are his words (as butchered by the pseudo-editors at stuff.co.nz):
“Like people with methamphetamine, you don’t get the shaking, but it’s the craving, feeling deprived and really needing it.
“It’s like they need those particular foods as if their lives depended on it. But they don’t; they’ve got their wires crossed.
“The thing with an addiction is whatever self-control you had at the beginning is eroded by the forming of the addiction.
“It’s a neurological thing.”
When asked about solutions, he points to surgery:
“The only effective way for an individual [to conquer their addiction] now is surgery. But that would bankrupt the country – we don’t have the money to give everyone a new stomach.”
Here is where I want to tackle a thorny beast: the metaphor. Often the metaphor of addiction is used to circle obesity, particularly with regard to public health initiatives (such as banning junk food advertising). But it always falls over at the hurdle of treatment. People say – “you can’t treat obesity as an addiction because people need food to live”. Arguing this line is like saying that an alcohol addict can get treatment and then learn how to consume alcohol ‘appropriately’, which I understand is shown not to work. I can see the logic and the common-sense in using metaphor for encouraging us to see things differently. BUT… I think metonymy is actually more useful here, and not to address obesity, but to address the assumptions in Prof Sellman’s argument.
Metonymy is the slippage along the signifying chain; for instance associating the term ‘healthy food’ with ‘weight loss’ would be a metonymic displacement, as obviously eating healthy food does not mean weight loss. Prof Sellman’s argument features one main metonymic displacement – that people who are ‘obese’ are addicted to food. This needs to be questioned, as obviously some who are addicted to food may not obese (bulimics pop to find) and many who are obese are not addicted to food at all (regardless of their fatness).
We need to be more critical in our considerations of the relationship people have with food and their bodies. Prof Sellman’s perspective is coloured by his understanding of addiction. The metaphor is misplaced in this instance.